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The little museum and its data


It was the Librarian who introduced computers to the little museum.

She showed her machine to the Botanist, the Geologist and the Zoologist. "In this computer", she explained, "I keep an electronic record of all the books and journals in the Library. When you borrow a book, I record the loan on the computer."

"Hmm", said the Botanist. "I could keep a record of all the herbarium sheets, and of the plants in the botanic garden."

"I could keep a record of the inward and outward specimen loans", said the Zoologist.

"I could keep a record of where each rock sample comes from", said the Geologist.

And so the Secretary of the little museum got some money from the City to buy each of the Specialists a computer and a printer. Each Specialist and Specialist's assistant then devised a computerised record-keeping system that best suited their collection.


Not long afterwards, the little museum got connected to the Internet.

A small room in the basement was cleared out to make room for a server rack and a desk and chair. The City hired an IT person to network the various museum computers, connect them to the Internet and build a museum website with nice words and pictures.

The IT person did not actually work very hard. The servers all ran Linux and had years of uptime between cable renewals. When the IT person was in the server room, which was not often, she sat reading sysadmin blogs and learning new computer languages.

Years passed and life at the little museum went on at a comfortable pace. The Specialists and Specialist's assistants were busy every day in their respective collections. The Library was used by visiting students and scholars. A gardener tended the little botanic garden that the Botanist and the Botanist's assistant had developed. The museum Secretary answered the phone and paid the bills.

The little museum also had a Director, but the Directorship was an honorary appointment. The Specialists only saw the Director on ceremonial occasions. The biggest occasion was Museum Day, when the City formally thanked the museum staff for their work in preserving our natural heritage, and signed the agreement giving the museum its operating funds for the coming year.

The new Director

The City administrators reviewed the little museum and its operations. The museum was well-regarded in the scientific community and popular with City residents who walked in the botanic garden, but it was not properly managed.

For example, the administrators heard that when one of the lights in the Library reading room started flickering, the Librarian had asked at morning tea if anyone knew a good electrician. The Geologist volunteered a name, the electrician fixed the light and the Secretary paid him. Was that any way to run a modern museum?

A new Director was appointed on a good salary. He was an experienced manager who dressed very smartly and talked a great deal. He organised weekly staff meetings to consider workplace issues and the finer details of the museum budget. He also drafted numerous museum policies, each of which had to be discussed, written up and submitted to the City for approval.

"What's he talking about?" whispered the Zoologist, who had nodded off during one of the Director's longer presentations.

"I don't know", replied the Geologist. "He hasn't said yet."

One day the Director came back from a conference. He had exciting ideas, which he presented at a staff meeting.

"It's time to open up our valuable collections to the world", he declared.

"Don't we do that already?" asked the Botanist. "Anyone can visit the collections, and we loan specimens to other museums and herbaria when they're requested."

"I'm talking about 24/7 access", explained the Director. "We'll digitise our collections, and our digital records and specimen images will be put on the Web where anyone can see them. I can get City funding for this. What percent of our holdings are already digitised?"

The Librarian estimated that 80% of the books, journals, maps and other papers were catalogued. The other three Specialists guessed that 20-30% of the specimen lots and living plants were databased.

"Not good enough!" said the Director. "Today we begin a digitisation program, to increase and mobilise our publicly available data!"


For months the Specialists and their assistants entered label data from the collections into their respective databases. They hardly had time for any other jobs, because they were very careful to transcribe the information from the labels correctly. Eventually the weary Specialists formed a delegation and called on the Director.

"You've been wasting your time", said the Director. "Get some volunteers or some students to enter the data."

"But", said the Botanist, with a worried frown, "how can we be sure they're entering the data correctly?"

"It's more important to get the data out there than to get every detail just right", said the Director. "The digitisation program won't last forever. You can check the data later."

And so the digitisation work was continued by non-Specialists. As the databases filled up, the latest versions were put on the museum website by the IT department at City Hall. (Did I mention that the City had rationalised its IT infrastructure? The museum's servers had been moved to City Hall, and the museum's IT person had been made redundant.)

The museum website, with its searchable Specialist databases, was also new. It had been developed at considerable cost by a professional Web architect who had tendered for the job and won a contract from the City.


The City carried out another review of museum operations. This time the review had an IT focus and the reviewer was unhappy. Why were there four different database systems in one little museum? The same database fields might mean different things to different users. This was not good IT practice.

So the Director invited bids to combine the Botany, Geology, Library and Zoology databases into one all-purpose database. The successful tenderer designed the New System and introduced it to the Specialists, who were not impressed. They were even less impressed when their datasets were migrated to the New System.

"What's this gibberish in my data?" asked the Geologist.

"Looks like the encoding changed when we did the migration," answered the New System technician. "We don't know what the original characters were like, so you'll have to replace those funny characters with the originals when you notice them."

It was the last straw for the Specialists. All four of them resigned. They were replaced by their assistants as Acting Specialists, on salaries a little lower than full Specialists would get.


The little museum was visited by a representative from the Aggregator. The Aggregator was a project that combined the data from many museums and put it all in one place on the Web, making it easier for the data to be found.

The Aggregator representative was pleased to see that all the collections data was in one database. "That will make it easier to translate the data fields into our standard categories," she explained.

"Who does the translating?" asked the Acting Zoologist.

"Museum personnel, of course", replied the Aggregator representative. "We'll send you some guidelines, you'll do fine."

"But our data are very messy," said the Acting Botanist, "and we might not do the translating correctly."

The Aggregator representative smiled. "I'm sure everything will work out. Our users see lots of messy data."

When the Acting Specialists went to the Director to complain about the translating work being added to their already busy schedules, the Director had unhappy news.

"The City is tightening its belt," he said. "I'm afraid you'll have to go part-time. Have you got enough volunteers and students to carry on the work?"

The little museum today

When the museum closed its doors the City awarded the care-and-maintenance contract to Apex Security Solutions. You can still find the museum's valuable data on the Aggregator website, and if you need to see an actual specimen, you can probably find one just as good through the Aggregator, in a museum that still has collections staff. The museum Library was archived as part of the the City Library collection.

The former Director and Secretary now work in management at City Hall. The museum's former IT person runs a computer security company with many clients, including the City. I'm not sure what happened to the former Specialists and their assistants.

Some good news is that the City contracted the maintenance of the botanic garden to Greenways Garden Solutions, who subcontracted to Alljobs Contract Services, who hired the original museum gardener. He still does the same job he did for so many years, although at a somewhat reduced rate of pay.

Last update: 2021-06-01
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