Dress rehearsal for the Infobahn
Nonetheless, a sizable body of heritage information is already available via publicly-accessible networks, and the private sector – telcos, cable providers, software houses, media conglomerates – are competitively pouring money into development of the interactive multimedia (IMM) infrastructure, in hopes of staking their claim to a share of tomorrow’s market. With this level of investment, technological barriers are crumbling. The crucial issue is not so much the capabilities of technology as the availability of technology in homes. But we are now seeing experimental housing developments in which new homes come computer-equipped and pre-wired to access the numerous information, transactional, communications, educational and entertainment services now available via network.
The convergence of telecommunications and multimedia computing will have a profound effect on how people learn, and how they participate in society. With the explosion in computerization over the last decade, a wide range of textual information resources – from raw data to knowledge products – are produced in machine-readable form as a matter of course; and a not insignificant segment of the historical record has been converted into the same form. Ambitious efforts such as Project Gutenberg, the Library of Congress’ American Memory project and its Internet presence as MARVEL (Machine-Assisted Realization of the Virtual Electronic Library), and plans for the new Bibliothèque de France to digitize 200,000 texts within the decade, are indicators of the likelihood of how the digitized record of human heritage will increase in the near future.
The phenomenal growth in Internet use, by an increasingly broad spectrum of the population, evidences the interest in accessing information electronically. The Internet can be considered a dress rehearsal for the Infobahn of the next century. By the time this paper is read there will be about 6,000 Gopher repositories of information (mostly textual). A newer approach to Internet use – the World Wide Web – offers hyperlinked access to information more multimedia in character, incorporating photos and graphics, and even brief sound and video extracts; the growth rate in use of the Web is quadruple that of the Gopher system. Another reflection of public preferences is that while traditional print newspapers and magazines are failing to maintain a subscription base among young, high-income adults, that same segment of the population is attracted to online newspapers and magazines; the Electronic Newstand Inc. service, for instance, has 30,000 accesses per day to the 80 or so magazines it makes available.
An historical researcher with Internet access has at his or her fingertips a variety of resources:
- Discussion groups on some 200 different subjects of potential interest, of which about 40 are specifically for historians and range from specialized matters such as the Einstein papers to broader themes like African-American research.
- Catalogues of most of the important libraries around the world, as well as bibliographies on various topics, and finding-aids or holdings indexes of some archives.
- Full text of numerous journals, books, conference papers, and historical documents.
- Reports or databases of major governmental or quasi-governmental organizations (ICOMOS, for instance) and of universities.
- Historical photographs, maps, and artwork.
- Census information and other demographic statistics.
Even the institutionally unaffiliated amateur with an interest in heritage can, through community-based FreeNets, access much the same resources. The Victoria FreeNet, for instance, includes information from the British Columbia Archives and Records Service, the Greater Victoria Public Library and some local libraries elsewhere in the region, the Royal British Columbia Museum, the B.C. Museums Association and its library, and the collection catalogue of the U’Mista Cultural Centre, as well as providing a tie-in to the Internet mainstream.
Museum presence on the Internet is still slight compared to, say, libraries, which have more of a history of automation, networking, and communal collaboration to improve public access. A number of museums offer textual information through Gopher servers or FreeNets – mostly descriptions of exhibits, events, and services, but also a few searchable collections catalogues, and a couple of directories of museums (one covering British Columbia, another Croatia). The Smithsonian’s offerings include an experiment in making a selection of images of artifacts from various of its museums downloadable, for non-commercial use.
However, given the inherently multimedia character of museums, the growth area in serving up information over the ‘Net is the World Wide Web, accessed by Mosaic. The Exploratorium, the Singapore Art Museum, Le WebLouvre (77,000 visits during the first four months after opening), the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at Memphis University, Britain’s Natural History Museum, and the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as the Library of Congress, are instances of Web sites presenting electronic exhibits or tours combining images, texts, and sometimes relevant sounds.
Le WebLouvre, an award-winning Web site not actually affiliated with the Louvre, presents not only exhibits but also an historical tour of Paris. During its first year of opening it received over 400,000 visitors. The Dallas Museum of Art gopher averages 9,000 accesses a month. If nothing else, an Internet presence offers museums an interesting way of boosting their “attendance” figures!
These examples point the way towards the virtual museum. Despite all this, there are no museum-related journals online (except Museums New York, targeted at visitors rather than the professional community) and only one Internet discussion group on museums, although the need is now being felt for more, and more focused, groups.