Gosh, golly, gee. We’re flattered. We have been inundated with requests for all kinds of research resources to appear on our website – everything from photos to plat maps to a complete death index to W.P.A. biographies. People are using the website, and that’s a good thing. These requests also show us that the public sees the Morrison County Historical Society (MCHS) as being in league with the really big organizations, such as the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Websites have the ability to make it seem as though the playing field between organizations of all sizes has been leveled. A nice looking website can be created fairly easily with relatively little money. This raises expectations among web users as to what research resources should appear on a website. The problem is that no matter how good a website looks, all organizations do not have an equal share in the resources needed to create a complex, research-laden website.
We have all sorts of considerations to take into account before putting something on our website. First, we must decide how much time we have to devote to creating web resources. At MCHS we have three part-time and one full-time paid employee, plus a volunteer Executive Director. In order to appropriately care for our website and keep it updated, we should really have one person devoted to this task full-time. Alas, we don’t have the budget for another employee. Creating a death index for the eighty cemeteries in the county, plus scanning the requested photos and plat maps, takes time – more time than our merry band of five has, what with all of our other day-to-day tasks. Compare this to the Minnesota Historical Society, which has 271 full-time employees, 410 part-time employees and 1,700 volunteers. Approximately seven of those employees work on the website.
Related to budgetary concerns, we need to perform a balancing act between providing a tantalizing amount of information on the web versus giving away the store. As we see it, if we put all of our resources on the web, people will no longer want or need to visit the museum or use our research service. If this information can be accessed for free, how will we maintain an income stream for the upkeep of the museum and its artifacts and archives? Without its physical resources, the Historical Society is nothing.
There is also duplication of effort to consider. Large organizations are busily digitizing resources that benefit not only the public, but smaller museums. For example, the Minnesota Historical Society has state-wide death and birth indexes on its website. When searching for a burial, we frequently use the death index in order to find an obituary, which leads us to the appropriate cemetery. It’s a fairly simple process, so at this point, it doesn’t make much sense to create our own digital death index.
As for maps, there are two great websites that show state maps down to the township level. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has a website that shows aerial views of the state from 1930 and 1950. Researchers can also find digital versions online of the General Land Office’s original surveyor’s plat maps for Minnesota.
Several organizations were involved in the latter map digitization effort. They include the Department of Administration’s Land Management Information Center, the MN Association of Surveyors, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and the Office of the Secretary of State. We simply can’t touch the effort these heavy hitters have expended on this sort of project.
Finally, as a museum, we must be especially careful about how much we invest in an ephemeral resource like a website. Websites come and go. The computer crashes. Technology changes. When we find info on the web, we print it. Ultimately two hundred years from now, we’ll still be able to read that piece of paper, but we can’t be so sure about websites.
By Mary Warner
Copyright 2005, Morrison County Historical Society