Saturday, 1 September 2012

John By

The unfortunately-named for the Google era, Lt. Colonel John By was a British military engineer who lived from 1779 to 1836. He was the big mind behind the Richleau Canal, and although somewhat underappreciated at the time, he is still recognized as an important figure in the development of Eastern Canada.

BUT! I'm not here to talk about John By. Nope, I am simply using him for an example (its ok guys, he's used to it). Searching for information on By this morning (which, as I said, is difficult thanks to his last name . . . you get everything from "Little John by the river" to "the long John by the bathtub") I stumbled across this:

This is a sketch by By (lol) from 1826. I rawther like it. BUT! I'm not here to talk about the image either.

I am here to talk about the way it is presented. Obviously, the McCord Museum has taken steps to ensure that this image cannot be easily stolen from the website (ignoring the potential for screencaps, as frequently happens). This is a good thing to do, especially when an image is copyrighted (this is beyond copyright, however). At the very least, it is a way to force people to come to your facility if they want to lay eyes upon the real deal (if it is in the sort of condition where laying eyes upon it will not dissolve it into a pile of ash). So I suppose you could say that this concern for security, while still allowing users to view, and become intrigued by elements of McCord's collection is what they are doing right here. I also like the consistency of the presentation here with the rest of the site, although having the picture a bit closer to the middle might make it more of a focal point on the page.

But what are they doing wrong? My big issue with the way this image is presented is that it is not accompanied by a detailed enough description. Do we know why By drew this? Did he draw many of them? Where are we, exactly? And who the heck is John By anyway?

I know, I know, I've worked on digitization projects. I know how tight on time and money these things can be. Stopping to describe each image in detail besides the credit line and generic caption might be a nightmare. But at the same time, if we aren't helping people to learn, then what the hell are we, as the keepers of history, doing? I know the page allows for tagging and for commenting by users, which is all well and good, and which may indeed lead to some more pertinent information making it onto the page. But the archivist is able to see the original within a context that is lost to online viewers. This context (ie. the role of such sketches within By's collection) should also be shared with those users. I would argue that the inclusion of such information, rather than the simple showing of an image, makes the contents of an archive or a museum seem more approachable to the general public, rather than remaining within the realm of the academic.

No comments:

Post a Comment