National Portal To Historic Collections

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Begun in 2007, the National Portal is a massive, multiyear project to provide information on 4,000 historical sites, including easily searchable online access to digital images and descriptions of millions of artifacts housed in the collections of American museums, historical societies, National Parks, and other institutions across the country.

The objects being added to this national “clearinghouse” include documents, photographs, paintings and artifacts, and run the gamut from military artifacts to artworks to the tools and mementos of everyday life.

The Portal has been called a “transformative event” for the history community. At present, an extraordinarily large percentage of America’s preserved memory is hidden. In fact, 98% of history museums provide no Internet access whatsoever to their collections, and the few that do often include only a small percent of their holdings and use systems whose content cannot be read by search engines.

The project is sponsored by American Heritage and the American Association for State and Local History.

A wide range of users will find the system helpful, including curators, archeologists, authors, genealogists and the general public – anyone else seeking a connection to the tangible objects of our past. In particular, the system is being designed for “heritage travelers” who might want to discover history while on the road or in their own communities.

For more detail, see Top 10 Goals for the National Portal.

In order to ensure sustainability, development of the database is supported by modest fees charged to institutions for inclusion of data in the system and by advertising, largely from heritage tourism advertisers who are often partners of local historical institutions.

Photographs in the National Portal may be used for personal use, but permission must be obtained from individual institutions for use in publications, commercial use, etc.

Fewer than one in fifty historical societies provides online access to documents, photographs and other materials in their collections. There are many reasons for the existing lack of visibility: scarce resources, inadequate staffing, and inability of existing collection management software to easily export data to the Internet, etc.

Another impediment to online access has been a lack of agreement on metadata standards for non-textual collections. That is, the way that one describes paintings, cannon, and quilts is quite different. The National Portal’s Working Committee will be addressing these challenges.

Organizations and individuals with an interest in history are encouraged to link to the collections.

Have a question or comment? Don't hesitate to contact us at collections (@) our domain.

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