There is widespread agreement in the American museum community that there should be greater online access to historical collections. Only about 2% of history museums have their collections online, and data in most of these systems cannot be seen by search engines. Other countries are far ahead of the U.S. in these types of efforts. The British Museum  alone has nearly 2,000,000 objects online. Furthermore, there needs to be a gateway that provides easy access to multiple collections. Most museums in Canada have been linked together for years, for example, in the Canadian VirtualMuseum . The National Portal has received numerous letters of support, and eleven respected leaders in the history museum field have agreed to serve on its Advisory Board  chaired by the former Archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH)  has actively supported the project since its inception in 2007. The National Portal will address ten important, nationally-recognized needs for historical organizations:
A 2009 report from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), Archival Management Software, summarized a multiyear program looking at the problem of “hidden collections.” The report’s author, Lisa Spiro (a member of the Working Group for the National Portal), stated:
“Whether called ‘the elephant in the closet’ or a ‘dirty little secret’ , hidden collections are becoming recognized as a major problem … Libraries, archives, and cultural institutions hold millions of items that have never been adequately described. These items are all but unknown to, and unused by, the scholars those organizations aim to serve.”
Research conducted by Heritage Preservation estimated that 13.5 million historic objects and 153 million photographs are held in the public trust by archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, and archaeological repositories in the United States. Yet, for all their educational value and inspiration, these collections are not connected within any national system; there exists no single national registry of America’s historical treasures. Allen Weinstein, former Archivist of the United States and Chairman of the Advisory Board  for the National Portal, states,
“The sad truth is that despite the existence of thousands of first-rate historical sites, many Americans are missing opportunities to learn about our rich culture. We need a national website that allows Americans to get in touch with their rich heritage, to find information, and also get vacation ideas at the same time.”
This is not a new revelation. In the late 1980s, AASLH and the National Museum of American History created a project called the Common Agenda for History Museums, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Common Agenda’s goals included a national database of historical collections. Common Agenda failed because its agenda was too big, but the basic need for a national database remains. Now that advances in technology have made the project feasible, the time has come to make it happen.
One of the primary reasons that fewer than 2% of museums make collection information available on the Internet is that the labor and software development costs to accomplish this are prohibitive. However, by sharing costs among a wide number of institutions, the National Portal is dramatically cutting the cost of putting collections online.
For many years, AASLH sought to have a cooperative system to disseminate information about its members. Since the first discussions between AASLH and American Heritage in August, 2007, the National Portal has been conceived of in part as a national marketing system to encourage people to get out and visit museums. The National Portal already includes information on nearly 4,000 museums and historic sites across the U.S., which can be sorted by type and theme. The information on each includes a photo and description of the museum, address, hours, admission fees, contact information and convenient display of the museum’s location on Google maps.
The National Portal has assembled a Working Committee of fifteen leading experts to help the industry agree on common metadata standards. This will have profound effects in the future, allowing for the interconnection of repositories of historical collections and the “harvesting” of metadata. Without agreed upon standards, interoperability tools cannot be constructed, and vendors lack guidance from the community on how to construct enhancements to their collection management systems. Also, important policies relating to moving collection data to the Web, including reuse of content, metadata standards, and sustainability can supervised by a representative boards of industry leaders.
Collecting databases of information from a large number of museums is a labor-intensive process. The National Portal is developing automated tools for harvesting metadata from disparate sources and then processing, indexing, and displaying this information in a single system. The construction of automated communications systems and Application Process Interfaces (APIs) with existing collection management systems will save thousands of hours in collecting data and maintaining it for the long term in the national system.
The value of a catalogue of thousands of museum objects can be greatly improved by the use of a standard nomenclature or taxonomy for indexing. If different museums use different cataloguing systems, the result would be a chaotic mixture without order. History museums have had the ability to categorize historical objects in their collections in since 1988, when AASLH introduced its first nomenclature system. In December, 2009, AASLH released a new, revised edition, Nomenclature 3.0 for Museum Cataloging: Third Edition of Robert G. Chenhall's System for Classifying Man-Made Objects . Too many museums, however, fail to categorize their collections. The National Portal will provide assistance in AASLH’s efforts to increase adoption of the national standard for indexing history museum collections.
There is no uniform protocol for how museums generate identification numbers for objects in their collections, leading to disorganization. In contrast, all book publishers use ISBN numbers to identify their titles, allowing publishers, wholesalers and retailers to easily interchange data. The National Portal is creating a system for generating MAIN (Museum Asset Identification Number) numbers that will function as a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) for items in museum collections. Use of these numbers will impose standardization on museum collection numbering, allow museums to identify artifacts more easily, and provide for simpler location of resources on the Internet.
The National Portal will allow Internet users to post comments on individual items in museum collections. Such comments could be anything from family reminiscences to corrections or amplification on identification by experts outside the museum that owns the object. Such interactivity will encourage greater community participation in discovering and documenting local history, and allow museums to actively engage their surrounding public, who can become advocates and co-researchers. As Matthew MacArthur, New Media Director at the National Museum of American History, reported in a recent column in AASLH’s magazine, History News,
“There was a time not long ago when it was controversial to think of releasing high-quality digital images of museum objects, a practice that is now commonplace. Web 2.0 challenges museums and other types of institutions to re-think entrenched attitudes toward the control and dissemination of information, and be open to the mutual benefits of allowing passive users to become active participants.”
Another important goal of the National Portal is to ensure access to museum collections for people who are visually or motion impaired. Few museum websites are compliant with Federal Standards under Section 508  for Internet access. This initiative will not only benefit individuals with handicaps, but also help museums that cannot afford (or don’t know how) to become compliant with regulation.
Over the years, many museums and historical archives have suffered from thefts of valuable papers, maps, paintings, and other items in their collections. A national clearinghouse will assist these organizations, and law enforcement authorities, in locating stolen objects that turn up in other collections years after they were missing.