Digital history

Legacy systems are often blamed for IT’s complexity; building modern systems capable of meeting today’s business challenges is hampered by antiquated architectures, it is claimed. ‘Trying to fit paper documents into a digital infrastructure exacerbates the problem.

But if these challenges are difficult for some, the Victoria &Albert (V&A) Museum suffers on a wholly new scale. The museum has records dating back 150 years; legacy is part of the organisation’s DNA, but making its records available in a digital format is a huge task.

The museum’s core IT systems are relatively modern, dating back to 1999. But at that time, the main focus was on Y2K compliance; less consideration was placed on ensuring they supported the business.

Ian Croxford, head of information systems services at the V&A, says within a few years, the museum was already stretching the infrastructure’s capability.

“We were chronically short of disk space. All our file and print services were at their limits and we couldn’t cope with any more emails,” says Croxford. Furthermore, the museum was under pressure to provide greater online access to its records, he adds.

So Croxford insisted that the latest refresh of technology would be accompanied by document management. So while Bull Information Systems was brought in to upgrade servers and manage desktops, Croxford embarked on a more ambitious project to create a digital catalogue covering the museums assets.

The V&A has been digitally cataloguing its collection since the early 1990s, but only 20% of the 4 million objects have gone through the process. Much of it is paper-based, making the task of cataloguing each record even more laborious.

“When the cataloguing process started no one was thinking about the public using it,” says Croxford. Most museums start from scratch on such a project but the V&A is using existing systems. “We wouldn’t have got the buy-in if we’d tried to persuade people to start all over again. People cost too much and public access is not seen as a big enough stick.”

Croxford’s target is to have 50,000 objects online by 2007; today the total stands at 20,000. The popularity of the service is adding to the pressure: 6.5 million people visit its web site every year, more than double initial expectations.

The V&A now digitally catalogues any items sent out on loan or in a gallery that gets refurbished. Croxford is also introducing an information lifecycle management policy, shifting some items to lower grade storage. But this opens up new problems: “Trying to classify [information] is hard. It’s much easier to treat everything as ‘important’.”

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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