The rapid advances in technology over the last few years – digital photography and the web – have transformed the ability to make images of objects available. The British Museum has now published 2 million objects with 635,000 images. This has been achieved by taking a bold pragmatic approach to prioritise quantity over quality. It is being accessed at about 12 million visits a year, and the number is rising steeply. The Museum freely gives away rights to the images for non-commercial publications (defined as fewer than 4,000 copies), and as a result the collection is being used as the major source of illustrations by many scholars.
However, the project has both practical and ethical problems. First, the site is hard to use, especially for those unfamiliar with objects; the search engine is too weak to cope with so many objects and the thumbnails it produces are too small. Both difficulties will be the subject of future improvements.
Second, partly because of the difficulties of giving authorial credit for entries, some parts of the collection have now been published as ‘on-line catalogues’. Two recent examples of interest to classicists are Roman Republican coins and Ancient Cyprus in the British Museum. They represent a new concept of a catalogue where the data included may vary (increase) even though the descriptive essays remain static – making bibliographical reference difficult, as, for example, such catalogues have no real date of publication.
New technological developments offer exciting opportunities for combining data in machine readable form. Hence tagging and the semantic web. But where should we go with linked data? What works for classicists may not work for others. And, if we have been content to give away rights over images to be printed in books, what about the much thornier issue of digital copyright? Some institutions have decided to abandon it, but, while open access is very much part of the philosophy of the British Museum, we are very nervous of this. At the moment, the museum’s budget is being severely cut, by 15%: can we afford to forgo the several hundred thousand pounds a year of income from commercial entities?
And, lastly, do we have the energy to keep going? There are at least another 5 million objects to go. Should we keep going as we are, or, in a world where resources are hard pressed, should we be directing our energies in other directions: rebalancing quality versus quantity, or looking to set higher standards and developing links? Or should we be helping the less visually literate develop their understanding of how to use these enormous quantities of images in an informed way?