When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, and many museum professionals (as well as the general public) found themselves working from home, the research requests at St. Joseph Museums skyrocketed.
“People were at home looking for things to do and were accessing our educational programs digitally,” says Sara Wilson, the museums’ Executive Director. “They began asking us questions about our collections more and more, and we started having to field 2-3 research requests a day. We needed to find a way to make our collections more searchable online!”
Fielding research requests with limited resources was not the only challenge St. Joseph Museums faced with their collections management. When Sara joined the organization in 2013, she found that the museums had their collections stored digitally in several different locations, making internal accessibility difficult and manual. After moving to a cloud-based system, which helped solve the problem, the museums faced another issue: the collections were still not accessible to the public.
“When COVID hit we felt a lot of things change in our organizations,” says Sara. The museums needed to find a way to ease the fulfillment of research requests and display their collections in a public-facing way. St. Joseph Museums is in their 95th year of operation and has a collection of more than 200,000 items, including the Harry L. George Collection—one of the largest and best-documented Native American Collections in the United States. Because of its size and significance, that collection alone results in frequent research requests.
Like most museums, St. Joseph Museums is only able to display 3% of their collections at any given time in their physical exhibit space. "If we have over 200,000 items but we only display 3%, how do we show our members, our donors, and our community why it is important to invest in St. Joseph Museums?” says Sara. “We needed to make a change.”
The organization chose CatalogIt to digitize more of their collections and help make them public-facing, migrating their data from their previous platform, swiftly cataloging more items, and publishing them to the web. Their previous limitation lessened as they published a whopping 22% of their collections online in 2021, getting them out of storage and onto the web. “We accessioned over 5000 items into our collection last year, and it is growing! We are constantly reviewing new donations, and CatalogIt helps us process those in really productive ways,” says Sara.
This new process of publishing collections to the web changed their approach to research requests as well. "As soon as we switched over to CatalogIt, the nature of our research requests changed immediately,” says Sara. Whereas before, the many requests the museums received were often broad—even requiring their museum staff to pull over 100 items at times—their requests narrowed significantly after the public gained access to the collections online in a self-service capacity.
“Now people have access to see what we have in our collection,” says Sara. When a request comes in, the museums’ staff can now go straight to the relevant archival record to digitize and upload it immediately for the researcher to gain access, if it’s not already online. Digitizing and publishing their collections to the web with CatalogIt has empowered researchers to independently access the museums’ data from anywhere in the world, saving St. Joseph’s staff significant amounts of time.
St. Joseph Museums have also found that publishing their collections to the web helps them engage with their community and even crowdsource information from those who donate items to the museum or the general public. “People can go online and help identify people in some of our photographs that have not already been identified,” says Sara, for example. “The more people who see [our digital collections], the more likely they are to help us build out the history of our community."
St. Joseph Museums now has over 45,000 items in their collections published to the web for the public to access when and where they need it, and the organization continues to digitize more of their items every day with their team of staff and volunteers. Sara particularly appreciates that she can monitor the work in real time. “I can be in a meeting and pull up CatalogIt to see things being updated as the meeting goes!” Sara says. “I can see the progress we’re making on a daily basis. Since I've been at the museum for the last 9 years, nothing has been as transformative to our operation than making the switch to CatalogIt.”
To explore their extensive collections, view St. Joseph Museums' CatalogIt HUB Page.