Improving Access to Public and Historic Records on Nantucket

Sponsor: Nantucket Atheneum, Nantucket Town & County Clerk
Sponsor Liaison: Molly Anderson, Nantucket Atheneum
Catherine Stover, Town & County Clerk
Student Team: Nicholas Defossez, Meaghan Dunn, Danielle Heinle
Abstract: Nantucket’s public and historic records are maintained by many different institutions and are kept in various forms. The project’s goal was to address this fragmentation and find a way to improve access to public and historic records on Nantucket. The team researched other collaborative digitization projects and interviewed record-holding organizations on the island to create an inventory of existing records and to gauge interest in the creation of a single website to provide access to Nantucket’s records. The team identified the key steps for a successful digital collaborative project, developed a prototype records database and web interface, and recommended how Nantucket should move this effort forward.
Link: ATH_Final_Report_12-13-2012

Executive Summary


As in most towns, records on Nantucket are spread out between many organizations and are kept in a variety of forms, such as in hardcopy, microfilm, a digital database, or online. Many organizations across the country are trending towards the digitization of their records. Putting records in a database makes it much faster to find them and deliver those records to the clientele; putting this database online makes it possible for the clientele to find the document for themselves without taking the time of someone working at the organization which holds the record. While it is easiest to access online records, the process of digitizing records and making them available online is a time consuming and expensive project.

Because of the fragmented nature of information between different departments and organizations in any town, the information that someone is searching for may be spread out between various institutions. Some towns have created online collaborative repositories, which provide users with a “one-stop shopping” experience for the records of multiple institutions. Our project evaluates the current state of record access on the island, in order to identify where it can be improved.

The project team identified five objectives necessary to achieve this goal. We: (1) characterized the state of the art in providing public access to historical and public records; (2) assessed the nature and status of access to public and historical records on Nantucket (3) identified a perceived need and potential strategies for improved public access; (4) developed and evaluated a range of potential strategies to improve public access; and (5) made recommendations about the way forward based on what we had learned. We characterized the cutting edge techniques in record accessibility by reviewing journal articles, case studies, and other forms of literature, as well as by conducting interviews with organizations that we discovered which had cutting edge record access systems. We reviewed the approaches of other towns and organizations to improve accessibility of records, as well as digitization technologies available. We assessed the status of record access on Nantucket by conducting interviews with key staff at organizations on the island to gain an updated understanding of the information contained in their archives. Through these interviews, we also determined the staff’s ii opinions and the level of interest in coming together to create an integrated strategy to promote public access. We took what we learned through the research and interviews to develop and evaluate a range of potential strategies to improve public access, stemming from the notion of a collaborative online repository. Finally we proposed an approach to improve the accessibility of records on Nantucket.


After interviewing with organizations both on and off the island and reviewing many case studies, we have identified a number of trends both in the needs of the organizations on the island and in successful digitization collaboratives.

Trends in Organizational Needs:

  • Financial Concerns: Many of the organizations which we contacted were private organizations, which are funded by fees for record access and use, or membership fees. These organizations cannot make their records freely available within the collaborative, without a drastic change in financial plans.
  • Fragmented Digitization Databases: Many organizations on the island have begun digitization initiatives which have not been completed; this has lead to fragmented and incomplete databases.
  • Acceptance of the Collaborative: Most organizations with whom we spoke were very receptive to the idea of a collaborative, and believe that it could benefit their organization as well as their clientele.
  • Management Concerns: There is trepidation about who can or should manage the collaborative, but most agree that it is best if the collaborative either remains independent or in the hands of an organization such as the Atheneum, which provides free service to the public.
  • Digital Catalog of Holdings: Many of the organizations which cannot make their records freely available online were interested in the idea of simply creating an online catalog or index, listing their holdings. An interested user would still need to go to those organizations in person, in order to access the records.

Trends in Successful Collaborative:

  1. Start Small: Successful collaboratives started out with a small group of three to four organizations, and slowly brought more into the fold as the techniques and standards used were proven to work with this small sample group.
  2. Create a Dedicated Management Position: The collaboratives that we researched which were successful also had a dedicated manager, who was in charge of maintaining and planning the collaborative, as well as making sure that the organizations involved all received the support which they needed. This manager was also in charge of making sure that the digitization plans were running smoothly, and that the organizations were following it properly.
  3. Decide Upon Metadata Standards: It is important that every organization in the collaborative use the same method of cataloging metadata, and use the same tone to describe it, so that when the end user is browsing the archives, it is as cohesive as possible, which will make the collaborative more easily accessible.


Nantucket’s public and historic records are scattered across a variety of organizations, and these records are all kept in different forms. Some have been digitized and made available online, some have been digitized but are not yet available online, and some are only available in hardcopy or on microfilm. There is no framework in place to aid organizations on the island with their digitization efforts; each organization has developed their own digitization procedures, and these procedures are mostly incompatible.

Most of the organizations on the island see value in digitization of their records and in a digital collaborative of institutions on the island to promote access to those records. Unfortunately, there is no consensus as to what form this collaborative could take.

Additionally, to best fulfill the needs of Nantucket’s organizations, this collaborative database should include both public and historic records, which poses an interesting set of problems. All of the digitization initiatives that we have read about were either for historic or public records, Nantucket’s collaborative is to involve both historic and public records.

There are many restrictions on how accessible public records can be, and there are similar limitations on how accessible the records of some private institutions on the island can be. Many private institutions are able to make their records freely available to the public, like the Atheneum, but others rely on control of their records to continue operation.

Finally, none of the participating organizations currently have the resources to completely oversee the development of a collaborative venture.

Before any work is begun on the collaborative, we suggest a feasibility study is undertaken, to ensure that the proposed collaborative could be successful for Nantucket. If the feasibility study shows that such an undertaking could be successful, the project team recommends a six step approach to the creation of a collaborative on Nantucket, each step of which is a concrete, achievable milestone:

  1. Pick two to four pilot organizations with which to begin the collaborative. We recommend a diverse group such as the Atheneum, the Town & County Clerk’s Office, and the NHA.
  2. Apply for a grant and create a funded Project Organizer position, as well as a funded webmaster position. The Project Organizer will be in charge of managing the collaborative, while the webmaster will be in charge of maintaining the website.
  3. Decide upon a common set of terms and language that should be used, so that it is consistent in metadata descriptions across all of the organizations in the collaborative. We recommend using the Dublin Core metadata standards.
  4. Continued inventory of the organizations on Nantucket, fleshing out the prototype website into a more complete index of the records which the pilot organizations would like to contribute to the collaborative. These items should be cataloged with the metadata standards established in step 3, and no digitization should yet be underway. During this process, organizations should establish priorities for digitization of their collections.
  5. Form a committee to evaluate database management options. If they choose to outsource the digitization, they should evaluate the companies available, and if they choose to perform the digitization on-island, they should evaluate various platforms. If the committee has decided not to outsource the digitization program, the project coordinator should then set up a server and a number of databases for the pilot organizations, and put selected collections v of already-digital records into these new databases. Acquire scanning hardware, or use a contracted organization’s existing scanning hardware, and begin digitization of files of the pilot group, putting them into the database established in part 5.
  6. Continue folding in other organizations, at a manageable pace, after the digitization strategy has been proven effective.