Providing online access to on-site collections

The Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) in Dublin - Taisce Cheol Dúchais Éireann - is a registered charity established as 'a national reference archive and resource centre for the traditional song, instrumental music and dance of Ireland'. The archive arose directly from a proposal made by Harry Bradshaw and Nicholas Carolan to the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon in Dublin in 1987 to preserve historic sound recordings of Irish traditional music.

Since its establishment in 1987, the ITMA has always used digital technology to manage, provide access to and promote its extensive collections of scores, still images, audio recordings and moving images. It is now providing an extensive online service to users around the world.

What were the environmental and strategic drivers for developing online access?

Online access has always been important for ITMA and its potential has defined the ITMA's culture to use the most recent developments in technology to facilitate access to its collections. They decided to have a digital catalogue when the ITMA was first established in 1987 and the first website was launched in 1993 with simply a text-based brochure for content.

In 2005 the ITMA created a multimedia site containing a player which was developed using in-house technical skills. The impetus behind this was to create content management system so all staff could add content, making material more accessible from the front page. The current structure is the same as this former site but the layout of the webpages has been improved.

What is ITMA's strategy and how was it informed?

ITMA does not undertake formal market research. However, it listens carefully to the plentiful feedback from the members of the music community who know the ITMA well, as the staff are also musicians. 

The ITMA identified its needs for the website and then worked closely with the successful contractor to develop the website. The importance of research became evident to support the successful development of a website.

Describe the key elements of ITMA's online access and what benefits they deliver to users/customers

The main online resources are the catalogue, the digital library of recordings and the shop. The digital library is the core area of the website consisting of multimedia recordings that are either out of copyright or made by ITMA staff. It provides a window on the ITMA's large collections of recordings. The rest of the site acts as a 'brochure' explaining the work of ITMA. 

Traditionally users had to visit the archive in Dublin to access the holdings but by developing online access the archive can now reach all those with an interest in traditional Irish music particularly the large international Irish community.
 
The online catalogue has significantly freed up staff from routine enquiries. Staff can now focus on cataloguing, preservation and digitisation, which have become a huge part of ITMA's work. Digitisation of audio, video, sound and print areas of the collection is now routine work and has access to old video and audio formats that were hitherto inaccessible. 

ITMA is also active on Twitter and Facebook. The traditional music community is broad, from children to retired people, and runs across gender and age. The majority of the community is online and ITMA needs to cater to that audience. 

ITMA also issues a twice-monthly email update. ITMA calculates it has around 12,000 subscribers to these three resources from all over the world. 

What resources are required to create and maintain these resources?

There are ten staff in the ITMA of whom seven are involved in online access work, including new acquisitions and digitisation and uploading material to the website, for example listing of new acquisitions and discography each month. 

As a result of improving online access the ITMA is increasingly receiving more enquiries via the website rather than by telephone so more staff resource is now directed to the online service. ITMA, when reporting to the Arts Council, now counts online access as footfall.

What are the benefits?

  • Publicity More people know about ITMA than ever before, including an international audience yet it has no publicity budget. Its profile has grown enormously nationally and internationally since the drive to add material to the new website
  • Freeing up staff time Users can now undertake their own research without staff input and are better prepared in advance of their visit  By keeping a pace with digital world ITMA maintains its appeal to current and new audiences in the music community
  • The variety of work and new developments make an engaging experience for staff, who must constantly develop new skills

What are the issues for the ITMA?

The ITMA has numerous external hard drives in different locations and there are numerous technical challenges to looking after such large quantities of data and backing it up. For example, recording a festival with digital video creates one terabyte of data.

How would ITMA like to develop its online services in the future?

  • The collections are constantly growing so ITMA wants to make as much of it available online as possible, particularly given the rise in profile and the growing international audience ITMA is experiencing. ITMA wants to improve the experience for the visitor to the website with the aim of providing the same personal experience as one would get onsite
  • ITMA actively records on video and audio. It would like to expand this to capture this particularly in different regions of Ireland, and record people talking about their own music and music history
  • Develop as an audience, the large student body now looking at history of music
  • Making available online material currently recorded in areas across Ireland. For example ITMA currently is working with a collection in Donegal, which will have its own micro-site. This is a landmark project and has attracted Arts Council and European funding

What are the fundamental learning points ITMA would pass on to other archives?

  • Do lots of research, talk to people, look at comparators, and look at best practice. Be very clear about what you want to do
  • Facebook and Twitter are very important for promoting the website. Sharing with other sites is important. A full time member of staff  is dedicated to working on social media, for example, linking in a photograph with a current national news item, using social media to identify content and people in images

Find out more about the Irish Traditional Music Archive.