Ontario Barn Preservation

Preserving Old Ontario Barns in the On-Line World: Part 5 of 5, Creating a secure, centralized and sustainable database

by Hugh Fraser

This blog appears throughout November and December 2020 with the following topics that build upon each other. They explore some reasons why barn databases may have failed in the past, how OBP is trying to find ways to make it simpler, and to enlist a small army of people to do the work. If something in the blog sparks your good ideas, leave us a message by adding your comments below.

Part 1 of 5: Introduction

Part 2 of 5: What’s an old barn, and why are they difficult to document?

Part 3 of 5: Creating a consistent database

Part 4 of 5: Creating an informative database

Part 5 of 5: Creating a secure, centralized and sustainable database

If data is collected and stored on-line, it simply has to be secure, protect privacy and have varying levels of access. This is not easy if there are photos of the outside of a barn for everyone to see on-line. However, we must do everything possible to avoid breaches.

Many barns are in clear view of the road, so information about what is inside has to be guarded very carefully.

It is a balancing act to determine who should have access to the database and to how much of it. Consider just some of the interests there might be out there in obtaining this information:

  • Members of OBP who are passionate about rural history, construction and pioneer life
  • Non-members of OBP who just like the look of old barns in the countryside
  • Tourism industry wanting to promote a rural experience
  • Governments who are considering if funding might be available to help save more barns
  • Researchers who want to explore the movement of pioneers across Ontario
  • Barn dismantlers who want to sell beams and wood
  • Companies that repurpose barns for offices and homes

We all recognize that more information about old barns is critical to their survival, and the more the general public and governments understand the plight of old barns, the more sympathetic they might be. However, it is clear that information collected has to be guarded carefully. The executive of Ontario Barn Preservation understands this concern.

Every good new initiative needs a ‘champion’ or championS to shepherd it through the ups and downs of figuring out how to make it work. Champions are hugely important, but sometimes that can become limiting, because only the champions know how the initiative really works. A good database must be looked after by one centralized, stable organization that will be around for a while, and it needs good people to maintain it. OBP directors are merely volunteers and unpaid. Creating and more importantly maintaining a database with potentially hundreds, or thousands of barns is more than volunteers can handle. Barns are not static. Barns that were standing in 2020, may have been dismantled and moved by 2025. Barns that were in ‘good’ shape in 2020, many not be in 2025. And barns that were well-cared for in 2020 might be owned by a developer in 2025 and allowed to die. No, a good database needs a good person, and more preferably a team of people to look after it, and often this means paying for this work. A good database cannot rely on one volunteer, because databases and volunteers are just like barns—in good shape and well-cared in 2020, but in failing health, moved on, or dead by 2025. A succession plan is needed so the database and the barns they describe can live on long after the champions and owners have moved on to the great barn in the sky.

Barns get dismantled and repurposed all the time. Recording what happened to them takes time, effort and more importantly—money.

It’s been alluded to in this entire blog. Whatever database is created must be sustainable over time. A good database will take years to create, and there is simply too much effort involved by too many people to let it wither away and die after a few years. Unfortunately, this takes money and OBP’s pocket change in their account at this point is not going to cut it. So, some creative ideas are needed.

OBP is exploring possibilities for partnerships with universities, municipalities and other organizations for funding, people-power and other needs. We are putting drafts together on how a database might work, how many questions we believe are necessary for describing the majority of barns (50 questions currently!), how a GIS system might be set up, and how we might test out the system on several barns and with people with varying degrees of barn experience.  There would be lots of explanatory information and photos, lots of schematics on how to measure, lots of help on how best to take photos and from where, and lots of drop down options for the necessary information. We also envision asking people to write short, interesting stories about barns.

This whole exercise is not simple, but anything worth doing is usually not simple. But if you have read all this series of blogs up to this point, then you are clearly one of the devoted barn lovers out there. We aren’t sure just yet what types of volunteers we might need, but if you have expertise in databases, GIS, information gathering, know about old barns, have been involved in initiatives such as this before, or even would like to donate money to this work, please send us your good ideas to info@ontariobarnpreservation.com .

It might take a few hours to document everything about an old barn, but what are a few hours for the 211 year old, 1809 Dalziel barn back in Figure 1 of this series? There were only an estimated 70,718 people in all of Upper Canada in 1806 when this barn was planned. Imagine what stories it could tell while it watched the population explode 200-fold to an estimated 14,745,040 in 2020?

Thanks again for helping us save Ontario’s barns…one barn at a time.

Through the threshing bay door of this ca 1819 swing beam barn, Brock University is in the distance. When built, there were fewer people in Niagara than students now attending Brock. Imagine what this barn has experienced in 200+ years.

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