Session 305: Extended Archival Description Part I – Archives of American Art

Session 305 included perspectives from three digital collections which are trying to use EAD and meta data to solve real world problems of navigation and access. This post addresses the presentation by the first speaker, Barbara Aikens from the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian.

The Archives of American Art (AAA) has over 4,500 collections focusing on the history of American art. They received a 3.6 million dollar grant from the Terra Foundation to fund their 5 year project. They had already been using EAD for their standard in online finding aids since 2004. They also had already looked into digitizing their microfilmed holdings and they believe that the history of microfilming at AAA made the transition to scanning entire collections at the item level easier than it might otherwise have been. So far they have digitized 11 full collections (45 linear feet).

Their organization of the digitized files was based on collection code, box and folder. Basing their template on the EAD Cookbook, AAA used Note Tab Pro to create their XML EAD finding aid. I wonder how they might be able to take advantage of the open source software tools being developed such as Archon and the Archivists’ Toolkit (if you are interested in these packages, keep your eye open for my future post looking at them each in detail). There was some mention of re-purposing DCDs, but I was not clear about what they were describing.

The resulting online finding aid lets you read all the information you would expect to find in a finding aid (see an example), as well as permitting you to drill down into each series or container to view a list of folders. Finally the folder view provides thumbnails on the left and a big image on the right. Note that this item level folder view includes very basic folder meta data and a link back to that folder’s corresponding series page. There is no meta data for any of the images of individual items. This approach for organizing and viewing digitized collections is workable for large collections. The context is well communicated and the user’s experience is very like that of going through a collection while physically visiting an archive. First you use the finding aid to location collections of interest. Next you examine the Series and or Container descriptions to location the types of information for which you are looking. Finally, you can drill down to folders with enticing names to see if you can find what you need.

As an experiment, I tested the ‘Search within Collections/Finding Aids’ option by searching for “Downtown Gallery” and for gallery artist files to see if I was given a link to the new Downtown Gallery Records finding aid. My search for “Downtown Gallery” instead directed me to what appears to be a MARC record in the Smithsonian Archives, Manuscripts and Photographs catalog. Two versions of the finding aid are linked to from this record – with no indication as to how they are different (it turned out one was an old version – the other the new one which includes links to the digitized content). A bit more experimentation showed me that the new online collection finding aids are not integrated into the search. I will have to remember to try this sort of searching in a few months to see what the search experience is like.

What I was hoping for (in a perfect world) would be highlighting of the search terms and deep linking from the search results directly to the series and folder description pages. I wonder what side effects there will be for the accuracy of search results given that the series/folder detail description page does not include all the other text from the main finding aid. (ie New Finding Aid vs New Finding Aid Series Level Page). Oddly enough – the old version of the finding aid for this same collection includes the folder level descriptions on the SAME page (with HTML anchors permitting linking from the side bar Table of Contents to the correct location on the page). So a search for terms that appear in the historical background along with the name of an artist only listed at the folder level WOULD return results (in standard text searching) for the old finding aid but not for the new one. Once the new finding aids are integrated into the search results – it would be very helpful to have an option to only return finding aids that include digitized collections.

While exploring the folder level view, I assumed that the order of the images in the folders is the original order in the analog folder. If so, then that is a fabulous and elegant way of communicating the original order of the records to the user of the digital interface. If NOT – then it is quite misleading because a user could easily assume, as I did, that the order in which they are displayed in the folder view is the original order.

Overall, this is exciting work – and shows how well the EAD can function as a framework for the item level digitization of documents. It also points to some interesting questions about how to handle search within this type of framework.

UPDATE: See the comment below for the clarification that the new finding aids based on the work described in this presentation are NOT online yet – but should be at the end of the month (posted: 08/09/2006). 

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Posted on 8th August 2006
Under: access, context, digitization, EAD, SAA2006, search | 2 Comments » | Print This Post Print This Post

2 Responses to “Session 305: Extended Archival Description Part I – Archives of American Art”

  1. Megan Says:

    Thanks for posting on this presentation. I work at the Archives of American Art. The project Barb described at the SAA panel is not yet live on our website. What you’re searching is an older project of digitized microfilm. Keep watching the website – Collections Online should be live by the end of the month.

    http://archivesofamericanart.si.edu/collections/digitalcollections/collectionsonline/

  2. Barbara Aikens Says:

    2007 Update. Over 30 fully digitized collections are now available in the Collections Online Interface outlined in the 2006 session. They are fully searchable, and, yes, the order of the digital files is the order of the actual documents within the archival folders. Also, there is a link back to the EAD finding aid on the finding aids page. Soon, there will be a link from within the EAD finding aids page to the digitized collection. We have also automated the internal workflow quite a bit AND Toby continues to do amazing programming work within the confines of the Smithsonian’s OCIO guidelines. Take a look http://www.aaa.si.edu/collectionsonline/
    Please contact us if you have any questions!

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