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Digitization Program Site Visit: Archives of American Art

The image of Alexander Calder above shows him in his studio, circa 1950. It is from a folder titled Photographs: Calder at Work, 1927-1956, undated, part of Alexander Calder’s Papers held by the Smithsonian Archives of American Art and available online through the efforts of their digitization project. I love that this image capture him in his creative space – you get to see the happy chaos from which Calder drew his often sleek and sparse sculptures.

Back in October, I had the opportunity to visit with staff of the digitization program for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art along with a group of my colleagues from the World Bank. This is a report on that site visit. It is my hope that these details can help others planning digitization projects – much as it is informing our own internal planning.

Date of Visit: October 18, 2011

Destination: Smithsonian Archives of American Art

Smithsonian Archives of American Art Hosts:

Summary:  This visit was two hours in length and consisted of a combination of presentation, discussion and site tour to meet staff and examine equipment.

Background: The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (AAA) program was first funded by a grant from the Terra Foundation of American Art in 2005, recently extended through 2016. This funding supports both staff and research.

Their digitization project replaced their existing microfilm program and focuses on digitizing complete collections. Digitization focused on in-house collections (in contrast with collections captured on microfilm from other institutions across the USA as part of their microfilm program).

Over the course of the past 6 years, they have scanned over 110 collections – a total of 1,000 linear feet – out of an available total of 13,000 linear feet from 4,500 collections. They keep a prioritized list of what they want digitized.

The Smithsonian DAM (digital asset management system) had to be adjusted to handle the hierarchy of EAD and the digitized assets. Master files are stored in the Smithsonian DAM. Files stored in intermediate storage areas are only for processing and evaluation and are disposed of after they have been ingested into the DAM.

Current staffing is two and a half archivists and two digital imaging specialists. One digital imaging specialist focuses on scanning full collections, while the other focuses on on-demand single items.

The website is built in ColdFusion and pulls content from a SQL database. Currently they have no way to post media files (audio, oral histories, video) on the external web interface.

They do not delineate separate items within folders. When feedback comes in from end users about individual items, this information is usually incorporated into the scope note for the collection, or the folder title of the folder containing the item. Full size images in both the image gallery and the full collections are watermarked.

They track the processing stats and status of their projects.

Standard Procedures:

Full Collection Digitization:

  • Their current digitization workflow is based on their microfilm process. The workflow is managed via an internal web-based management system. Every task required for the process is listed, then crossed off and annotated with the staff and date the action was performed.
  • Collections earmarked for digitization are thoroughly described by a processing archivist.
  • Finding aids are encoded in EAD and created in XML using NoteTab Pro software.
  • MARC records are created when the finding aid is complete. The summary information from the MARC record is used to create the summary of the collection published on the website.
  • Box numbers and folder numbers are assigned and associated with a finding aid. The number of the box and folder are all a scanning technician needs.
  • A ‘scanning information worksheet’ provides room for notes from the archivist to the scanning technician.  It provides the opportunity to indicate which documents should not be scanned. Possible reasons for this are duplicate documents or those containing personal identifying information (PIP).
  • A directory structure is generated by a script based on the finding aid, creating a directory folder for each physical folder which exists for the collection. Images are saved directly into this directory structure. The disk space to hold these images is centrally managed by the Smithsonian and automatically backed up.
  • All scanning is done in 600dpi color, according to their internal  guidelines. They frequently have internal projects which demand high resolution images for use in publication.
  • After scanning is complete, the processing archivist does the post scanning review before the images are pushed into the DAM for web publication.
  • Their policy is to post everything from a digitized collection, but they do support a take-down policy.
  • A recent improvement was made in January, 2010. At that time they relaunched the site to include all of their collections co-located on the same list, both digitized and non-digitized.

On Demand Digitization:

  • Patrons may request the digitization of individual items.
  • These requests are evaluated by archivists to determine if it is appropriate to digitize the entire folder (or even box) to which the item belongs.
  • Requests are logged in a paper log.
  • Item level scanning ties back to an item level record with an item ID. There is an ‘Online Removal Notice’ to create item level stub.
  • An item level cataloger describes the content after it is scanned.
  • Unless there is an explicit copyright or donor restriction, the items is put online in the Image Gallery (which currently has 12,000 documents).
  • Access to images is provided by keyword searching.
  • Individual images are linked back to the archival description for the collection from which they came.

Improvements/Changes they wish for:

  • They currently have no flexibility to make changes in the database nimbly. It is a tedious process to change the display and each change requires a programmer.
  • They would like to consider a move to open source software or to use a central repository – though they have concerns about what other sacrifices this would require.
  • Show related collections, list connected names (currently the only options for discovery are an A-Z list of creators or keyword search).
  • Ability to connect to guides and other exhibits.


Image Credit: Alexander Calder papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Posted in access, digitization, learning technology

1 Comment

  1. AK

    My institution is currently in the early planning stages for 2 digitization projects (one audio/visual, one paper and photographs). This post was very insightful. Thanks for sharing!

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