Documenting the Digital: Behind the Scenes of the Gilded Age Project

  • Posted on Dec 07, 2011 by

The recently completed NYARC digitization project “Documenting the Gilded Age: New York City Exhibitions at the Turn of the 20th Century,” was the product of a collaboration between the Frick Art Reference Library and the Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archive. Like many collaborative digital projects, “Documenting Gilded Age” exposed both the challenges and unique opportunities that come from transforming physical items – in this case rare, ephemeral exhibition catalogs – into digital form.

Working with the vendor The HF Group, we digitized over 170 items totaling over 6700 pages. The heterogeneity of sizes, printing, and paper types, as well as the variety of bindings, enclosures, and encapsulations, made it difficult to establish uniform technical specifications for scanning. In addition, the migration of singular, bound items to “structured digital assets” (essentially single images of pages which must be linked together for display as a uniform text) required its own complicated metadata transformation process. For instance, how are multiple digital catalogs linked to a single serial bibliographic record? But beyond the challenges of creating MARC records for electronic items, digital objects require a wealth of additional metadata – technical, administrative, preservation-related – in order to be maintained and accessible over time. As well, different systems, such as our online exhibition software and our digital asset management system, used other metadata schema, requiring the development of crosswalks or additional metadata elements. And, as with any digitization project, physical tracking and conservation maintenance as items were digitized also played a big part in managing the process.

But beyond the managerial aspects, there were conceptual and procedural goals and opportunities. Digitization projects tend to be viewed simply as access enhancement – that by putting items online we have automatically enabled discovery and use. An OPAC, however, is not the only means through which users discover materials and many institutions, NYARC included, are realizing the importance of digital curation to enhance discovery and use. Conceptually, digital curation aims to add an additional level of context and meaning to a digitized collection through supplementary description, linking, selection, and arrangement; much like social media can provide new avenues of engagement with patrons, so can curated digital collections provide new avenues of user engagement with collections. Thus, NYARC staff selected choice images and texts from the project and wrote descriptive histories of the institutions represented. Also, additional materials from the archive, the photoarchive, and other collections were added to this online exhibition.

This project also gave us the opportunity to establish workflows and best practices around digital preservation. Digitization imposes a number of distinct requirements towards the preservation of the digital assets created. File corruption, format obsolescence, and bit rot are as much a hazard to digital objects as humidity, pests, and sunlight are to physical ones. Establishing procedures for digital preservation allowed us to ensure the ongoing stability and accessibility of this valuable digital collection.

Finally, the best part about the project is that it isn’t over! METRO recently awarded a second round of funding to support a dramatic expansion of the project that will add items from 40 more institutions to the existing collection. The second phase of the project will be getting underway soon and will no doubt introduce its own unique challenges and opportunities.

Jefferson Bailey, Project Manager, METRO Digitization Project, Frick Art Reference Library

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