During my trip to Washington D.C. this spring, I attended the IS&T Archiving conference in conjunction with visiting two Smithsonian archives. A representative from our department had attended this event in the past, and it’s been on my radar for several years. It was a good opportunity to learn about the trajectory of cultural heritage imaging and archiving on a larger, international scale.
This conference led me to consider my career path and hopes for the future, especially as it pertains to information professions. I originally became interested in the field of cultural heritage imaging as a result of my background in photography. Internships in two museums during college opened my eyes to the world of archival and museum work, especially as it pertained to making historic materials accessible. Digitization has been the focus of my career so far, having worked in three different museums and libraries in this capacity. After taking over some archives duties in my current position, I’ve realized how much I enjoy this related, yet different side of making materials accessible. It’s become clear to me that digital capture is just one aspect of access, archival practice is necessary in order to make data findable, and to preserve this data. I was pleased that the IS&T Archiving conference covered the full gamut of my interests: from digitization to quality control, workflows, metadata, standards, and information management.
While much of the conference focused on the hows of doing the work, the end goal of access and preservation was evident in all the presentations. The keynote was a prime example of this focus on use: the Montreaux Jazz Festival Digital Project in Switzerland was conceived first as a means of preserving unique, culturally important audio recordings, and it evolved into an effort rich in dynamic programming. The collaborative project has resulted pop-up exhibits and experiences utilizing archival footage during the annual jazz festival. The project faces the challenge of complicated rights issues, but staff have found a creative solution in the form of a custom-built cafe for researchers, students, and enthusiasts to interact with the collection.
A presentation by staff at the U.S. Library of Congress was another excellent instance of technology serving end users in making archival material accessible. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped within the Library of Congress has been digitizing its Braille music collection for preservation, given the often fragile and rare nature of the material, to maximize space on circulating shelves, and to better serve patrons. Given the fact that this branch serves citizens across the country, digital access has become the preferred method of disseminating music scores. The presenters reviewed their research in the various hardware and software used to effectively capture and output files which accurately capture the original. There is still much that could be improved in the existing technology, library staff made it clear that the challenges in digitization are worth it given the educational value they provide for the community.
The project manager of the Robert F. Smith Fund at the National Museum of African American History and Culture discussed the incredible collaboration between cultural heritage institution and community via their archival projects. Their community curation, professional curation, professional development, and Explore Your Family History Center all connect individuals with history. Staff have organized community digitization projects, which allows folks to learn about best practices for storing materials and digitally archive their ephemera and family photographs. Through professional curation and fellowship and internship opportunities, agency over representation and narratives can be retained within the community. And the Family History Center allows for information professionals to guide genealogical research. The presenter relayed stories about the unexpected social interaction that happens in this space, as long-lost family members have connected as a result of their findings. The work being done as a result of the Robert F. Smith Fund is a prime example of the multitude of ways in which cultural heritage institutions can create value for their patrons and community.
There were several sessions that focused on 3D capture of historic objects and sites, and the value of documenting our changing world. This is one emerging side of cultural heritage digitization which shows incredible promise in capturing our collective, global cultural patrimony. Historic sites at risk due to political or economic instability, disaster and climate change can now be captured with a high degree of detail and accuracy. While these captures are no replacement for the originals, their use and distribution can help foster a sense of urgency to preserve these sites and it can help individuals across the world learn in a tactile way about these histories. It was heartening to hear a call for a review of file formats, metadata schema, digital preservation and an overall strategy for dealing with 3D capture. There aren’t currently any standards, so this is a crucial concern. After all, long-term access of this data will only be assured if information professionals turn their attention to effectively archiving these materials.
One presentation out of Finland, and another out of South Korea also pointed to searchability of digitized archival material as key as it pertains to access. The Digitalia Research Center has been working to create systems which will accurately and efficiently perform OCR on a variety of typeset and handwritten materials, in a variety of languages. In addition, their solutions are able to analyze the resulting data to determine keywords for processed materials. The research done in the audio archives of the National Archives of Korea reveals the value of speech recognition technology. Though manual intervention is often necessary with automated processes like this one, deep learning is being implemented on an experimental basis in an attempt to improve efficiency and accuracy. Both these automation projects underscore the value of cost-effective technologies that will provide improved access via search, and which will keep up with the incredible volume of archival materials we create.
A poster about the Echoes project, based out of the Netherlands, caught my interest as it pertains to cooperation and collaboration across institutions and countries. This effort is attempting to link data, and thus archival collections, through one unified system. Based on the Europeana portal of digital collections that pulls together cultural heritage material from scores of institutions across the continent, this system goes one step further to connecting collections across the globe. Through careful crosswalking of metadata, museums, archives, and libraries can add to a growing web of information. The data is transformed to LOD/RDF triples, and users can query or use maps as search interfaces (Netiv and Hasselo, 2018). Projects like this one point to the larger trend of linked data, and the necessity of international collaboration. It is easy to become overwhelmed by options when searching for or browsing information as a result of the sheer number of search engines and information portals. Consolidation of data, and enrichment from making connections is key to help cut down on information overload.
I left the conference considering how we might improve our processes and standards within the digitization program at our museum. This has yielded helpful conversations about progress and improvements, that should help to ensure we are producing accurate documentation of our collections for archival purposes. Beyond these implications, I keep reflecting on the presentations in relation to the value of archives. The physical materials and their digital surrogates have value when they are accessed. Access depends on preservation, searchability, and connections. This is where archivists come into play - they help to transform sheets of paper and digital files. Given the scope of impact within each of these projects presented during the conference, it’s crystallized in my mind the role information professionals play in connecting individuals, communities, and societies to unique, historical content.
Netiv, A. and Hasselo, W. (2018). ECHOES: Cooperation across heritage disciplines, institutions, and borders. Retrieved from http://blog.csuc.cat/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Poster_Echoes_Archiving_2018_final_version.pdf