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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Keeping Up: Is Digitization Creating a Cataloging Crisis?

The rapid pace of digitizing the holdings of museums, archives, and libraries can create a backlog of identification and description to accompany the new electronic image files—descriptive metadata and catalog records, such as the MARC format records in SIRIS.   There was a time when the standards for cataloging individual images, such as prints and photographs, suggested the thorough, scholarly  (slow!) approach.  Increasing demands to create more and more scans can play havoc with attempts to provide complete and accurate description of the objects being scanned.  In the worst cases, digital files float free without descriptive metadata.   The Archives Center’s initial scanning activities—it’s hard to believe how many years ago that was—resulted in electronic surrogates with no accompanying descriptive metadata at all to identify the  original objects, nor any corresponding catalog records.
Henry Alexander Ogden, artist.  "Sheridan at Five Forks, April 1, 1865."  Color lithograph, copyright 1897 by Knight & Brown.  Civil War series, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, NMAH. 
The Archives Center’s scan library of collection materials expands at a relatively brisk pace as we respond to orders for specific items selected by users after viewing original documents and images in our collections.  We seldom are in a position to scan an entire collection of hundreds or thousands of items simply for the sake of producing a “complete” digitization effort.  Yet there is a mentality which suggests that we must digitize everything in the form of text, images, or sound that exists—not only for the many obvious uses of digital surrogates, but also, it would appear, just for the satisfaction of saying we’ve done it, by golly—we’ve digitized the world!    Call me a Luddite, but I find this speeding juggernaut of technology a bit worrisome.
Occasionally we do initiate comparatively small special scanning projects in order to highlight portions of our collections in online displays, print publications, etc.  For example, an intern scanned more than one hundred Civil War-related items from our collections as her internship project.  She scanned the items—including photographs, prints, correspondence, currency, other types of documents, and even medals—and added descriptive metadata, as well as creating an item-level SIRIS record to accompany each item.   Unfortunately, due to my own busy schedule, it was months before I could review and edit her SIRIS records.  She wisely did not repeat one of the mistakes of some previous interns, creating a separate SIRIS record for each scan.  One energetic intern had scanned an illustrated calendar containing twelve images, one for each month—so far, so good—but then created twelve corresponding SIRIS records, each linked to a catalog record, without anywhere explaining that the twelve images were parts of a single object, a calendar.  On the other hand, while the Civil War project intern understood and described documents as single objects with multiple parts or images to be scanned separately, she apparently forgot to link them to the catalog record—and linked only one image per SIRIS record, not the others.  My first editing project was to add these additional image links to the SIRIS record and thereby provide a fuller understanding of the object to the online researcher.
James E. Taylor, artist.  "Before Five Forks / Sheridan at Dinwiddie Court House" (silver albumen photoprint, copy of a drawing or print), late 19th century.  Civil War series, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, NMAH.
I also added topical and geographical terms.  I did some Google and Wikipedia “research” and wish that the intern had been encouraged to do more herself during her initial data entry, to provide a more complete or rounded internship experience.  For example, I’m no Civil War scholar, so I didn’t know where the Battle of Five Forks, featured in several images, occurred.   Quick use of a search engine—guess which one!—yielded details of the one-day battle and its location, near Petersburg, Virginia.  She had entered the date of the battle as the creation date of the object, but since it was not a photograph, it’s clear that the print was produced sometime after the date of the battle (perhaps years later).  Therefore I made it clear that the print was made sometime after, not on, that date.  I plan to confer with colleagues in the Museum’s Graphic Arts collection to seek further information—these images may be well known among Civil War historians and experts in the iconography and print culture of the war.   If you, dear readers, can assist, please contact me!  My most important discovery was that one of these images was not in fact a drawing or a print, as the intern had assumed: rather, it is a photographic copy—evidently a silver albumen printof a drawing or print.  As a photographic historian, I consider it important to make that distinction, for whatever meaning that factoid may turn out to have.   Of course, knowing that it is a nineteenth-century albumen photographic print, pasted on an acidic mountboard, has preservation implications.  I suspected that it was a photographic copy when looking at the TIFF file in our digital library—the color of the image gave it away—but had to inspect the original object to be certain.
I enjoy making discoveries like this, and regretted that the intern didn’t have an opportunity to share this particular experience.   The most rewarding experiences for interns probably occur when they are able to collaborate closely with staff.
I’ve noted the challenges of keeping up with the cataloging of objects which have been digitized—in order to provide access to them through appropriate and accurate descriptive terminology—adding language to the visual mix.  And I’ve griped about the seeming avalanche as digital copies proliferate.  The other side of the coin is that the desire to digitize can be very healthy for collections and their guardians.  Both staff-initiated special projects as well as the random patterns of scanning orders from “customers” can help us to rediscover the riches of our own collections and enlarge our knowledge base.  I’ve stated my curmudgeonly complaint that it’s difficult for catalogers to keep up with our burgeoning image files.  However, the value of a balanced approach to proactive digitizing (combined with appropriate cataloging and tagging), as opposed to digitizing merely on user demand, is obvious.  As far as I can tell, the Archives Center’s relatively small number of Civil War items had been widely overlooked, and this internship project highlighted more of our collections’ riches, for the benefit of all.  From my standpoint as a SIRIS cataloging coordinator, it’s important to build into scanning projects workflow strategies for locating and managing accurate information (including basic research and/or reasonable speculation) about the objects for both descriptive metadata and SIRIS records. 
David Haberstich, Curator of Photography


1 comment:

  1. I think the more detailed the description of the scan the better. I would even go so far as to describe the smallest of details, they may be telling. Thank you. Preston E. Denver, CO 80216.