Case Study: Opening the Seattle Art Museum’s hidden archives
Editor’s note: this post was updated to include accurate information about Artstor’s platform changes in June 2018.
Traci Timmons, Librarian at the Seattle Art Museum, shares with us the story of the completion of their first digital collection.
The Seattle Art Museum only began issuing its annual reports digitally in 2007. Prior to that, for 74 years, if you needed to find something, you had to locate the printed reports and skim through them to find what you were looking for. If you had a good idea about the approximate time period for your inquiry, you might only have to pull one or two reports. If you had no idea about an approximate date, you may have had to block out your afternoon.
Like many institutions that developed quickly, the Seattle Art Museum has faced challenges with keeping on top of historical documentation. This has been rectified in the last few years with the addition of professional, experienced staff in key positions. But for accurate historical information prior to the 1990s, our annual reports are still one of our most trusted sources of accurate information. On more than one occasion the printed information in annual reports confirmed the precise dates of an exhibition, verified a staff position title and dates of service, or provided the correct spelling of a name. The information contained in these reports, provided carefully by various museum departments, is critical to not only getting the facts about the institution, but to understanding its development and its unique contributions to the community.
Staff occasionally knew about the reports as a place to gather factual information, but we could make their presence better known. Further, we are increasingly asked by outside researchers for information contained in the reports, and fielding these questions was becoming increasingly time-consuming. We needed not only to make the annual report information more readily accessible, we also needed it to be searchable. The Seattle Art Museum Annual Report Collection, a relatively small collection with a lot of pertinent information, was a good candidate for our first digital collection.
The Seattle Art Museum had been an Artstor subscriber for years – both as contributors and users – and I had been hearing more and more about Shared Shelf [now JSTOR Forum]. I reached out to Artstor to set up a presentation to tell us more. The presentation was attended by members of our IT and Library staff. Because we were Artstor subscribers, Shared Shelf already felt very familiar and seemed like a good solution for this initial collection: it could accommodate large documents, a flexible metadata schema, and, for our internal users, it wouldn’t require them to learn a new system. As a group, we decided to try it.
Because of our small library staff, we rely heavily on volunteers and have a number of graduate library/information school student interns. Two students approached me about doing a capstone project and this felt like a potentially good project. Thanks to a Kress Foundation Scholarship, in 2015 I had attended the Summer Education Institute for Visual Resources and Image Management, a joint program of the Art Libraries Society of North America and the Visual Resources Association Foundation, where I gained knowledge to take this project from beginning to end. This knowledge, along with the mandates of the capstone project curriculum, helped us plan the project that would last about three academic quarters.
The students began by doing an environmental scan and establishing some goals—the first steps in the capstone process. They reported:
“In a survey of nearly 900 American museums and cultural institutions, only 171 host their annual reports online. Out of those 171 institutions, many have unaccountable gaps between years of published reports. In the library, we saw an opportunity for SAM to create a unique digital collection and exhibition that includes every annual report in the museum’s history. We decided to aim for three outcomes for the digital collection: accessibility, transparency, and posterity.”
- Michael Besozzi and Kate Hanske, “Building a Digital Collection: Annual Reports at the Seattle Art Museum,” The SAM Blog (blog), July 5, 2016, http://samblog.seattleartmuseum.org/2016/07/digital-annual-reports.
We concluded that this was a viable project and were ready to start scanning. Because the annual reports existed in a variety of sizes, we opted to use the scanner on the Bullitt Library’s Konica Minolta Bizhub 363. It had a large surface area and was set up to deliver files to a designated area on our network. We got very high-resolution, full-color images that we then converted to Adobe Acrobat documents and used the built-in OCR functionality. We now had searchable, high-quality documents to upload to Shared Shelf.
The next phase was adding the metadata. After some consideration, we decided to go with a modified Dublin Core metadata set. Dublin Core captured the information we felt was critical, plus it allowed us to publish easily to Shared Shelf, Shared Shelf Commons [now Artstor’s public collections], and even Omeka.net (with mapping). It took several weeks to apply all of the metadata and to double-check that everything was correct and working well.
Another consideration we had was copyright restrictions for the images within the annual reports. These were mostly images of works held in the museum’s permanent collection and, occasionally, event photography. Working with an internal group comprised of legal and registrar personnel, we were able to determine that images of objects and events were within designated use.
The collection was officially launched on May 23, 2016 in Shared Shelf Commons [Shared Shelf Commons collections were made public in Artstor after this post in June 2018–ed.]. We decided to go with Shared Shelf Commons because we weren’t worried about copyright restrictions and we wanted to make this collection available to many local groups interested in Seattle history that wouldn’t necessarily be connected to institutions with Artstor subscriptions. People were very excited about it and immediately starting using it. We’ve since launched a linked exhibition site for the collection on Omeka.net.
There are many fantastic outcomes when you digitize something. For us, we learned all kinds of fun facts about our institution:
- In the Museum’s early years, the Education Department hosted a monthly lecture series for the local Parent-Teacher Associations, followed by a gallery tour. “We have broken all records this year by having every seat filled and people standing. It is always free and open to the public.” (Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum: Thirty-second Year, 1937)
- In 1942, the librarian, Marcia T. Marple “resigned owing to the fact that she received the distinction of being one of the few selected from the country to attend the first Officers Training Camp of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.” (Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum: Thirty-seventh Year, 1942)
- In the 1940s, as World War II raged, the reports began to feature a “War Activities” section. The 1943 report talks about the museum’s involvement with Civilian Defense: “Early in the year, we allotted our Study Gallery to the Air Raid Wardens for use as the headquarters of the East Central Zone. That action necessitated the breaking of the previous precedent of having our annual non-jury local exhibitions on the main floor.” (Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum: Thirty-eighth Year, 1943)
- For the Museum’s Silver Anniversary Banquet in 1958, a film legend graced our event: “Special thanks must also be given to Mayor Gordon S. Clinton and two very noted collectors, Avery Brundage of Chicago and Vincent Price of Hollywood, for contributing their services as our principal guest speakers.” (Annual Report of the Seattle Art Museum: Fifty-third Year, 1958)
Make sure to visit the collection in Artstor’s public collections, check out the exhibit page in Omeka.net, and learn more about the students’ project and the digital collection in their entry for the Seattle Art Museum Blog.