Digital Preservation in Cultural Institutions: Access and Metadata

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An overview of challenges/barriers to digital preservation and access of 3D cultural heritage artifacts.

An overview of challenges/barriers to digital preservation and access of 3D cultural heritage artifacts.

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  • First, who am I and why do I care about digital preservation? I’m a curator at THF. Anyone been here? We’re a huge museum, but we’re also a living history museum, an archives, a library. Curatorial jobs are about the whole galaxy of collections information. We want to keep our digital data readable, collect born digital materials, digitize analog 3D objects.
  • A nice recent story that brings up basic questions in digital preservation. What do we collect and preserve and why? How do we preserve and provide access to digital materials. But that’s not our major problem.
  • What I’m most interested in in this flip side of “digital preservation.” On the same day that the Twitter/LoC partnership was announced, an article came out in the Boston Globe about a long-buried ship that had just resurfaced in Cape Cod, but would probably soon be buried again. Rather than dig up the ship’s remains and preserve them in a museum, the NPS is “digitally preserving” them, basically with a laser point scanner.
  • So I’m going to talk about this second kind of digital preservation: digitizing 3D artifacts and producing usable, contextual data from it. I’m not going to talk about storage—our previous speakers have given a better overview of storage technologies than I could. Storage is of course still a nontrivial problem, especially given the financial and technical resources of many cultural institutions. But in many ways we buy the best/most storage we can, migrate as best we can, and try to find people who we trust to take care of stored data. But my specialty is the stuff, and I feel that my job is to advocate for the stuff.
  • I would describe our situtation vis a vis digitization and digital preservation of cultural heritage materials as scarcity in the midst of abundance. The granary is full, but we can’t find the ears of corn that we need. We have lots of stuff, but limited data about them, and limited ways to access the data we do have digitally.
  • The basic tension. Preservation without access is broken, and vice versa. In our rush to scan are we neglecting metadata standards? If storage has become much easier, searching and access become even more important. We have to take care to balance these. So, I want to explore how we can increase access.
  • For instance, the poor or uneven metadata associated with Google books makes it difficult to use for research. Hopefully this model of scanning without good metadata will not be widely imitated.
  • Content is not transparent. It’s enclosed in a form which makes all the difference. The hundreds of radio contacts recorded in this logbook make no sense without the contextual metadata of Hamid’s story.
  • And even if we get metadata for 2D objects sorted out, what are we to make of monumental 3D artifacts for whom digitization is difficult (what does digitization mean for a steam engine?). How can we make sure that useful, extensible descriptive metadata is embedded in whatever form of steam engine is digitally preserved?
  • Here’s a collection record online for a steam engine from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia—but the descriptive metadata +folksonomic tags don’t get at the sensory experience of the steam engine. We’ve preserved some kinds of artifact information but not others. Sound, smell, motion. Need to work on these!
  • But our real barrier to access is the metadata! We need a schema for describing everything humans have ever created, and every natural artifact that can be collected. We have: good library standards, and many scattered standards for archives and 3D artifacts. How can all this metadata be preserved along with the data, and how can all the metadata talk to each other?
  • We have controlled vocabularies used widely in the field—but we all use them differently! And there are always items we have to create local terms for.
  • We have content standards for Cataloguing Cultural Objects (and for archives, DACS et al)—but not everyone uses them. But these are content standards—they’re not particularly machine-readable. Does our need for narrative and context to make good history frustrate our ability to produce metadata that helps us expand those narratives?
  • This is work done by my colleagues at the Met. They’ve integrated existing records (MARC, MediaBin, TMS) for a painting into an ontology for cultural heritage informatics called CIDOC.
  • We choose to keep things, or to not keep them. The contemporary equivalent is choosing what to describe, catalog, put online, develop linked data for. Our objects are becoming invisible.
  • We need technologists to help us—to scale up, to make things cheaper, to make good choices in re formats and standards. We need more people crossing over into cultural heritage fields and vv.


  • 1. Digital preservation in cultural institutions: access and metadata Suzanne Fischer Curator of Technology The Henry Ford [email_address] @publichistorian
  • 2. thf
    • Henry Ford Museum
    • Greenfield Village
    • Benson Ford Research Center
    • Ford Rouge Factory Tour
    • Henry Ford Academy
    • ~26 million items
    Photo by gruntzooki on flickr
  • 3. tweet But born digital materials are not our chief problem…
  • 4. “ The wreck of the British warship that Paul Revere slipped by on his legendary journey to Lexington in 1775 has resurfaced in the shifting sands of Cape Cod, and federal park officials are seizing the moment by having the wreck "digitally preserved," using three-dimensional imaging technology.” Boston Globe
  • 5. (THF24562) Ford Archives staff working with Ford Motor Company parts drawings on micofiche, May 1949 I’m not going to talk about storage * but remember that cultural institutions often have limited financial and technical resources
  • 6. Scarcity in the midst of abundance Firestone Farm, Greenfield Village
  • 7. Preservation/Access (THF38131) Children (boys and girls) looking at shellfish exhibit at Children's Museum, New York or New Jersey, 1890-1910 (Glass plate negative by Jenny Chandler)
  • 8. Metadata, metadata, metadata reference
  • 9. This artifact is more than its content
  • 10. How do you digitize a steam engine? Newcomen engine, 1760s, Henry Ford Museum
  • 11. Powerhouse
  • 12. “ Silos of the LAMs”: metadata is the problem with mass digitization and digital preservation of cultural objects (THF51011) Trade Catalogs in Benson Ford Research Center archives storage, August 2006; by Michelle Andonian
  • 13. Controlled vocabularies in museum metadata AAT
  • 14. Content standards CCO
  • 15. E71.Man-Made Thing E35.Title E12.Production Event E39.Actor E38.Image E31.Document has_title has_note Object12 ObjectTitle12 ConXRefs1233 Constituents33 “ Madame X” “ John Singer Sargent” was_produced_by had_participant is_identified_by IMAGE1 STRING1 “ Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)” has_title has_note marc_record1 marc_subfield1 “ John Singer Sargent and the fall of Madame X” has_title has_note isA isA isA isA isA isA isA isA Semantic web for museums? CIDOC Koven J. Smith and Don Undeen , The Semantic Web in Practice, MCN 2008
  • 16.
    • Curation
    • is not just about making choices but about making choices with consequences
    Lincoln Chair arriving at the Henry Ford Museum, 1930s
  • 17. We need to collaborate Dr. Claude R. Smith, a pathologist, and Mrs. Smith at Fordlandia with a collection of butterflies, tarantulas, and other jungle fauna.