Building a Shared Digital Collection: A Case Study

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An overview of the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database digital collection, presented for the Knitting Heritage Museum: Work In Progress symposium in Madison, Wisconsin on November 9, 2012.

An overview of the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database digital collection, presented for the Knitting Heritage Museum: Work In Progress symposium in Madison, Wisconsin on November 9, 2012.

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  • I’m here today to share with you the story behind the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database, which is a digital collection that brings together more than 1,000 examples of furniture, ceramics, textiles and other decorative arts made by early Wisconsin craftspeople and held by dozens of museums, historical societies and private individuals across the state. Karen invited me to speak about this project as a sort of case study, a potential model for the development of a collaborative digital collection or “virtual museum.” So my goal for today is to provide you with an overview of how I built this shared statewide digital collection—but I’m also going to add some thoughts I have on the idea of a virtual museum of knitting and crochet, which I think has the potential to go far beyond the model I can give you of my own small project. Quite a lot has changed in the culture of the Internet and in the relationship between museums and technology since I began this project six years ago, and I think we’re at a very exciting point in time to be planning this kind of broad collaborative effort in preserving and studying knitting and crochet on the web.
  • I began the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database in 2006 in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Chipstone Foundation of Milwaukee, a private foundation for the study of American decorative arts and material culture. I pursued the project full time for three years, then in 2009 I moved to my current position with Wisconsin Library Services, but continued to work on the decorative arts project on a part-time basis for two more years with support from Chipstone and the Kaufman Americana Foundation. At this point, the project is no longer active, but the database, which is hosted by the Wisconsin Historical Society, remains accessible.
  • The seeds of the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database project were planted in 2005 when I was a graduate student studying material culture in the Department of Art History here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I had the opportunity to attend the Graduate Summer Institute at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. MESDA, as it’s called, is well known in the material culture field for its groundbreaking studies in Southern decorative arts. In the 1970s and 1980s, MESDA conducted extensive fieldwork to locate objects made by craftspeople working in the American South before 1820. A team of graduate student researchers, led by museum director Frank Horton (shown here) and funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, went from county to county in seven Southern states, uncovering thousands of previously undocumented objects. Scholars had previously assumed that the region had little to offer of cultural and artistic merit. But MESDA’s fieldwork revealed that in fact, the South was home to many rich and significant craft traditions.  I was totally inspired by MESDA’s mission to discover new things and bring attention to objects and craftspeople that hadn’t already been canonized in museums or books. As a native of Midwest flyover country, I was also fascinated by the concept of regionalism and the tendency towards regional prejudice in decorative arts studies. And there are certainly parallels here with the perpetually overlooked status of knitting and crochet in the museum world and in academia.
  • So after my summer at MESDA, when it was time for me to choose a subject for my master’s thesis research, I decided to focus on furniture made in the community of Mineral Point, which was an important early trade center in southwest Wisconsin—and it’s also the town where I grew up. During the year I spent researching and writing my thesis, I unearthed dozens of examples of locally produced furniture still surviving in both public and private collections and met numerous local residents dedicated to preserving their community’s distinctive history. During my search for furniture made in Mineral Point, I connected with the Chipstone Foundation of Milwaukee, and in 2006, Chipstone approached the Wisconsin Historical Society with the idea to create an expanded fieldwork program that would include furniture, ceramics, textiles, and metalwork made by craftspeople throughout Wisconsin between 1820 and 1920. From the beginning, a central focus of both Chipstone and the Society was to make these findings freely available to the public in digital form. I was appointed as Chipstone’s Charles Hummel Fellow to manage all aspects of the initiative—fieldwork, photography, research and writing as well as the structure and organization of a digital collection.
  • As my background was in art history, not digital collections, I had a great deal to tackle in order to create an effective online resource. How would I find objects to document? How would each object be imaged? How would users search the database? What kinds of metadata did I need to include? And what exactly was metadata, anyway? This list outlines some of the core elements to consider in planning this kind of project, and today I’ll briefly touch on each of these elements.
  • The first step of course is to determine a collection development policy—what’s actually going to make the cut for the digital collection? One major parameter we set for the decorative arts database was to focus specifically on the objects themselves, not on supporting evidence such as account books, advertisements, patterns or design drawings, simply because it would exponentially increase the amount of content I was dealing with. But of course all rules are made to be broken and here I’m sharing an example of one of the times I stretched my collection parameters because I ran across something that was too interesting to pass up. This is a strip of crocheted lace passed down in a family in Marathon County, along with its corresponding pattern, clipped from a German language newspaper published in Milwaukee. I have to admit, when I first started this project, I was looking for grander examples of decorative arts like large corner cupboards and intricate art pottery, but I expanded my view as I began to discover so many smaller, more intimate, and personal handmade craft objects in the collections I was visiting. So I also include this example just as a way of saying it’s important to keep your collection development policy agile—to adapt to what you’re discovering and also to respond to what your audience wants.
  • Although the results were digital, my approach for locating content for the decorative arts database was really very analog, and depended on lots of one-on-one conversations and in-person visits. Based on my experience with local historic sites and individual collectors in Mineral Point, I felt that I would get the best results by contacting potential contributors directly, rather than putting out a general call for objects. I typically started with an introductory email or letter and then a follow-up phone call to discuss specific objects before scheduling an in-person visit. Many of the organizations I was in contact with were small local historical societies, community museums and historic house museums. The vast majority of these institutions are run by volunteers or a tiny cohort of part-time staff and many are open only to the public for limited hours, sometimes as little as one or two weekends each month. This meant that arranging access to collections hinged on flexible scheduling and the willingness of staff and volunteers to open their doors during non-public hours or off-season times.  The fieldwork process was the most rewarding, yet also most exhausting, part of the project. From September 2006 through June 2009, when I was working on this project full time, I logged over 10,000 miles traveling to sites across the state. I sifted through all manner of collection storage facilities, some meticulously organized and others packed to the gills with artifacts piled on shelves and stuffed in boxes. I handled thousands of artifacts and toured all kinds of historic buildings. Most excitingly, I met dozens of people who were passionate about their work, dedicated to preserving the history of their communities, and eager to share their collections with new audiences.
  • The fieldwork model made sense for this project, but it doesn’t necessarily scale up very well without a major commitment of time and resources. For a wider reaching digital effort like the one you’re considering today, fieldwork might best be combined with a couple of other approaches. One is a partnership model, in which organizations sign on as partners and do the work of digitization themselves, then submit content to a large aggregated collection. An excellent example of this approach is the Quilt Index, which incorporates images and information on more than 50,000 quilts, contributed by numerous state-based quilt documentation projects as well as museums and major private collections. The Quilt Index developed guidelines that all contributors must follow, but the actual work of selection, photography and cataloging falls to the individual partners.
  • Another approach—and this is something that’s been getting a lot of buzz in the library and museum worlds in recent years—is what’s known as crowdsourcing. This is a model where you open your doors wide and seek out contributions from all interested parties, who submit content online through whatever tool you might choose for that task. A great example of this is Historypin. This is a website that asks people to “pin” their historic photos, videos and audio clips to a shared map. Anyone is welcome to contribute to this global shared collection. Here’s how they put it: “Historypin is a way for millions of people to come together, from across different generations, cultures and places, to share small glimpses of the past and to build up the huge story of human history.”
  • The information that can’t be captured in a photograph—information such as when and where an object was made, and who made it—can be documented with metadata. Metadata might sound like a term for computer geeks only, but what it ultimately means is simply information about your stuff. Here’s a screenshot with an example of the metadata created for an item in the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database. You can see some basic descriptive fields, such as maker, date, dimensions, and location. Towards the bottom you can also see some technical metadata—information about the digital record itself, such as the image file name and the date the item was added to the database.
  • One particularly valuable metadata element is subject terms or keywords. Numerous lists—known as controlled vocabularies—have been developed to attempt to standardize the selection of subject terms for museum objects and archival materials. An important early step in this project might be to develop a controlled vocabulary of terminology to describe knitting and crocheting objects and techniques, if there isn’t a definitive one out there already. One controlled vocabulary widely used by museums is the Art and Architecture Thesaurus from the Getty Research Institute. As you can see, they have dozens of terms for painting techniques, but their list for knitting terminology is strikingly limited.
  • Creating structured metadata based on shared standards is an essential component of any digital collection. Metadata is necessary for users to be able to search a collection and retrieve what they need, and it also allows users to sort or browse a collection based on categories or related items. Standardized metadata is also necessary so that your digital content can “play” with other digital collections. For instance, the Digital Public Library of America is a significant national initiative currently underway. The DPLA seeks to create a “large-scale digital public library that will make the cultural and scientific record available to all.” Although they’re calling it a library, they say they’re intending to incorporate museum materials too.The only way this vast amount of diverse content from across the country can be brought together in an effective way is through structured and standardized metadata.
  • Finally, to belabor the importance of metadata just a little more—good metadata will allow you to take advantage of all of the amazing data visualization tools that have been developed recently. This is something I never had the opportunity to explore with the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database, because most of these tools didn’t even exist a year or two ago. There are dozens of simple tools out there—this list captures just a few—for creating maps, timelines, charts and graphs based on your digital content. These kinds of tools have some intriguing applications for understanding knitting and crochet history—imagine, for example, being able to plot on a map the appearance of a certain knitting pattern across the country, or the prevalence of say, the use of wool versus cotton versus synthetic fibers over time.
  • The final two points I’d like to make today concern building relationships with partners and with your audience. These are coming at the end but they should really be at the forefront of your planning process. This first point might be obvious, but I felt it was worth stating that it’s important in any collaborative project to provide all of your partners with as much recognition as you can. With the Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database, I made an effort to clearly identify each contributor at several points in the database. The metadata for each catalog entry includes an “Owner” field as well as a rights statement with a link to the content contributor’s own website. The opening page offers users the option to browse the database by selecting an individual contributor’s collection. Another page functions as a directory of content contributors, with an image and description of each institution as well as a link to their own website.
  • My final point involves building an audience for a digital collection. There’s an incredible array of social media tools available that museums have leveraged to great success to bring their content to new audiences. For the decorative arts database, I used two free and pretty basic tools—Wordpress and Flickr. I used a blog hosted by Wordpress to chronicle my travels and announce when new content has been uploaded to the database. And I set up a gallery on the photo-sharing site Flickr to share examples of recently uploaded database content.
  • But today I’d like to push this concept of building an audience a little further than I did with my own project. I’m borrowing here a set of slides from Michael Edson, director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian. The full presentation, “Lego Beowulf and the Web of Hearts and Hands,” is available online and I’d strongly recommend checking it out. Edson argues that museums have traditionally relied on what he calls the “broadcast method”—museums pour resources into creating authoritative information and disseminating it to an audience—we do, and they consume.
  • But in the 21st century, on the web, this is no longer the way people live and learn. The culture of the Internet is all about participation—this list comes from Kate Theimer, an archivist who writes the excellent blog archives.next.
  • So as museums realize this new reality, they’re starting to evaluate how they reach their audience, moving from the one-way broadcast to a network of shared connections and shared expertise. In the current culture of the Internet, Edson argues, the place for museums is not at the center, running the show for a passive audience. The connections between passionate, curious people—not an audience, but a community of engaged users—are powerful, and the museum’s most effective role may be as one of these nodes, helping to facilitate rather than lead the conversation. This is really a radical shift in thinking for venerable and entrenched institutions like the Smithsonian. The exciting thing about this project and the fact that you’re building a museum from the ground up means that you have the opportunity to incorporate this model—that web of hands and hearts and collaborative thinking—into the very DNA of this new museum, whatever form it may take.

Transcript

  • 1. Building a Shared Digital Collection A Case Study Emily Pfotenhauer Program Manager, Wisconsin Heritage Online Knitting Heritage Museum: A Work In Progress November 9, 2012 Madison, Wisconsin
  • 2. 1,171 objects 55 collectionshttp://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/wda
  • 3. http://www.digitalforsyth.org/photos/12827
  • 4. Mineral Point Historical Society
  • 5. Developing a collaborative digital collection• Define parameters• Locate materials• Digital imaging• Metadata• Build and maintain relationships with partners, public
  • 6. Defining collection parameters • Revisit often • Remain flexibleMarathon County Historical Society
  • 7. Locating materials• Fieldwork• Formal partnerships• Crowdsourcing
  • 8. Quilt Index quiltindex.org
  • 9. History Pin historypin.com
  • 10. Objectphotography• Determine balance of quality v. quantity
  • 11. Metadata =informationabout stuff
  • 12. Controlled vocabulariesGetty Art andArchitecture Thesaurushttp://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/aat/
  • 13. Structured, standardized metadata makes stuff . . . • Searchable and sortable • Interoperable and shareable http://dp.la • Understandable in new ways – Maps, charts, timelines
  • 14. • Viewshare• Google Fusion tables• Timeline JS
  • 15. Partner relations • Share the credit • Be generous with links
  • 16. flickr.com/photos/wisconsindec artswisconsinobject.wordpress.com
  • 17. The broadcast idiom is thetraditional 20th century way museums accomplish our jobs in society Broadcast we do they consume “Lego Beowulf and the Web of Hands and Hearts” Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy Smithsonian Institution
  • 18. Participation is how most people live online now• We share our “status,” our opinions, our “likes,” our ratings, our photos, our videos• We “curate” and share collections and lists• We join virtual groups and circles and play games with strangers• We carry around our apps with us everywhere Kate Theimer, archivesnext.com
  • 19. Edson, “Lego Beowulf and the Web of Hands and Hearts”
  • 20. We assume this is us in the middle, the official museum running the show museumEdson, “Lego Beowulf and the Web of Hands and Hearts”
  • 21. But these connections are the most important, the most powerful for generating big outcomes Hundreds, thousand, millions of connections between people withexpertise, perspective, abilities, pas sion, curiosity… Edson, “Lego Beowulf and the Web of Hands and Hearts”
  • 22. Maybe the most powerful place for us is here museumEdson, “Lego Beowulf and the Web of Hands and Hearts”
  • 23. Thank you!Emily Pfotenhauerepfotenhauer@wils.wisc.eduTwitter: @epfoten