Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Johnson Space Center

image:F-1 engines of Apollo/Saturn V first stage leave trail of flame after liftoff, 1968.

The Johnson Space Center digital collection is composed of all the images sent to press or released to the public from the Mercury program to the STS-79 mission, inclusive image dates 1959-1996. I assume there are more photographs that have not been included in this collection due to security and technology concerns. There are 9000 images according to the site home page. The images were made accessible because they have appeared previously in some form of publication but there is little indication as to the usefulness of this effort beyond potential positive public relations, personal interest in space programs, and a feeling of transparency surrounding the NASA space programs. The site was last updated in May 2008.
The site specifies that all the images are 640x480 JPEG formats, and that prints may be purchased. It is possible to copy the images, but there is not zoom function. The images are presented as thumbnails with eight metadata fields. These include the date, space program, mission name, film size used, a unique title, description, and a field named “subject terms” which acts like a keyword bank. There is also a unique photo identification number that is used if a visitor decides to order a print.
While I was searching the collection I found that some of the more interesting photos to me were inaccessible and one link led me to a page that claimed no file of that name existed even though I could see the thumbnail on my list of potential matches. I found that these missing images were random and could not find any common thread between them such as mission, date, or subject of the photograph. Even the metadata was absent. The frequently asked questions page did not address this problem either which reinforced my early feeling that this site is maintained only minimally. The only irritating detail I discovered with the search by date option was the lack of results when using the earliest year provided, 1958. It seems that although this year is included the actual earliest year possible to use for a successful image search is 1958.
There are two separate ways to search the collection. A browse function and a search function. On the search page a visitor can look by date, including a month, day, and year field that must be filled in for any results; a keyword search; and the unique photo ID number search. One of the interesting details about these rather common search abilities is the inclusion of directions for best recall and precision. Here is the exact language from the identification number search:
“NOTE: NASA Photo IDs have several possible formats, but will always include both letters and numbers. Examples: AS06-02-1436, S60-02552, sts026-38-056, sts028(s)014. Fuzzy matching may be used if an exact match fails.”
There is a hyper link for the term “fuzzy matching” that explains how to break the ID number down if the user does not have the complete number. I assume the program tries to find like numbers through some algorithm which is designed to have high recall rather than precision. The key word search includes the following helpful hints:
“NOTE: All listed keywords must occur in a photo description for a photo to be returned as a match. Searches are case-insensitive. Wild card (pattern matching) operators are not supported. Symbols (*, &, @), single-character words and abbreviations (a, i.e.), and single-digit numbers (1, 2, 3) will be ignored.”
These searching notes and hints are something I have not come across in a digital collection before and are the main reason I decided to look at this collection. Although the curatorial presence is weak, (lacking a ‘contact us’ option unless the visitor is ordering prints) the site has an extensive frequently asked questions page that includes everything from how to order prints to the very specific “I saw in a magazine a composite picture of the entire Earth at night with city lights. Where can I get that picture?” the site seems very concerned with helping visitors find exactly what they are looking for and it seems that their target audience are space exploration enthusiasts and journalists or other people affiliated with media publications. This guess comes from the inclusion of the unique photo ID numbers and the film type information in conjunction with the directions for successfully searching the collection.

FAQ link:
The photographs are not very interesting as a digitization effort because they are so static, but the kinds of metadata developed make this an interesting collection to compare with other museum or fine art types of collections. It would be interesting to see if other scientific digital collections including photographs use similar metadata and searching hints or if this is unique to NASA and the JSC.

Title: Astronauts Carl Meade and Mark Lee test SAFER during EVA, 1994.

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