Wednesday, March 11, 2009

National Woman’s Party Digital Collection at the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum

The Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, located on Capitol Hill, housed the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, headed by Alice Paul. In 2006, the museum launched its digital collection of an initial 400 images, and these selected images, the museum site claims, “showcase the depth of the NWP collection housed at the museum.” The initial approach seems to have been to include representative items of the range of materials available, including banners, photographs, covers of newspapers, cartoons, artifacts, and furniture. The website emphasizes that this is an ongoing project of an established “digital imaging department” which plans to “digitize the majority of the NWP collection (over 10,000 items).” The website offers no indication of which items won’t be digitized or how they arrived at the order for digitization beyond their acknowledgement of thanks to their Collection Manager for selecting “several of our most unique images that give a glimpse of the political strategies and tactics of one of the most successful early women’s political organization [sic] in our country.” This idea of selecting items according to outlining strategy is an interesting one, but there is no framework for guiding viewers through these strategies as we look at the images. A last collection note, the website thanks staff at the Library of Congress for meeting with them and sharing information about the LOC digital collection of their NWP holdings; comparing holdings may have had some influence in deciding what should be digitized first.

Metadata in this collection is fantastic at the collection level and adequate at the object level. The search interface, however, is a bit difficult to navigate. At the collection level, the website offers extensive narrative about the digital collection’s physical aspects and process (see below). At the object level it seems that the range in type of object made it difficult to come up with a standard set of metadata. For each object there is a descriptive title (for example, of one photograph: “Rejoicing over the Ratification of the Suffrage Amendment at National Woman’s Party Headquarters”), an author (sometimes blank, other times I wanted more information to make sense of it, for example, of one photograph: “National Photo Co.”), a publication date (very useful), a description (also very useful because offers description of the object and a context for its meaning to the museum), subject (only a single subject for each object, which is limiting, for example, for a desk, once used by Speaker of the House Henry Clay, moved to the NWP headquarters from the Old Brick Capitol, the subject is: “Clay, Henry, 1777-1852.” This seems without utility because there are no other objects with this subject, and it is unlikely that anyone searching this page will search for “Clay, Henry, 1777-1852” in the subject field), notes (also helpful and sometimes cross-reference objects though there is no hot link), material type (straightforward), period (since there are four standard periods for the collection, made clear to users from the search interfaces, this is quite useful), media type and subtype (sometimes difficult to navigate because not all combinations of media type and subtype come up with results and they don’t always seem useful), and call number (there isn’t always one), and digital ID number (I’m not sure if this has other than an internal use).

The joy of this collection is that it provides extensive information about the digital objects on a page entirely devoted to the technical aspects of the project! Unfortunately, it seems like this is not because they thought this information would be useful to people, but because IBM gave the museum their digital imaging system, a “custom built IBM Pro/3000 digital imaging system that was developed at the T.J. Watson Research Lab in Hawthorn, New York.” All of the digital objects are photographs of the archival materials, and the “technical aspects of the project” page uses IBM copy to explain the imaging array, dynamic range, spatial resolution, lens system, and output (24-bit color TIFF images or 8-12-bit monochrome images). The museum then added information about the photoshop optimizing process and the input of metadata through the camera software interface augmented by XML records. The digital collection uses JPEG image files for display.

The stated audience for the collection is grade school students and their teachers. “Through online exhibits, educational outreach, lesson plans, and other resources, the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum will help communities and schools learn about, celebrate and share this important part of women’s history.” There is one model lesson plan available on the site, and certainly it seems like having pre-selected images to share with students is the best way to use the site, since the navigation can be difficult (it may be that the search functions were created with a view to more objects available in the future, leaving this in-between time somewhat empty). It would be interesting to know at what speed they’re continuing the digitization.

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