Here’s the challenge laid out in very simple terms—this a traditional flatbed scanner:
Depending on the resolution, a single scan can take a while. Let’s be optimistic and call it 5 minutes.
This is a traditional photo studio setup:
The wonderfully handcrafted lighting for the single National Air & Space Museum object in this photo took over an hour to set up and fine tune.
Up until only a handful of years ago, these approaches are what most of us took for digitization. They served us well and still do for the fine museum imaging or low-volume, ad hoc digitization that we continue to need today. But consider this: at the Smithsonian, our museum’s collections total 138 million objects, of which 21 million have been prioritized for digitization. At those numbers, traditional digitization approaches simply don’t scale up.
Here’s a very quick math problem for you: for the 21 million priority objects across the Smithsonian, how long would it take you to digitize the whole collection using traditional approaches? Don’t worry, no need to break out the calculator. The answer is, and I’m being generous assuming we’re using a flatbed scanner for everything, a shocking 292 years. And this doesn’t even include the 157,000 cubic feet of archival materials we have.
As everyone knows, everything in the collection is most assuredly not flat. We have insects, fine art sculpture, aircraft parts, garments, fossils, regalia, furniture… it goes on and on into the thousand, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of each.
Of course it’s recognized we need a more efficient approach to digitization. And there are pockets here and there across the Smithsonian where new approaches have been tried with success. Indeed, there’s even been a small revolution at cultural heritage organizations across the country and around the world where our collective toes have been dipped into the waters of mass digitization. But now we’re at a turning point where, if we are to achieve the goal of digitizing entire collections in a reasonable amount of time, we need to integrate mass digitization into the core functions of the Institution.
And that is the crux of the responsibility of the Digitization Program Office’s Mass Digitization Program: To support the museums, research units, archives and libraries within the Smithsonian in their efforts to digitize their collections as comprehensively, quickly, and cost-effectively as possible. From helping to build workflows, which move objects from storage to digital capture stations efficiently; to creating sustained high speed, high quality digitization processes; to pairing up the digital surrogates we create with the collection records stored in the myriad of collection databases; to making all the information available to you, the museum (and virtual museum) going public, are all aspects of the work that the Digitization Program Office does to support the 19 museums and 9 research centers that make up the Smithsonian Institution.
This responsibility takes the Digitization Program Office on a global hunt to find the best technologies and processes to achieve these goals: to implement rapid capture pilot projects to exercise these efforts; to educate and train ourselves and the rest of the Smithsonian staff to understand these new approaches; and finally to integrate mass digitization operations into the day-to-day operations of the Smithsonian in order to reach the ultimate goal of giving you, the museum public, access to the Smithsonian’s vast collections.
Here, in the DPO’s Digitization blog, we’ll take you on a behind-the-scenes look at DPO’s journey to reach our goals. We’ll also share with you the innovative efforts our individual museums and research units are undertaking in terms of high-volume, high-efficiency mass digitization. And along the way we’ll pause here and there to give you a peek at the fascinating collections which make up the Smithsonian!