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Botany Specimens

DPO Mass Digitization at the Smithsonian: Physical Workflow

By Jessica Beauchamp and Ken Rahaim, DPO on Tue, 12/29/2015 - 12:35

This blog post is the first in a multi-part series looking in detail at each workflow for Mass Digitization projects managed by the Digitization Program Office’s MD team at the Smithsonian.  

In this series, we'll focus on the production project we are currently managing to digitize the National Museum of Natural History's Department of Botany’s ( botanical specimen sheets.  While the particulars for each digitization project we manage are unique (such as the conveyor belt set-up for this project) our basic workflows, which have been used to manage a wide range of digitization projects at the Smithsonian, remain essentially the same.

The DPO’s approach to Mass Digitization at the Smithsonian is comprehensive, holistic and includes three main workflows:

1. Physical—moving a collections object from storage to the digitization workstation and back to storage;

2. Imaging—specifying the imaging systems and processes necessary to generate “research-worthy” digital images; and

3. Virtual—linking the behind-the-scenes, integrated IT systems which connect the digital images to their detailed collections records and pushes everything out to the public on various websites.

Historically digitization simply meant capturing an object in an image file, but that’s really just a small part of the larger process. If looked at only from the perspective of “taking pictures,” we could find ourselves overlooking critical parts of the entire digitization process. For example:

  • the substantial resources and efforts necessary to physically move the vast amounts of objects in our collection, or
  • the high tech challenges of moving our digital images from internal storage out to the public’s web browsers

Long before (and well after) we "take a picture," we consider every aspect of the process to achieve our ultimate goal of taking an object from the shelf and making it accessible online to the public within 24 hours.  Each step in the process is examined for ways to increase cost-efficiency without sacrificing image quality or compromising the care and handling of the objects.  Our comprehensive approach ensures that we don't just end up with a lot of great images on big hard drives that never make it to the public in an efficient manner.

So, without further ado—let's dive in!  

There are two primary components of the Physical workflow: 1) Set Up of the digitization workspace and operations and 2) Object Handling.  

Set Up and Oversight of the Workspace and Operation (Botany conveyor project specifics)

  1. Identify responsible on-site staff member(s)
  2. Designate and organize a dedicated space with enough room for each digitization station and flow of objects
    • Measure workspace and equipment dimensions
    • Create a floorplan for the workspace
    • Review power and network requirements—upgrade as needed
  3. Secure equipment and worktables to accommodate each workstation and objects to be digitized
    • 6 Viking carts to load and transport botanical specimen folders
    • Pre-Digitization Staging = West counter (20’ x 3.75’) to stage folders for conveyor 
    • 1 half case cart to hold any folders / specimens with special needs (lack of taxonomic barcodes, damaged specimens, etc.)
    • Multiple placeholder boxes to mark cubbies in Viking transport carts that will not be filled for that day’s work

Object Handling-Making Objects Available for Digitization (Botany conveyor project specifics)

  1. Identify responsible staff member(s) and back-up staff who will handle the objects
  2. For the duration of the project, by 8:00AM each morning NMNH staff will remove contents of 5 botanical specimen cases and place in 6 Viking transport carts 
    • Each Viking cart will hold 900-1300 botanical specimens in folders
    • Each cubby within the cart must match the contents of reciprocal cubby in case
    • For each cubby's worth of material that will not be digitized (oversized, fragile, etc.), the corresponding cubby in the Viking cart will be filled with a placeholder (e.g. a shoe box that is labeled “placeholder”) so that cubby-for-cubby matching between the cart and the permanent storage case will be maintained
  3. NMNH staff will take Viking transport carts containing collections from storage to pre-digitization staging area. All filled carts will be placed on the south wall of staging area in the order to be digitized, with the first cart to be digitized placed on the westernmost of the line of carts.
  4. After the “hold” bin folders have been digitized, NMNH staff will reintegrate “hold” bin folders into correct cubby in Viking transport cart
  5. NMNH staff will return completed Viking transport carts containing processed botanical specimens from post-digitization staging area and re-shelve in botanical specimen cases in correct order

Botany Conveyor Floor Plan

Thinking ahead in detail about the physical flow of the objects to and from the digitization workspace, and conducting a dress-rehearsal of this workflow ensures that the kinks are worked out well before production begins.  By streamlining we can avoid wasting precious time during production.  And that time is indeed precious!  For example, when capturing at a rate of approximately 4,000 objects per day on a project of this size (.5M objects), even one extra second per object can result in an additional 15 working days - a smooth operation is a critical component of any successful mass digitization project.

Next up in this series - the Imaging workflow (Part 1).