Last Thursday I was lucky enough to take part in a behind-the- scenes event set-up by the Smithsonian Digitization Program. The Digitization Program Office is visiting each museum and scanning a portion of their collections while allowing Smithsonian employees to see the process first hand and be taught each step. While the goal is to eventually have all Smithsonian collections digitized, it will take many years given that the objects housed in various Smithsonian museums number in the millions. The Digitization Program Office is working on ways to streamline the process so that the entire collection might be scanned within our lifetimes. With new technology, improved efficiency, the help of a cadre of volunteers, and teaching museum staff how to digitize their own collections this goal is possible.
I was able to see a demonstration of Smithsonian’s Rapid Capture Pilot Program at the Freer Gallery where ceramic objects were scanned. Normally objects like these would take 5 to 10 minutes each to scan. If this was the case for Smithsonian collections, the job would take centuries to complete. This Rapid Capture Pilot Program is meant to explore ways to expedite that process. The first thing they discovered was that breaking up the process into 7 distinct stages improves efficiency. The first two steps, staging and capture, involve setting up the object appropriately and capturing its image. The next two steps, post processing and quality control, basically involve making sure high quality images were captured and the object was labeled correctly. The image size of these photos is upwards of 600 megabytes of storage space. The Digitization Program Office is working on barcoding these objects and well as upgrading the network and internet speed with the goal of these photos taking seconds, not minutes, to load or transfer. The next two steps, DAMS (Digit Asset Management System) and TMS (The Museum System), are internal Smithsonian systems that allow captioning and crediting of each item in order to give the public the most information possible about an object and for internal tracking purposes. The final step, CSC (Collections Search Center), is the last step the item goes through before it reaches the Smithsonian Collections Search site. It involves taking the data about the object and making it publically available.
The Digitization Program Office uses lots of advanced software, or develops its own when what is available isn’t enough, in their attempt to expedite this entire process. Right now, it takes about six hours from the time an object is initially scanned to its becoming available on Smithsonian’s website. Their end-goal is two hours total per object. What struck me the most about my time observing this process was how many Smithsonian staff from different museums and branches with those museums were present. It is clear to me that this is an institution-wide effort and with as many hands on deck as possible, scanning Smithsonian’s entire collection and making it publicly available can be a reality.