Analysis & Evaluation


In my experience working in the Digital Labs at the Brooklyn Museum, the symbiotic relationship between the various information departments became clear. For the Museum to use its resources as efficiently as possible, the Digital Labs has to work with the Museum library and archives in order to coordinate and prioritize digitization needs. Digitization does not happen in a bubble, but neither does the user interaction with the digital collection.

The museum's work is in its galleries, viewable to all who come to visit, but most of the Museum's library's works are hidden away in books and other written matter, many of them not accessible to the general public due to their fragile state. In some cases, the Museum has visual records of work it no longer owns, and these visual records are in the form of fragile negatives that certainly can't be handled by laypersons. As an intern, I had the opportunity to step in and digitize some of these fragile works, making some of them available in the library's digital collection for the very first time. In interacting with the site and with the library's OPAC, and in my conversations with Deborah Wythe, Head of Digital Collections and Services, current problems and clear opportunities for growth in the field of digital libraries began to emerge. This analysis tackles how museum libraries approach digitization today, and the potential for experimentation and change that lies ahead for digital projects.

Background of Library Digitization

While digital libraries have their roots in computer science, they have proved incredibly useful in the field of information science. It was only "as librarians and social scientists became more involved in these digital projects, we moved away from computer science experiments into projects that were more operational" (Besser, 2002). Libraries are all about access to information, and digital libraries have the capacity to open their hidden collection gems to the entire World Wide Web, without harming the original source material.

A quick survey of major museums in the United States shows that the majority currently contain     growing digital collections. Some, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, take a more educational role in the display of their images, for example their timeline feature that displays digital images with content, including record information, related essays, etc. While images are central to the overall design, there is also content available featuring thematic essays and other library-sourced material used to provide context. While this is by no means a complete digitized collection, the timeline does retain a sense of cohesion and depth.

Example 1: Metropolitan Museum Timeline

The Museum of Modern Art takes a different approach, showcasing their images in a full page gallery of thumbnails that offers minimal text. Here, the focus is solely on the images, with little context given. In neither example is the OPAC visible or linkable, nor would one know if either museum had a library unless one dug it out of their man page context menus. It is obvious that there is a hierarchy of information at play here: digital images are given prime real estate, and the museum library OPAC is hidden, meant to be used by someone "in the know," perhaps a researcher, academic or historian.

Example 2: Museum of Modern Art digital gallery

The Brooklyn Museum Example

The Brooklyn Museum site's digital collection is displayed in visually appealing galleries that are categorized by their subject area, but which are always featured on the same page. Their approach in digital image display is a hybrid, half gallery and half image database. In taking this road, the Museum has retained powerful searching and browse-ability within its site. A user does not need to hunt down the specific section of Egyptian Art in the site in order to find images: they simply have to click on the Egyptian tag, and all the digitized images labeled with this category populate themselves in the gallery below.

Example 3: Screenshot of digital collection results page for Egyptian Art

The problem is not with what's here, but what isn't: any supplemental library information does not link to the digital collection online. Indeed, this is the case with nearly all digital collections currently online. To date, tools have not been sufficient to provide a vital link between book or material holdings and digitized collections. This poses problems for museum libraries, as they continue to look for ways to increase their value to their parent institutions.

Let's examine the user experience when searching for a particular issue of Harper's Weekly that features Alfred Waud's illustration "The 'Harvard' Winner of the Race" using the Museum's OPAC, Brookmuse:

Example 4: Search results in Brookmuse

As seen in the image above, the "Other format" field indicates the library has the illustration in question, but it is only listed as a 4 x 5 photo-negative. This image is digitized, however, as I processed it myself. To find it, we have to go to elsewhere. Brookmuse is not a part of the Museum website, as it is a member of the NYARC Arcade partnership, with fellow museums, The Frick and MOMA. 

To find the digitized illustration of "The 'Harvard' Winner of the Race," we need to visit the Museum's website, and search in their collections section, where we get the following result:

Example 5: Search result in Brooklyn Museum Digital Collection

Here we can see the beginning of information fragmentation: these two works are essentially the same work, but here we have to very different records of it, both accessed differently, and both displaying differently. One could argue they are catering to different audiences, but how can we possibly know this to be true? Who is to say that a person searching the image collection may not want to inquire about the magazine of origin, to see the image in person? Or how are we to know if the image somehow adds value to the OPAC record, makes the information more visceral and rich, and therefore creates a great value-add to the museum, to potential audiences, researchers, and patrons.


Integration is Key

In discussing the current state of affairs with Deborah Wythe, she agrees that the most ideal scenario is for the Museum to have an integrated OPAC and digital collection accessible from one single point of entry. In fact, all digital images are carefully processed so that when the software allows, the two separate collections, the digital collection and the OPAC, will be linked. Whether that integration happens on the same page, or via links connecting records, is too soon to say. 

However, digital project librarians must be aware of this growing fragmentation within their own institutions and guard against it. We in the information sciences field need to understand that, while our books and artworks and archives have long existed in organized silos, digital information does not pay well with these rules. While some may continue to gripe about how poor OPACs are designed, and how insufficient user serendipity is in regards to information retrieval, we should really be working harder towards getting rid of the rigid structure of the OPAC, with its object-centric focus, and create an OPAC that is information-centric, and offers details of what is available immediately, whether that is an e-book, e-resource or digital image, in addition to a stored physical element (Cohen, 2007). OPACs need to shed their book-centric tendencies and develop an information-centric design.

One possible design for integrating the OPAC and the digital image collection might look like this:

Example 6: Mock up of what an integrated OPAC and digital collection would look like

Interactivity: Posse at the Brooklyn Museum

One visit to the Museum's website shows how important digitization has become to its outreach goals. To engage site users with their digital collection, the Museum developed Posse, a community-based tagging mechanism, where users can create an account and tag, comment, and favorite any image in the digital collection. There is also a collection-based tagging game built in to the system, where Posse members can play Freeze Tag! with the collection and each other. This is a very early version of such possible games but its playfulness hints at the kind of experiences younger generations will grow up to expect. For this type of implementation to really develop and become feature-rich, all electronic systems within the library must be able to interact, share information, and ideally, exist within one framework to reduce information fragmentation and encourage information cohesion.

Potential growth in digitization: Collaboration

As more and more libraries seriously consider digitization projects, many stumble across the most basic of problems: financing and project support. One strategy libraries have begun to use more often is collaboration via partnerships or in a consortium. By collaborating with other like-minded institutions on similar digitization projects, libraries can stretch resources, working together to overcome any technical challenges they may have difficulty navigating on their own (Balk, 2009). Among the things libraries can share are technology, librarian expertise, and surprisingly enough, standards. In fact, collaboration has the surprising benefit of encouraging uniform standards in digitization. Instead of one institution going at it alone without much guidance, we can arrive at a place where several institutions working together can really contribute and shape digitization guidelines. 

Just over six years ago, the kinds of digitization projects kick-starting included Brown University Library's digitization of "1,5000 pieces of sheet music associated with African Americans," while The University of California at Berkley's Digital Scriptorium, digitizing over 85,000 medieval and renaissance manuscripts, was just beginning. While Brown's endeavor was a singular digitization project targeted at a very specific audience, Berkley's Scriptorium enlisted the participation of other libraries with medieval manuscript collections, and Columbia and the New York Public Library soon thereafter joined this effort (Liu, 2004). Today, the Digital Scriptorium continues to grow, with a membership of over thirty institutions, and with over 5000 digitized manuscripts and 27,000 images. It is safe to say that the images and manuscripts in this collection share standards and are better off having been created as part of a joint effort. Thirty institutions clearly make a statement: this is an important collection that required our joint efforts for optimal results. Museum libraries should take note of this example, and consider working together to address shared concerns in digitization. If a consortium of museum libraries got together and jointly developed or advised an OPAC maker of their particular needs, the results could be very impressive indeed (Balk, 2009).

Forecasting the future of digitization

As we are in the midst of digital projects, it may be hard to imagine a time when we have nothing left in print to digitize, but considering the quick consumer adoption of technological tools for their information consumption, that time may be close than we think. At some point, libraries are going to have to shift gears from "do we digitize this physical printed material" to "how to we manage, preserve, and display our digital information assets." It may seem like we have a long time to develop a strategy for how to incorporate born-digital information to an OPAC and digital imaging galleries traditionally used to provide electronic surrogate information of a physical item, but in fact that day in many ways has already come around, catching our field a bit flat footed. The library and archives profession already lacks the tools to integrate digital image collections with the OPAC; any further dynamic integration remains a pipe dream until we can seriously tackle our technological hurdles, but that requires a real change in our approach to these issues as information professionals.

Today, in addition to the growth of institutional digital libraries, we are undergoing a smaller scale revolution: the explosion of personal digital collections of e-books and e-media currently underway in millions of homes across the world. Sparked by the proliferation of e-book reader devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad, personal digital libraries are beginning to take shape, ushering in new personal technology that enables e-book and e-media consumption in a way that was difficult to imagine just a few years ago. New tools have the potential to change attitudes, and already patrons approach the museum library with a whole new set of user expectations. How will this development affect digital libraries? As advocates for digital libraries, we obviously have to work much harder to change the idea of a digital library merely supplementing a physical library, and drive home the point that in most instances a digital library is really a transformative experience that cannot be paralleled in a book. As more ideas and concepts are developed for what the digital library is and what it can do, independent of the physical library space, one can hope that our field will meet the challenge of the library’s changing role in the dissemination and retrieval of information by the mass public with innovation and a degree of experimentation and fearlessness.


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Brenner, M., Larsen, T., & Weston, C. (n.d.). Digital Collection Management Through the Library Catalog. Information Technology and Libraries, 25(2), 65-77. 

Cohen, L. B. (2007). Library 2.0 initiatives in academic libraries. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

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Liu, Y. Q. (2004). Best practices, standards and techniques for digitizing library materials: a snapshot of library digitization practices in the USA. Online Information Review, 28(5), 338-345. 

Marcum, D., & Friedlander, A. (2003). Keepers of the Crumbling Culture: What Digital Preservation Can Learn from Library History. D-Lib Magazine, 9(5).

Wang, J., & Lim, A. (2009). The next generation of network-level information discovery and delivery services in a digital landscape. Library Management, 30(1/2), 25-34.