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Behind the Scenes: A Carefully Choreographed Scanning Project

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The following is an interview with Kit Arrington, Digital Library Specialist in the Prints and Photographs Division, about a project to scan the entire Popular Graphic Arts collection, for which she served as project manager. About a month ago I had a conversation with Senior Cataloger Woody Woodis about his work on the same project.

Melissa: Before we start discussing the scanning process, can you tell us what appeals to you about the Popular Graphic Arts (PGA) collection?

Kit: There are so many prints that I like in the collection and all for entirely different reasons. I can say that the primary appeal for me with PGA is the opportunity to experience and try to understand better a different moment in time through the images. Knowing the broad distribution of these prints, I enjoyed pondering what impact they had at the time they were created and sold – for example, how they might have introduced people to places that they had not seen, such as through reproductions of painter Thomas Moran’s Western landscapes.

The Great Salt Lake of Utah / T. Moran. Chromolithograph by L. Prang & Co. , based on painting by Thomas Moran, 1874.

Generally it was the images that taught me something that I most enjoyed.  Sometimes this occurred very literally through the subject matter, such as in “Prang’s Aids for Object Teaching,” a 10 print series from the 1870s which illustrates different professions.  The one in this group that gave me pause depicts a tailor’s workshop.  The image shows how hard the work is when you don’t have resources like electricity to help power lights and irons and sewing machines, and it is a rare depiction of a woman performing professional work. It is much more common in PGA to see women fulfilling idealized domestic roles, as mothers, daughters, wives or sweethearts.

Prang’s aids for object teaching–Tailor. Lithograph by L. Prang & Co., 1874.

Other images stand out because they are unusual. I was very confused when coming upon this 1840’s anachronistic color image of Benjamin Franklin depicted in squares, as if he had been built with pixels and designed in a video game. The print turned out to be an embroidery pattern based upon a contemporary black-and-white print, and reminds me of the woven “print” our colleague Woody Woodis discussed in his Picture This interview this past November.

Franklin. Engraving by Grünthal’s Kunst Stickmuster-Verlag in Berlin, between 1842 and 1852. See the “Learn More” section at the bottom of this post to view the black-and-white print on which this one is based.

Detail showing “pixelated” effect of Franklin image at left.

Melissa: Why was the Popular Graphic Arts Collection a candidate to be scanned in its entirety?

Kit: Before this project started in 2006 we were thinking about collections that were popular, but difficult to serve because the materials in them were fragile or maybe a bit unwieldy. Taking on a project to scan the items from the PGA collection seemed like an effective means of improving access to these fascinating materials, both for onsite and offsite researchers. The collection is valuable in many ways, not least because there is such variety of styles and subjects.

Additionally, we had already created item level, basic records when converting shelflist cards a few years before. Having existing online records to link the scans to made for a more straightforward process.

View of digital ID labels on PGA item folders stored in map drawers.

Melissa: Can you explain what production scanning is?

Kit: Production scanning is project-based, and starts with a group of similar materials (such as items of the same format and size), a prepared list of the items we plan to scan, and a production schedule. Because we have a pre-selected group of images, we can prepare all the materials in advance by labeling the item housing, such as a mat or folder, with pre-assigned digital IDs (the labels obviously meet Conservation Division specifications!). When we began the Popular Graphic Arts project it took months to prep the map case drawers containing the largest materials before actual scanning began. We then scanned all the items using the same technical specifications, like those related to resolution and color.

Kit Arrington amid map drawers containing large prints from the Popular Graphic Arts Collection. This is one of several allegorical prints utilizing trees to illustrate historical and life themes that caught Kit’s eye during the production scanning process.

Once the scans are completed, catalogers then come in and update each item’s catalog record with the digital ID, and sometimes with new information or corrections. We also do a lot to maximize efficiency, for example making adjustments to the scanning workflow and quality assurance procedure. Invoicing and contract management were other important aspects of the process.

In addition to creating scans of every item in a collection, production scanning allows us to survey a collection, addressing issues as we come across them such as a typo in the catalog record title, or clarifying that an item was moved from one size box to another. The latter sometimes occurred when Conservation Division staff members transferred items to larger or smaller mats or enclosures to prepare for exhibition, requiring Prints and Photographs staff ultimately to transfer the items to different storage locations.

The PGA scanning project was an “all hands on deck” situation where technicians, catalogers, curators and scanning staff were working together for dedicated periods in the most efficient way possible. Our work paid off: by the time we completed the project, which we tackled in different phases, we had scanned and made available online about 13,000 items of various sizes and wonderful subjects, comprising a truly Popular collection!

Benjamin Franklin – born in Boston, Jany. 17th 1706 — died in Philadelphia, April 17th 1790. Engraving by Henry. S. Sadd after a painting by T.H. Matteson, Esqr., 1847.

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  1. awesome stuff…

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