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Content accessibility comes first in a digital asset repository

At the Adler Planetarium, a digital asset repository promises better access to historic photographs and documents -- while addressing content accessibility and compliance challenges.

At the Webster Institute for the History of Astronomy at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, creating a digital asset repository meant allowing easier access to content while ensuring that historical artifacts are properly preserved.

Digital collections manager Lauren Boegen recently sat down with SearchContentManagement to discuss this challenge. The Webster Institute is home to a collection of media related to the history of the planetarium as well as a collection of digital scans of photography and letters related to historic scientific instruments, many of which date back to the 19th century. Preservation of priceless historical information has always been the Institute's primary concern, but more recently, it became clear that content accessibility was a problem. The Institute's old storage system of CDs, DVDs and various hard drives was not going to cut it.

Lauren Boegen, Digital Collections Manager, Webster InstituteLauren Boegen, Webster Institute

"The big problem was knowing what we had," Boegen said. "It was really a matter of organization and accessibility."

Boegen is also a speaker at the DAM Chicago 2014 conference on September 12.

What challenges do digital assets pose for the Webster Institute?

Lauren Boegen: One of the challenges is [that] we have a lot of material that has very little background information associated with it. We don't know who took the picture; we don't know why the video was made. There's a lot of work that needs to go into identifying that information.

Another piece of this is managing these assets in a way that we're preserving them. We have hard copies and some are less ephemeral than others, but we are very aware these things aren't going to be around forever and we're actively taking steps to maintain them as long as we possibly can.

So you want to preserve these assets, but people also need easy access to them, right?

Boegen: It's very important to us as a department to support as much research as we possible. A lot of research on the history of astronomy is happening in Europe. At this point, we're trying to give those researchers access to this collection as well.

How has technology helped so far?

Boegen: Everything we have digitized is now in a central location on a server at the planetarium [in a collections management system]. It's organized by accession or call numbers. That's made things infinitely more organized and infinitely easier to find.

We're also implementing a TDR -- a trusted digital repository -- with Minisis, the same vendor that's creating our collections management database. The end goal is to have the assets that are in the TDR be connected to their records in the database, so anyone searching the online version of the database would also have access to image records that would be pulled up with it, making everything interconnected and seamless for both internal and external users who are looking for something specific.

The TDR is also operating as a DAM. We use it to input metadata and that sort of thing. There's just another level of preservation in the TDR, which is important to us. The TDR monitors files for obsolete formats and also runs checks that confirm that the original file has not been changed without proper documentation of action. These checks allow us to address potential problems before it's too late and we've lost data.

I like to compare it to principles of preservation for a physical object -- collections managers do inventories and environmental monitoring to make sure objects are in a safe environment, and to confirm if anything has changed the object. The strengths of the DAMs we evaluated were in allowing a variety of users to access and create derivative files. The TDR's strength was in preservation, and we chose to focus on preservation.

What are the next steps?

Boegen: We haven't had a chance to turn to the audio and visual, but that's what is being created most often. We'll need to encourage the staff at the planetarium to keep track of metadata with their original files so when we have them in 30 years we'll have some information about them from the beginning.

Another challenge is creating good, descriptive metadata. We have to provide the back-end tools that people need when they search for things. "Exterior shot of the Adler" doesn't help if they don't know if [the image] was shot in 1930 or 1950 -- that sort of a thing. It's about creating metadata that facilitates identification.

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