Smithsonian offers an e-book to detail its digitization efforts


Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough speaks during a press conference at the Smithsonian Institution on Jan. 30, 2011. (MATT MCCLAIN/The Washington Post)
August 27, 2013

The Smithsonian Institution released a free 77-page e-book Tuesday concerning one of the institution’s top priorities: digitizing 14 million objects in its massive collections. In “Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age,” G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, writes that digitization, or the process of translating images and data into digital formats, is necessary for the Smithsonian to maintain its national and international footprint.

“The book gave us the opportunity to talk with other museums and to give this idea a push,” Clough said in an interview. “I talked with leaders of over 30 museums and libraries, and everyone is struggling with the same issues.”

In the book, Clough highlights the challenges that museums and libraries face, from the high cost of digitizing collections to the speed at which technology changes. On average, museums have been slow to adapt to digital technologies, since museums historically have not had technology experts on staff or enough employees to build their own archives. The Smithsonian is combating the high costs by recruiting volunteers from around the country to research and write descriptions for its digital archives. So far, it has 800 volunteers.

Digitization has been a priority for Clough since he arrived at the Smithsonian in 2008. For the past few years, the Smithsonian has been increasing its online and mobile presence through educational apps and digital re-creations of the most famous pieces in its collection, from paintings to insects to historical objects. Three years ago, the Smithsonian did not have a single app for its exhibitions or museums. Now it has more than 100.

“People want the Smithsonian to have more relevance and a larger reach,” Clough said. “And it strikes me that the timing is right. Technology is so robust now that we can do things we’ve only dreamed about before.”

In previous years, the Smithsonian received federal funding to jump-start its digitization efforts. But, facing budget cuts, the Smithsonian is aiming to pay for the efforts through private funds or partnerships with private companies.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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