The Smithsonian Institution has the world’s largest collection of historic artifacts. Large paintings. Ceramic vases. Fossilized plants. Animal remains. Photos. The museum set out to digitize its archives so the material could be preserved indefinitely and made available online. There was just one massive problem: The undertaking would require decades to complete. The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office was created to explore technologies that might speed things up. Ken Rahaim is a digitization program officer and helps to oversee a project at the National Museum of American History that is employing technology that is not only new to the Smithsonian, but new to the country as a whole.
Tell me about your position and responsibilities at the Smithsonian.
“We are a part of the Smithsonian IT division. As far as the Smithsonian goes, we’re relatively young. We’re no more than four or five years old as a department. Our genesis goes back toward around the early to mid-2000s when the Smithsonian, at the secretary level, embarked on an effort to come up with a strategic digitization plan. Ultimately, our department was where the rubber met the road.”
How did you come to the Smithsonian? What’s your background?
“I’ve been here since 2005, and, in terms of the world of the Smithsonian, I am still a baby. If you know the Smithsonian, there are people [who have been] here for 30, 40 or 50 years. I began work as a photographer at the Natural History museum. I photographed all manner of things. I primarily worked in anthropology, photographing dig sites, working with marine mammals, going out into the field.
“This is a second career for me. I worked in IT and I worked on enterprise-wide IT systems for the Department of Defense. I was an engineer in that regard, but photography was a second career. If I were going to look at my life from the beginning and see this as a point where I would be right now, I don’t think I could have planned it better. It pulls together two things I enjoy doing in a very interesting way.”
How has the Smithsonian traditionally digitized items in its collections?
“Traditionally, each museum has a studio photographer and they do a significant amount of imaging in their own museum. That served us well to a degree, and we’ve had success with it. The Freer-Sackler museum just finished digitizing its 40,000 objects over a 15-year period, and they did that through the traditional approach of studio photographers doing it. Our goal is to increase that speed.”
What can you tell me about your current digitization project and how the technology works?
“The particular collection we’re digitizing we got from the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The folks there would engrave the design in metal plates, and then they would make test sheets. We actually have 305,000 of these proof sheets. Some of it is straight currency. Some are war bonds. Some are tax stamps.
“We’re using a conveyor belt system to digitize these. We bring out 30 or 40 boxes a day, set them at the end of the conveyor belt, and one of the operators will pull out one sheet after another and put them on the conveyor belt. They go down the conveyor belt to the shoot station, where there is an 80-megapixel camera. The proof will then stop at the end of the conveyor belt, and the conveyor belt stops until the operator at the end of the conveyor belt pulls it off and puts it back in a box.”
Has this technology been used before?
In the U.S., this is the first time it has ever been used. There’s a lot of innovative use of existing technology. Individually, none of the pieces are rocket science except for one of them, but it’s the way it’s all been put together for this particular issue that has been the bonus positive for us.
Which one piece is like rocket science?
“From my perspective, we have a conveyor belt and an imaging system. They’re all very sophisticated systems. One of the things that makes this possible for us on an industrial scale is we’re bringing industrial-scale quality control to this process. That’s what’s changed fundamentally to make these things possible.
“The concern was how do we evaluate the quality of the images. Traditionally, this has been done by eye, but that’s a very subjective approach. Vendors and developers have built a software-based system that can take a look at an image of a standardized target and measure resolution, color accuracy and tonal gradation. That can now be done automatically and almost instantly. We can get a pass or fail based on the standards, and we can take action on that.”
What work went into starting this project?
“How we got to this production project was a kind of step-by-step path. The way I usually describe it internally and externally is it has been kind of an education process.
“There was a series of pilot projects that we ran starting in August 2013. We did about a half dozen of them and we refined our processes. And in the meantime, we continuously researched technologies that were out there in the world that could be brought to bear on our challenges.”
Can you give me an example of one of your pilot projects?
“In August 2013, we worked with Smithsonian Gardens and we digitized glass-plate negatives from the turn of the 20th century. These are 1900s to 1920s glass-plate negatives. Traditionally, we did this kind of this with flatbed scanners. We used what we call camera scanning. It’s a copy stand set up where we essentially replace the flatbed scanner with a camera. There’s a lot more to this than the technical components. It’s a comprehensive process that really follows the project from the shelf to the public-facing Web site and everything in between.”
You also digitized a collection of bees, correct?
“Our final pilot project was with the Natural History museum. We took pictures of the bumblebees, but maybe more importantly, we took pictures of the tags associated with each bee. Sometimes they could have up to eight tags if we had a collector who was very enthusiastic. This collection dates back 100 to 150 years. All of our pilot projects were one week long, except for this one. We digitized 44,000 bees in eight weeks. That type of throughput for that type of collection has never been done before.”
THE BIG IDEA
The Smithsonian Institution has the world’s largest collection of historic artifacts and images, and the museum wants to make them available online. If not for new technology being used by its digitization office, it’s an effort that would take decades.