Words Without Pictures: Rediscovering Our Image Collections With Metadata

by Kendra Meyer on

Library News

The AMNH Research Library is pleased to have received funding to complete the three-pronged Shelby White & Leon Levy Archive Initiative. One of the projects is the adoption of a Digital Asset Management (DAM) system.

As the Leon Levy Initiative Digital Archivist, configuring and populating the new DAM is my primary responsibility. Because we do not currently have a DAM, this will utterly transform our internal workflows and improve the effectiveness and increase the array of our services. Besides collocating and managing our currently siloed digital assets, the DAM project will permit us to begin stewarding more born-digital material, expanding the breadth of our collection. To say it is thrilling is an understatement, but to say it is overwhelming would also be accurate! Given the current global health crisis and the change in our social interactions, it is particularly rewarding to be working toward increasing online access to these collections.

Photograph by Otis J. Wheelock of the 77th Street facade of the American Museum of Natural History, August 29, 1907. AMNH Library - Image no. 45669
77th Street facade of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, August 29, 1907. AMNH Library - Image no. 45669
Wheelock, J. Otis (photographer)

Even before we began working remotely, the DAM project team was busy assessing and preparing our digital material for the DAM, including images and artwork, field notes and films. One of the projects I took on to work-from-home (WFH) assigns directory paths to all existing records. Behind the scenes, the assets are currently on the server in a loosely structured arrangement which is neither intuitive nor effective. This work will arrange the assets more meaningfully when they are migrated into our new DAM system. New material will be indexed going forward, but my challenge was to organize the over 55,000 image assets currently managed for use through the Library’s instance of Omeka, the open source management system we currently use for online digital collections. All digital, it was suitable work to do from home. Our catalogs are web-based, and I was set up with the ability to remotely access assets. Although I would miss being able to just run up to the analog collection to consult a slide mount or negative sleeve’s documentation, for the most part it would be ‘business as usual,’ with the added WFH benefit of being with my cat. Day one, I found myself armed with a spreadsheet export of our asset metadata, a directory structure template that our team developed, and lots of coffee. I was ready to jump in!

Exported image metadata in an Excel spreadsheet.
Exported image metadata in an Excel spreadsheet.

The process involved working primarily with textual metadata in a spreadsheet, so I anticipated challenges. As a visual learner I knew I would be incredibly tempted to look at every one of the 55,000 images. Frankly, I also anticipated the project would be a touch dry; boring or tedious, if you will.

I am pleased to say that all my concerns were unwarranted. Instead I found myself happily at the mercy of the metadata! As Ann Herendeen described in a recent post, metadata is essentially information about...well...information. It is critical, and the tool we use to describe and provide context for an asset, improving the chances that someone will discover it! Any information professional will tell you their collection is only as useful as its metadata, but it is still easy to take it for granted. This project has rekindled such a keen appreciation for metadata that I have not felt since graduate school. Fortunately, our Visual Resources Librarian and team have provided rich and detailed metadata points for me to analyze, such as titles, locations, dates, creators, and subject headings. Over the last two months, I settled on a workflow of filtering and sorting that lets me find natural groupings of material. In fact, by distancing myself from the visual ‘noise’ and focusing on descriptions, I feel I understand the images in a more complete way than I would the other way around. So I repeat: metadata is awesome!

There is indeed something satisfying about reading a description of an image and imagining it before viewing it, akin to when you read a book and ‘cast’ the film in your head. While I have infrequently found it necessary to consult the pictures, I do admit I often looked just to entertain my curiosity...does it look how I imagined? I ironically also think I gained a firmer familiarity with the scope of our visual collection by not actually viewing it! I have identified trends in the collection and areas that I am excited to build upon with future digitization projects and I look forward to enhancing the collection and sharing these hidden caches in the upcoming years!

 Sunset Eclipse painted by Owen D. Stephens, Cerro de Pasco, Peru, June 8, 1937. AMNH Library - Image no. ptc-4060
Sunset Eclipse, oil on canvas by Owen D. Stephens, Cerro de Pasco, Peru, June 8, 1937. AMNH Library - Image no. ptc-4060

This is the fourth post in a series about how the Library's staff is working remotely and enriching its digital collections to enhance access to researchers and the public during the Covid-19 pandemic. This entry was written by Kendra Meyer, Shelby White & Leon Levy Digital Archivist.