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Building a Digital Bridge: Connecting Museum and Library Content

cover of book, Timeless Sources: Rare books at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum
Timeless Sources: Rare Books at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum

The invisible boundary between the cataloging systems of museums and libraries has traditionally presented challenges to the integration of intrinsically-connected content. The achievements of Europeana and Australia’s Trove systems demonstrate the power of combining museum and library catalogs on a large scale. Cooper-Hewitt’s recent Historical Publications initiative combines the resources of the Museum and Library, focusing on past museum publications and successfully bridging two divergent collection systems.

In 2010, Smithsonian Libraries began participating in FedScan, an initiative between the Library of Congress and Internet Archive to digitize the holdings of federal institutions. This project laid the foundation for Smithsonian’s Cultural Heritage Library, a collection of more than 4000 titles and over 1 million pages (and counting). Cooper-Hewitt’s Library developed selection criteria to accommodate budgetary and digitization guidelines while also contributing the most unique titles from the main collection. One of these criteria included previously-published Museum publications.

The Museum’s past publications required special attention due to copyright issues. Many were jointly published, contained images not under the Museum’s copyright, or had unclear copyright ownership due to the Museum’s institutional history. After substantial investigation and permissions negotiation, the Library was able to digitize more than 75 titles, dating from 1896 to 1987. Once the Museum publications were digitized and hosted on Internet Archive, however, they were difficult to discover and completely separate from related Museum content.

Users can now browse Cooper-Hewitt’s past publications without leaving the Museum’s website.

Although there are many benefits to participating in a larger body of knowledge like Internet Archive, additional steps were needed to facilitate access and foster connections between the digitized historical publications and the Museum’s collections. To this end, the Museum’s Digital and Emerging Media Department integrated the publications into the Museum’s Drupal-based website. Users can now discover the publications in context, while an embedded viewer allows users to explore the publications without leaving the site.

The publications are connected to the Museum’s online collection and exhibition archive through machine tags, cross-reference hyperlinks to and from the online exhibition archive, and enhanced metadata tags that include terms of particular relevance to the Museum, such as a publication’s designer, an exhibition’s curator, or a type of object. This project shares a similar spirit to recent initiatives that improve accessibility to past publications by the Metropolitan Museum Art and the Guggenheim, while also establishing an infrastructure for future content integration in tandem with the Museum’s online collection database and increasing seamless discovery through faceted search on the Museum’s site.

With the Library and Museum working together, Cooper-Hewitt was able to bridge the barrier between their separate catalogs and they look forward to a future of continued content integration.

— Jen Cohlman Bracchi & Sara Rubinow

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