Background on the Terra Foundation Center for Digital Collections

Notes from Oscar Bluemner's Theory Diary. Oscar Bluemner papers, Archives of American Art.

Notes from Oscar Bluemner’s Theory Diary. The Oscar Bluemner papers were digitized in 2008.

Terra Foundation for American Art

In 2005, the Archives of American Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art set out to create an unparalleled virtual repository for the study of the visual arts of the United States. As one of the Terra Foundation’s first grant recipients, the Archives received a multi-million dollar award to support the establishment of a digitization program that would result in online, free access to a substantial cross-section of the Archives’ most significant collections. Such a program is in keeping with the foundation’s priority of making research resources on American art available to people around the globe. These funds enabled Archives staff to develop an innovative, archival approach to large-scale digitization, to design and program a technical infrastructure and public web interface, to arrange and process collections, and to manage the resulting digital repository that comprised over 1.5 million digital files by the end of the grant’s five-year period.

In spring 2011, the Terra Foundation awarded a second multi-million dollar grant to the Archives to support another five years of the digitization project and to expand its reach through an exciting new position of the Terra Foundation Project Manager for Online Scholarly and Educational Initiatives. The Archives is delighted with the arrival in July 2012 of Dr. Kelly Quinn, who will work with the digitization project team already in place–archivists, curators, digital imaging technicians, and a webmaster–to ensure that the Archives remains a vibrant resource for the critical study and appreciation of American art, anticipating and responding to new digital modes of learning, scholarship, curatorship and reference, and to create opportunities to engage and familiarize growing audiences worldwide with the Archives’ unique holdings.

View the list of digitized collections or access the more than 12,000 documents that have been individually cataloged through the Image and Media Gallery.

The Terra Foundation for American Art is dedicated to fostering the exploration, understanding, and enjoyment of the visual arts of the United States. Established in 1978, it has become a leading organization focused on historical American art, supporting worldwide study and presentation through its grants, initiatives, partnerships, art collection, and other resources. Operating from offices in Chicago and Paris, the Terra Foundation works to bring American art to the world and the world to American art, devoting approximately $12 million annually for exhibitions, research, and projects around the globe.

The Archives’ Innovative Approach to Digitization

The Archives has developed a model system to support both the large-scale digitization of archival collections in their entirety and the digitization of individual documents requested daily by researchers. Both streams require adhering to standards and best practices for archival collections management and digital stewardship, and designing and maintaining a technical infrastructure to support the many processes that take place from start to finish.

Large-Scale Digitization

The large-scale digitization program can trace its beginnings to the Archives founding mission to provide access to entire collections using microfilm and distributed via interlibrary loan. The transition in 2005 to a digital format required swapping out the microfilm equipment with an easy-to-operate overhead scanner; building and programming a customized database-driven (MS-SQL), web-based system (developed using ColdFusion software) to support scanning and online presentation of collections in their entirety; and preparing guidelines and other documentation. The design is scalable to match the diversity of formats and sizes of collections, such as the Eastman Johnson collection consisting of twelve letters that yielded 29 images, to the extensive gallery and sales records of the Jacques Seligmann & Co. measuring over 200 linear feet and comprising 330,752 images.

The infrastructure and workflow rely on the existence of a fully processed collection with its requisite EAD finding aid to support the key features of the Archives’ large-scale digitization program:

  1. Access to the digital files is done at the folder level
  2. The EAD finding aid is the sole source of the descriptive and structural metadata for digital files
  3. Collections are scanned in the same order as their physical arrangement, i.e. not by format
  4. Rapid capture and quick delivery to the web are priorities and factor into the selection of scanning equipment and the development of automated processes and workflows

The archivist’s upload of the EAD XML file into the Digital Collections Database is Step One, and triggers the transformation and ingest of the structured data into database tables. The software’s functionality supports all subsequent steps, including scanning; digital file image processing; website display, linking, and navigation; review and occasional rescanning; approval; and deployment. To date, these automated processes and continued upgrades to the infrastructure, have resulted in the digitization of 105 collections comprising over 1,000 linear feet, 1.5 million files, and 15 terabytes of data. The application has been successful for both in-house and outsourced digitization, including 300 reels of microfilm, and as the Archives enters Phase Two of the grant, development of digitization on demand.

Item-Level Digitization

Digitization of individual letters, photographs, diaries, sketchbooks, and other documents is done on a daily basis in response to requests by researchers and staff. To date, over 12,000 documents have been individually cataloged and digitized, resulting in over 33,000 digital images.

The Digital Collections Database’s web interface, along with written guidelines, have been designed to enable staff from all departments to create preliminary cataloging records while adhering as closely as possible to content standards. The system supports tracking the documents from the point they are removed from their collection, through digitization, and ultimately to the linking of the digital files and approval for display in the Archives’ Image and Media Gallery. Individual documents are also delivered through the website’s collection pages, online exhibitions, the Archives of American Art Journal, the blog, and published in numerous publications.


Once the digital files are made available on the public website, the Archives continues to manage them to ensure their long-term durability. The Digital Asset Management Specialist is responsible for the contribution of the digital files into the Smithsonian’s Digital Asset Management System, subsequent edits and updates of the metadata, as well as data contributions to the Smithsonian’s Collection Search Center. An Information Technology Specialist supports the collections management of the resulting digital collection through various reports, statistics, and notifications.

For more information on the Archives’ digitization processes, contact:

Barbara Aikens, Chief, Collections Processing
Karen Weiss, Information Resources Manager
Robin Holladay Peak, Digital Asset Management Specialist

For more information on the Archives’ educational initiatives, contact:

Kelly Quinn, Terra Foundation Project Manager for
Online Scholarly and Educational Initiatives