Art Institute of Chicago to digitally preserve "institutional memory"

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Daniel X. O'Neil
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Daniel X. O'Neil

The Art Institute of Chicago’s archive library has taken its first steps towards digital by signing a contract with Preservica, with a view to preserving the museum’s "institutional memory" for "born-digital" artefacts that it generates.

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The Art Institute of Chicago's archive library has taken its first steps towards digital by signing a contract with Preservica, with a view to preserving the museum's "institutional memory" for "born-digital" artefacts that it generates.

The institution, which was founded in 1879, is one of the oldest of its type in America and the second-largest with the opening of the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing in 2009. It hosts the instantly recognisable Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso and the iconic 1887 self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh in its sizeable collection, alongside many more works spanning a wide range of visual arts and geographies.

Its library is tasked with archiving corporate records and other documents that tell the story of the institution in all its parts – and this can include everything from meeting minutes to audio tours, labels and correspondence.

Until now the library was printing out and storing paper records which was proving unsustainable and increasingly expensive.

So the institute turned to Preservica, a company started just three years ago to meet the archiving demands of the world's galleries, museums and other organisations that require preservation. Its technology is bound by Open Archival Information System (OAIS) standards – something the institute's digital initiatives and technology librarian Alvin Dantes tells Computerworld UK the company is practically alone in doing.

"Last year we were discussing with ourselves in the library and the larger institution about how we would preserve born-digital materials," Dantes says. "We have had a great strategy for all the paper we've accumulated and documents of that sort, but we didn't have a great strategy for how to deal with the increasingly digital world. What do we do to preserve those sort of things for our institutional memory?

"I think Preservica is the only product on the market that fulfils the OAIS model of archiving from end to end, so that was the one we looked at."

The project started late 2017 and early this year the archivists began using the platform to preserve documents. It's a cloud-hosted version that meant the museum was able to get going without a particular reliance on the IT team – with flexibility for re-arranging collections, creating virtual collections, making metadata better, and migrating the files to newer formats as time goes by.

In short the librarians aren't printing out documents any more. If the item was ‘born digital', they will go straight into the system for preservation. Paper records will still exist so Dantes calls this "another piece of the puzzle".

At the moment the digital records are mostly minutes and other text documents, so the institute contracted for six terabytes of space in the near-term.

The records won't be for the art that the museum hosts, but for data that the museum generates itself, such as correspondence, blueprints, and audio tours. When the library requires more storage, the archiving team hope that there will be support from the wider institution or external donors to increase the data footprint.

Dantes says that there has been some push-back from staff at the institute and concedes that the importance of this archival work is a little abstract to demonstrate.

"It's hard to get people to want to preserve things that they work with because they just don't think about it, but in 50 years' time we lost an email between the director and a prominent artist, that would not be good," he says. "I think people are just more getting used to it, and we have to try to get people more activated to getting their information in.

"When you're talking long-term preservation, I can say, ‘look at something I've uploaded now' but when the computer gets formatted, because somebody left, we'll still have that record but it won't exist in its original form."

To demonstrate why this might be useful, he imagines day to day scenarios where curators might be talking to artists. "I know when I look back and see those kinds of archives, and see how people lived back in that time – artists, how they talked, how they described things, and how they related with directors and curators – that's fascinating to me."

Of course, there will be regulation issues that come up regarding correspondence – Dantes says the team is "excited to have those conversations" when the time comes for them.

In the meantime, it's virtually impossible to pinpoint what will or won't be an important document in time to come – so in a sense the preservation of all these documents, even the minutes, is historical insurance.

"If we throw it out we'll never know but if we keep it, some of it will float to the top, and it will be very interesting for future generations to see," Dantes says.

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