METRO Grant Success Story: Waterways of New York Project

The following chapter excerpt is the last from the first section of Digitization in the Real World; "Small is Beautiful: Planning and Implementing Digitization Projects with Limited Resources."  Download the entire chapter for free (PDF)   or purchase the book at

Access the collection here.


Claudia A. Perry and Thomas T. Surprenant (Queens College, CUNY)


2011-02-18_1315 The concept of experiential learning is particularly useful when students are required to create database entries as part of an ongoing, real-life, online experience.  A METRO grant resulted in an opportunity to use students to create a CONTENTdm database which, with the continued software support from METRO, has continued and evolved until the present. This chapter describes the experience of both faculty and students.  Sections include the background, technical issues and implications for teaching, project procedures and workflow, successes and lessons learned, challenges and next steps.  Of particular interest is the use of out of copyright postcards and the metadata that has resulted from intensive student study and evaluation of the data contained on these cards. Those contemplating a digitization project of their own will be able to learn much about best practices, project planning, management and the advantages/disadvantages of the CONTENTdm software. 


For many of us, hands-on learning is the best way to integrate an understanding of principles and best practices with a practical grasp of the actual challenges and learning opportunities of a project.  This is particularly true for library school graduate students seeking to expand their theoretical, technical and management skills.   As digitization is increasingly seen as a worthy endeavor for even the smallest institutions, it is worth considering the range of approaches available for gaining needed expertise, especially at the novice level.  Examining the long-term development of an integrated, semester-long, course-based approach to digitization may be of value for those seeking an inexpensive approach for the creation of small to medium-sized digital collections.

A course entitled “Introduction to Digital Imaging” was first taught at the Queens College Graduate School of Library & Information Studies (GSLIS), City University of New York (CUNY), in the Fall of 2003.  In the Spring of 2005, a year-long METRO-funded grant facilitated a co-operative project between the Rosenthal Library and the GSLIS to support student digitization of a portion of the Queens College Rosenthal Library Archives (e.g. see GSLIS, 2005-2009, Digitization projects). The project included a variety of forms and formats.  The evaluation of this valuable learning experience identified a strong need to find a single standard format that was information rich and moderate in scope, but which lent itself to more uniform metadata standards and digital specifications.  The evolving project, “Waterways of New York”, an online digital collection of historical postcards, was created in 2006, and partially supported by METRO through continued access to CONTENTdm.  It continues to be extended by GSLIS students each semester the course is taught.

Scope and Format

The most important feedback provided to our team by METRO digitization experts regarding our “Rosenthal Library Archives” initiative was the value of working with a limited number of manageable formats and a relatively focused subject area and time frame.  During the implementation of the grant a serious problem was the complexity resulting from too many different types of media, the overly wide range of subject matter, and the challenges these characteristics presented to the creation of consistent metadata.

One of the GSLIS professors, Thomas Surprenant, has an ever-expanding collection of Erie Canal and related New York State waterways antique postcards, which addressed many of the problems noted in the METRO feedback.  In particular, by selecting a single, simple, information rich format—postcards published before 1923—copyright concerns were eliminated and only a single set of digitization specifications needed to be developed.  METRO’s willingness to host the collection on their CONTENTdm server simplified selection of Dublin Core as the metadata standard, and use of a subset of the Library of Congress Thesaurus of Graphic Materials (TGM) for standardized metadata terminology (Library of Congress, 2007).   This greatly aided our ability to develop a manageable set of project-specific guidelines that could be adequately addressed by the evolving documentation.

The choice of postcards as the source medium turned out to be far more interesting to the students than was expected.  An initial option to describe the backs--as well as the front images of cards—was enthusiastically embraced by virtually all of the students and became the norm for subsequent classes.  Hand-written messages, address conventions, postmarks, trademarks and other attributes of the cards were at times as much or even more rewarding to analyze than the front images themselves.  Further, student interest in the varied aspects of architecture and activities of daily living portrayed in the postcards led to an expansion of emphasis far beyond the initial focus of the project on locks, canal boats, shipping, waterways and transportation.

Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase the book at


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