Going Digital: An Interview with Deborah Kempe

by Davis Erin Anderson, Community Engagement Manager, METRO

METRO's Digitization Grant program has helped dozens of METRO members create digital collections containing the treasures held in their libraries and archives. While we are gearing up for the 2015/16 cycle of METRO grants with a pair of workshops with Tom Clareson from LYRASIS, we thought we'd chat with previous recipients to learn more about how their projects came to be.

Our third and final interview features Deborah Kempe, Chief, Collections Management and Access at The Frick Art and Reference Library. Kempe's team at the Frick has partnered with cultural heritage institutions around New York City to highlight documents from the Gilded Age. To dive into this multi-phase, collaborative project, start here.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us in this interview! Your project details a fascinating era in New York City history. All told, you've completed three Gilded Age projects, with a fourth currently in the works. Can you tell us a little bit about defining the scope for each phase of the project?

20150316_GoingDigital_Kemp.JPGThank you, Davis! METRO’s ongoing support for our project has been instrumental to our mission-driven digitization program here at the Frick. The digitization grants from METRO gave us the opportunity to learn more about the elements of a successful digital project. They also allowed us to experiment with online exhibition platforms that give the digital objects contextual value -- and hopefully reach a broad audience.

The key to success is finding an appropriate scope and size, and this is not always easy! With each successful phase, we’ve learned more about the capacity of funding vs. content, and there are always variables along the way.

In terms of subject scope, we immediately saw the opportunity to showcase some of the strengths of our library collection -- much of it is unique and not available through any digital portals -- and we knew that other METRO members would have complimentary materials that together could make a larger corpus of historical documents with tremendous value to scholars and historians of all sorts.

Once we had the basic idea of showcasing the art world in New York during the Gilded Age, we did an inventory using list sorting capabilities in our ILS system to identify pre-1923 titles that contained appropriate subject headings (never underestimate the power of metadata!). Because we are a NYARC partner and share our library catalog, Arcade, with the Brooklyn Museum and MoMA libraries, we were able to include holdings of the Brooklyn Museum Library and Archives in the list, which made them a natural partner for collaboration. The resulting list was fairly massive, and we realized that we’d need a long-term plan to carry it out. We divided it into identifiable subject formats that fit into the requirements and funding levels of the METRO program.

The project was grouped into phases that would feature catalogs pertaining to New York City: art exhibitions of galleries, clubs, and artists’ associations; auction sales of decorative arts; and catalogs of private art collections. I must admit that we did not have this grand plan from the outset; rather, the plan continued to emerge as we gained experience with each successive project. Getting people together to brainstorm on topics was a great idea.

What lessons were learned from the first go 'round that you were able to implement in your follow-up projects?

Not to bite off too much. We ended up creating a second phase to expand on the first because we underestimated the number of pages involved. We’ve learned to take a closer look at condition, size, and extent of pagination from the earliest point possible.

Prior to our METRO projects, we’d sent materials to an outside vendor for scanning. Based on the time involved to ship, inspect, and check physical and digital items, we decided that in-house digitization was a better solution for our materials. Our in-house digital lab was expanding its capabilities, so the METRO grants were flexible enough to allow this approach. The first project allowed us to control the scanning process more accurately and with less risk to materials. We were therefore able to use our first project as an accurate measure of production and costs to inform the subsequent projects.

Another point -- rather obvious but worth stressing -- is to keep documentation up to date. We’ve continued to update our workflow and best practices documentation with each project as we become more efficient. Finally, the fact that digital projects touch every department in the library was also made clear. It is important to involve key staff members from the get-go when structuring a proposal.

Each of these efforts has been a collaboration among institutions. What's been the benefit of working across institutions on projects of this scale?

We’re strong believers in the power of “collective collections.” While collaborating with another institution admittedly brings a level of complication to the process, the results at the end are a testament to both METRO and NYARC’s program goals. It’s also fun to work with colleagues who share the same passion for our respective special collections and to learn more about the historical holdings of other libraries and how they were obtained. 

We've been honored to support your projects through our Digitization Grant program. Do you have any advice that you'd like to impart on institutions who are interested in seeking funding for their own digital projects?

Certainly I’d say “go for it!” It’s exhilarating to develop an idea and see it come to fruition with METRO’s support. The grants are scaled to allow institutions to start on a reasonable scale, so don’t be intimidated: METRO offers lots of good advice for advancing your digital content, and this is valuable whether you are just getting started or see the METRO program as a supplement to an overall plan of larger dimensions. Making historical collections more accessible to the world should be a core activity of all memory institutions and I am glad that METRO continues to support this important initiative in New York.


Image Credit: The photo above features Susan Young working on NYARC's digitization project in the Frick Art Reference Library Digital Lab (2015) and was provided to us by The Frick Art Reference Library.