Into the Digital Age: Expanding Access to Collections
The digital era has changed the way the public and museums interact—allowing museums to electronically connect with other institutions and with a virtual audience, both local and global.
At the New Mexico History Museum’s Palace of the Governors Photo Archives and Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, digitization is making vast historical collections related to the cultures and history of New Mexico and the Southwest more accessible than ever before.
“The museum has made collections digitization a high priority,” says the History Museum’s executive director Billy Garrett. “Researchers want to work from where they are, and this requires an investment in digitization.”
Thanks to initial support from the Department of Cultural Affairs and private funders through the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, the museum’s archival and library collections are increasingly available for viewing on the History Museum website at nmhistorymuseum.org. With combined collections numbering close to one million items dating from approximately 1845 to the present, this opens the window to the many stories the collection has to tell.
Hannah Abelbeck, the History Museum’s curator of photographs and archival collections, says the most important aspect of digitization is speed. “We can now digitally scan at the speed of a shutter click, where it used to take up to eight minutes per scan. This speed means that we are not compromising the integrity of fragile glass negatives or worrying about brittle book spines.”
The roughly 5,000 images now online “represent only about five percent of the collection,” Abelbeck continues, “which is one reason why the faster equipment is so important.”
Other critical pieces of the archival puzzle are audio recordings. “Every time a researcher listens to one of these historic recordings, it shortens its life,” Abelbeck says. “Digitization allows us to both preserve them indefinitely and make them readily available to researchers around the world.”
What’s more, library and archival collections, both real and online, are not static. They continue to grow.
Next up for digitization are Museum of New Mexico founder Edgar Lee Hewett’s papers and photographs, supported by a $145,000 grant from the National Archives and Records Administration’s National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Currently, because the collection is not digitized, all research must be done in person.
“It’s both one of the largest and the most heavily used collections at the Chávez Library,” says librarian Kathleen Dull. “Over the next two years, we will organize, digitize, describe and digitally publish 24 linear feet of manuscript materials, which is about 108,000 pages, describe 12-linear-feet of photographic materials and digitize a selection of approxi-mately 8,000 images.”
Abelbeck notes that there are also other large collections of personal papers that “we are working our way through.” One example is the extraordinary Gustave Baumann archive—which includes the artist’s writings, drawings, recordings and more—recently donated by the Ann Baumann Trust.
The Baumann Trust is providing funding to support digitization of the collection. But private gifts are always needed to help the museum make other collections accessible to the public online. “
Donors interested in large research collections on history, culture and visual arts, or in formats like photography, motion picture, print culture, and oral history could help us launch, support or sustain work like this,” says Abelbeck.
Director Garrett adds, “Photo Archives needs to remain current with evolving technology, and this is where the Museum of New Mexico Foundation comes in. Technology is expensive and software constantly needs upgrading. Donations from individuals will give us the funds to stay up-to-date, serving New Mexicans and a worldwide public.”
Photographs from the archives of artist Gustave Baumann, a recent donation from the Ann Baumann Trust to the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives at the New Mexico History Museum. Photo by Saro Calewarts.