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published: March 2004
analytic scripts updated:
October 28, 2010

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License
Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

 

Developing Collaborative Online Collections Using an Open Source Digital Repository: The Quilt Index Case Study

Marsha MacDowell (Michigan State University Museum), and Justine Richardson, Mark Kornbluh, Dean Rehberger, Scott Pennington, Michael Fegan, and Dennis Boone (MATRIX: Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online at Michigan State University), USA

http://www.quiltindex.org

Abstract

This paper presents the results of the first two years of development of the Quilt Index, a comprehensive, trans-institutional online collection tool built upon an open source digital repository. The Quilt Index intends to provide access for both research and public presentation of the extensive documentation on American quilts and quilt making that now exists in a variety of locations and media--in museums and archives, in public and private collections, on paper survey forms and in varied electronic formats. Utilizing the benefits of a distributed repository system and a comprehensive controlled vocabulary for descriptive metadata, the Quilt Index is addressing the need to balance centralized information access with preservation of local variation. The completed Quilt Index will be a central resource that provides access to contextual documentation and images of quilts from a wide variety of sources including (1) images of and documentary information about quilts in public museum and library collections; (2) aggregate information about privately held quilts compiled during the past 17 years by 56 state and regional quilt documentation projects in the United States; (3) bibliographies of secondary materials relevant to quilt study; and (4) finding aids developed to assist researchers with locating hard-to-find quilt-related primary and secondary materials in public collections.

Keywords: quilts, cultural heritage, digital library, digital repository, distributed systems, collaboration, open source

Introduction

This paper presents the results of the first two years of development of the Quilt Index, a comprehensive, trans-institutional online collection tool built upon an open source digital repository. The Quilt Index intends to provide access for both research and public presentation of the extensive documentation on American quilts and quilt making that now exists in a variety of locations and media--in museums and archives, in public and private collections, on paper survey forms and in varied electronic formats. Utilizing the benefits of a distributed repository system and a comprehensive controlled vocabulary for descriptive metadata, the Quilt Index is addressing the need to balance centralized information access with preservation of local variation.

When complete, the Quilt Index will be a central resource that provides access to contextual documentation and images of quilts from a wide variety of sources including (1) images of and documentary information about quilts in public museum and library collections; (2) aggregate information about privately held quilts compiled during the past 17 years by 56 state and regional quilt documentation projects in the United States; (3) bibliographies of secondary materials relevant to quilt study; and (4) finding aids developed to assist researchers with locating hard-to-find quilt-related primary and secondary materials in public collections.

The Quilt Index is a project conceived and developed by The Alliance for American Quilts and implemented in partnership with Michigan State's MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts and Letters Online and Michigan State University Museum. In addition, the Index collaborates with four partner institutions--the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center, the Illinois State Museum, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and the University of Louisville Archives and Records Center.

Background of Project

Over the course of the 20th century, investigations into the history and meaning of American quilts have evolved from the stereotypical antiquarian and romanticized efforts prevalent at the turn of the century, to extremely sophisticated studies meeting academic standards in the century s last quarters. New attention to the historical, cultural, and sociological role of quilts in American society spans a wide range of disciplines. Scholars are increasingly focusing on quilts as a window to understanding many historical and contemporary aspects of American life.

Quilts have formed the foundation of such disparate topics as literary studies (analyses of quilt imagery in fiction, as for instance in the work of Alice Walker), cultural geography (the dispersion and distribution of quilt patterns, quilting techniques and other quilting traditions, as in the work of Henry Glassie), women's studies, art history and criticism, material culture studies, textile history, industrial history, political history, religious history (as in a study of Methodist quilts), migration and immigration studies, racial and ethnic studies (as in studies of African-American, Native Hawaiian, and Mexican-American quilting), American social history, and, state, regional, national and international studies.

Scholars have also examined quilts and quilt-related materials in order to understand better such diverse topics as social activist movements and protest causes (as in temperance quilts, "green" quilts, the Boise Peace Quilt Groups, the NAMES Project quilt, etc.) or indigenous ceremonies (such as the Sioux honoring and Hopi baby naming ceremonies).

At the same time, scores of grassroots quilt documentation projects conducted in almost every state in the Union have focused on documenting quilts' personal and community contexts; captured the history of their production, ownership, and use; and described their physical appearance. This movement took shape in Kentucky in 1981, with the founding of the Kentucky Quilt Project and the first state quilt survey. Citizens from around the state participated in Quilt Days, bringing with them quilts from closets, beds, and trunks. The movement spread to encompass fifty-six state and regional quilt projects, more than 1,000 Quilt Days, and more than 165,000 quilts documented around the country. Each quilt was photographed; oral histories were taken; and detailed forms were filled out delineating the quilt's history, fabric, style, and more.

The books, exhibitions, seminars, and conferences resulting from the state surveys and the scholarly studies have brought quilt images and scholarship to a growing public and developed the level and respect for quilt research by scholars working in a wide array of disciplines. The quilt survey movement demonstrated that the systematic study, collection, and exhibition of quilts, and public education about quilts and quilt makers, have a tremendous potential to advance the understanding of American history and society and to introduce a new generation to the richness of expression embodied in the quilt.

Meanwhile, recent national surveys show that more than 20 million Americans today are involved in the creation of quilted textiles, continuing a tradition that has been practiced by Americans for more than two centuries. This rise in activity has precipitated an enormous demand for access to information on new as well as historical materials, styles, and techniques.

Need for the Index

Although there has been an increase in documentation and many examinations of the production, type, use, marketing, distribution, and meaning of quilts have been undertaken, the results of this activity has been largely inaccessible to either scholars or the general public. The state survey movement by itself created compendious databases of research materials documenting quilting. The more than 165,000 quilts represented in the survey documentation could provide a comprehensive national profile of quilting traditions in the 19th and 20th centuries. State survey documentation is housed, however, in a variety of museums, archives, historical societies, project offices, and private hands; and only a portion of the information is indexed or computerized in a variety of incompatible formats.

Furthermore, the body of literature about quilts, past and present, consists primarily of materials (such as exhibition catalogues or specialized journals) that were in small editions and/or not widely circulated. Specialized collections at museums, libraries and archives, such as those at Michigan State University Museum and University of Nebraska/Lincoln, are beginning to build collections of these materials but the material remains largely in private hands and inaccessible to users.

Although quilt makers and scholars alike have longed for solid comparative data on the history, regional distribution, artistic variation, and cultural variety of quilting, this information is scattered to the point of being virtually irretrievable. No comprehensive and accessible resource currently exists anywhere in this country to unify access to quilts and quilt materials for scholars, teachers, students, and the general public. Enabling both scholars and a broad general audience to access information about these collections is central to furthering the number and scope of quilt studies, and increasing public understanding of the history and culture of our nation and world.

The Role of The Alliance for American Quilts and the Quilt Index

The Alliance for American Quilts is a non-profit organization founded in 1993 to unite various elements of the quilt world around a shared vision: "The Alliance seeks to further the recognition of quilts; to preserve the history of quilts and quiltmakers; and to establish The Center for The Quilt a place that actively communicates with people about quilts and their meaning." The basic idea of the Quilt Index was initially raised at the founding meeting of The Alliance for American Quilts. Alliance advisory council members discussed the fact that the power and significance of quilts for American culture were ill served by this scattered nature of quilt research resources. They noted that, although various museums and libraries around the country devote some or all of their resources to specific aspects of quilts and quilt making, there were few that made their resources available for use to both the general public and scholars and certainly no one entity or center that actively drew together data.

Board discussions also noted that the new technologies of the 1990s provided a powerful vehicle for creating a national connective fiber for the world of quilting and thereby addressing the needs of making the data available. Computers and digital technology make it possible to share textual information about quilting, and the advent and rapid diffusion of access to the World Wide Web enable students of quilts to share on line not only information about quilting but images of quilts themselves.

The Quilt Index, a virtual repository, was conceived as the best response to the quilting world's need for a connective fiber of national information coordination that complements and strengthens local efforts. The goal of the Index is to become a comprehensive source of quilt information and documentation that is widely available and accessible to everyone who makes, studies, or enjoys quilts.

Initial decisions about what information will be included on the Quilt Index were based primarily on discussions held during several planning meetings held in Washington, D.C. by members of The Alliance for American Quilts advisory council. In addition, advisory council members informally canvassed -- by phone and in person at other national scholarly meetings -- key individuals in the field of quilt scholarship, women s studies, and textile history. Those materials that were identified as being of highest priority were the records from the various state and regional quilt documentation projects. While these records constituted the largest existing body of data on quilts in the world, they were almost entirely inaccessible for scholarly use. In addition, it was felt that it would be important to make electronically accessible the primary published journals and periodicals in the field, some of which are out of print or were published in very small editions.

In recognition of the need to preserve and make accessible quilt data, especially the state survey information, the Alliance began a process to engage partners that would be able to undertake leadership for the project and to identify organizations with collections that could participate in a pilot phase, and to develop grant proposals for development of the project.

MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts Letters and Social Sciences Online and Michigan State University Museum

The deployment phase of this project is coordinated by MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts Letters and Social Sciences Online and the Michigan State University Museum, both of which have staff who serve as board members of the Alliance. Both of these agencies brought complementary and specialized experience that was critical to the formation and quality of the project. The two organizations, both housed at Michigan State University, serve as the administrative home of the Index, provides additional technical expertise, financial accountability, project management, and substantial cost share.

MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts Letters and Social Sciences Online is devoted to the application of new technologies in humanities and social science teaching and research. MATRIX creates and maintains online resources, provides training in computing and new teaching technologies, and creates forums for the exchange of ideas and expertise in new teaching and research technologies in addition to serving as the computing home for H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.

Currently, MATRIX is involved in a number of collaborative endeavors to digitize and make widely available archival materials, journals, artwork, artifacts, oral histories, and music for use by both an academic and public audience. The largest of these projects is the "National Gallery of the Spoken Word" (NGSW), which is funded under the National Science Foundation's Digital Libraries Initiative, Phase II program. The first large-scale repository of its kind, the NGSW will create a significant, fully searchable, online database of spoken word collections that span the twentieth century. Other collaborative endeavors include a range of internationally collaborative efforts to develop new publishing and distribution models to increase access to scholarly publications and oral histories for humanists in Western and Southern Africa.

The Michigan State University Museum, founded in 1857, is one of the oldest museums in the Midwest and is accredited by the American Association of Museums. The museum is a public steward for over a million objects or specimens of cultural and natural history from around the world and its holdings of cultural collections and research, exhibition, and education programs related to the Great Lakes are particularly strong, especially in the area of archaeology, agricultural heritage, and folklife. Its Michigan Traditional Arts Program, begun in the early 1970s, is regularly cited as one of the best in the nation. The Michigan Traditional Arts Research Collection of objects, taped interviews, field notes, and photographs relating to folklife provides the only major state resource on this subject and includes materials from all of the surrounding states and provinces. The museum's quilt collection numbers over 500 and includes historical and contemporary examples from around the world, with special emphasis on African American quilts, Native American quilts, and quilts with special ties to Michigan. These resources have been used in publications, public programs, and exhibitions (both those based solely at the MSU Museum and those that have circulated to national and international venues).

In 2001 the museum and its Great Lakes Quilt Center became formally affiliated with The Alliance for American Quilts as a Regional Center for The Quilt. The Michigan Quilt Project, begun in 1985 and based at the MSU Museum, has documented 5,500 quilts. The data from these files have been computerized, but without the inclusion of the quilt images that are also available for each documented quilt. The Index will make possible the digitization of these images, and will bring the 5,500 quilts of the Michigan Quilt Project (which includes the 500 quilts in the museum s own collections) to quilt researchers everywhere.

Institutional Partners

The Index collaborates with four other institutions--the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, the Illinois State Museum, the Tennessee State Library and Archives, and the University of Louisville Archives and Records Center who, with Michigan State University Museum, house collections that included state quilt project records, collections of quilts, and collections of quilt documentation (for instance oral histories and photographic images) or ephemera (patterns, periodicals, etc.) These institutions were chosen by the Alliance for the American Quilt Advisory council through a selection process that included first a series of discussions and suggestions by advisory council members then a formal interview process conducted by Wolf, Keens, and Company.

The sum total of these institutional partner collections provide not only a solid representation of the types and range of existing collections but also the unique problems and opportunities for use that are associated with different kinds of collections. Furthermore, the institutions have each demonstrated that they have: 1) a base-level of institutional commitment by having participated in various ways to date in the planning process, 2) the basic internal infrastructure (staffing, technology, space) to participate effectively in the project, and 3) the commitment to allocate or seek matching funds or in-kind support. Chosen for both the strength and range of their collections, each of these institutions has developed a distinct project to put quilt documentation on line through the Index.

Progress To Date

MATRIX and the Michigan State University Museum successfully secured funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the first phase of development of The Quilt Index. Since the NEH grant period began in July 2001, a tremendous amount of work on the Quilt Index has been completed. Among the significant actions have been the followng:

The Quilt Index Thesaurus

The initial task of the project was development of comprehensive descriptive metadata for quilts, as unique three-dimensional objects. Development of the template was led by staff of the Michigan State University Museum and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online, Michigan State University. Critical input was also received from partner pilot site staff and a number of individuals around the country. Project staff consulted with the Getty Thesaurus of Art and Architecture in the development of the Index fields and found that a number of quilt-related terms were missing from the Getty Thesaurus. The resulting Quilt Index Thesaurus is a master list of metadata categories (or "fields") designed to accommodate all of the information requested on state documentation forms that have been developed to date. A description of each of the fields has also been written; these descriptions serve to clarify the type and meaning of data entered into each field. Because this Quilt Index Thesaurus is a master list of descriptive terms for quilts, no single documentation project or pilot site uses the entire list, and many have regional variations for descriptive terms.

The MATRIX Repository

MATRIX staff then integrated the Quilt Index Thesaurus with the MATRIX Repository, a database driven, web accessible archival management resource. At MATRIX, activities have focused on (1) designing and developing the underlying architecture for a large scale digital repository, (2) preservation and access metadata development for such a repository in general, (3) evaluating and revising best practices for three-dimensional object digitization, and (4) development of educational interfaces and tools to maximize usefulness of the Quilt Index. MATRIX personnel, working from a storage archive model proposed by NASA as the Reference Model for an Open Archival Information System (OAIS), have developed an OAIS based delivery "archive" to temporarily store files as they are ingested from participating archives. For this delivery system to be successful, participating archives, are designed to work in a federated system. Within the system, the data is freely exchanged both between the MATRIX Repository delivery system and the federated partners in accordance with agreements as to rights of transfer, storage, and distribution.

Given the current limitations of XML databases, XML was not used to store metadata in the MATRIX repository. However, the database structure was designed to mirror the functionality of XML with the intent to migrate to XML in the future. Modeled after the METS schema, the database table structure of the MATRIX repository was developed to be highly flexible. Because the repository integrates so many different kinds of metadata from different institutions, the design moved away from statically defined tables and incorporated a schematized table design. This design also allows partners within the repository the flexibility to design and modify their own metadata schemes and ingestion/administration forms for objects within the repository through an easy to use browser based utility. Because the repository stores information about the kind of metadata being used by each project, MATRIX has developed a PHP based online utility that utilizes this information to generate dynamically metadata ingestion/administration forms for each of the partners. This utility allows projects to begin their participation in the repository by selecting from existing metadata schemes (Dublin Core, MARC, EAD, Quilt Index Thesaurus, etc.) or entering information about project-specific metadata to describe the objects they will store in the repository. This information is then stored in the database and instantly used to generate online forms to begin entering metadata. This tools developed facilitate the dynamic generation of galleries and aid in the searching for files by format.

This flexibility is essential to working with regional quilt documentation projects. Each project selects the Quilt Index Thesaurus Schema in the Repository, then selects from that schema, the relevant fields or information that their documentation project collected.

Digitization Practices and Workflow

While the project has been researching and analyzing current best practices for imaging quilts as unique three dimensional objects, the pilot project sites have already photographed their quilts during the documentation phase of the project. Thus, for this phase of the project standard practices for digitizing photographs and slides have been used. The Quilt Index image specifications are as follows:

Processing: Images from the sites are being scanned at a preservation quality high resolution. A standard embedded color scheme will be used by all sites to maintain color standards throughout the project. Sites will scan and apply any color adjusting or cropping necessary for the images. Preservation copies will probably be made at each site and burned to CD-ROM for local storage and use. Access versions will be made at the sites and uploaded via web entry forms to the Index Repository at MATRIX. Low resolution copies will be made at MATRIX for viewing on the web through the Index website.

Scanning: We recommend that sites scan at the highest quality resolution uncompressed files for storage and use at the local sites. Each site will have to decide whether to create and store a "preservation" quality digital file on location. This is recommended for both preservation and local access.

Preservation Images: At the pilot sites, the images are scanned initially for digital preservation at the highest resolution possible on their equipment set up (ideally, 48-bit color and 1200 - 1600 dpi). These images are burned onto CD-ROM, and for those images requiring frequent access, they are stored on a computer s hard disks.

Index Repository Images (Access): The Index Repository requires a highest quality web-ready access image in jpg format. For some pilot sites, the repository is holding two copies of each digital image, one an uncompressed, high resolution TIF image (at least 24-bit depth color and 600 dpi) and one large access image. That is likely a lower resolution than the copy being made for local archival preservation needs. These files are being uploaded to the repository by the site staff. Since we will have to strike a balance between uploading speed and file size, we will use the first batch from each site to assess the uploading speed and workflow for each site and the Index as a whole. At that point, we may make some adjustments.

Index Online Reference Images: Upon submission, there is an automatic verification that the image is in the correct format. The repository assigns control fields and renames the actual digital file with its unique identification number and creates the particular web-ready access and thumbnail images needed for online reference and presentation in the Quilt Index.

Quilt Index Thesaurus Iteration

As anticipated, the process of ingesting information from a large quantity of individual hand-written forms has led to additions and modifications of the Index Thesaurus of terms. As a result, we have added terms, modified input forms, and reformatted information requirements to accommodate the needs of the varied, distributed analog information available at the multiple sites. For example, there is a series of fields for quilt inscriptions. Dates, in particular, offer very specific data for dating and identifying quilts and for searching and sorting in the Quilt Index database. However, dates are written many ways. A gifted quilt may have a date written as February 14, 1969 or Valentine s Day 1969, or 2-14-69. To accommodate such discrepancies and also allow for searching and identifying quilts, we created two entries for such metadata. The first, a free text box to input the inscription exactly as it appears on the quilt. The second is a controlled date field for translating the date into numeric form. Such a format does introduce additional possibility for error, so it requires skilled and meticulous data entry. However, it also allows for a more robust description of the contents of the quilts.

Next Steps

As of January 2003, over 100 quilts have been entered from two of the four pilot sites. In the coming months, the other two sites will begin ingesting their quilt documentation holdings. The project is currently developing the web site for public presentation of the Index holdings. These pages will feature a variety of search and sort options as well as thumbnail gallery access to search results and site-based collections. Once the site is fully functional, we anticipate several iterations of the gallery and search design and usability formats based on user analysis.

Further, we anticipate including additional state and regional documentation projects in the next phase of the project. Many such projects contact the Index staff monthly to inquire about preparing and formatting quilt documentation information for digital forms and for ingestion into the Quilt Index. By the conclusion of this pilot phase, the Quilt Index will be fully operational and available for use by all institutions that document quilts, as well as a wide range of researchers, teachers and a general public. Cumulatively, the documentation projects of the partners in this phase will demonstrate the academic value of the Index and ensure its immediate usefulness even as it grows through expansion to other collections.

The natural decentralization of the Web corresponds precisely to the decentralization of quilt makers and quilt researchers, and the Web offers the quilting world what it most needs: universal access to systematic comparative information about the art of quilting. Just as The Index of American Design in the 1930s provided a national basis for consideration of American craft and design traditions, so the Quilt Index in the 21st century is intended to provide the quilting world and the world of research and scholarship with a national data base for the comparative study of this vibrant American art form. The decentralization and local access of the World Wide Web will make the entire database of The Index available to quilt makers and researchers everywhere. As a ubiquitous expressive material culture form in the United States and a popular one throughout the world, quilts and quilt-related materials are important primary sources for scholarly inquiry; making the data more accessible will greatly increase the number and scope of studies.

Endnote

Much of the quilt history in this paper was originally developed for an unpublished proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities, submitted 1999. The repository description comes in part from an unpublished report to the National Science Foundation describing MATRIX Repository development for National Gallery of the Spoken Word.