Online Digital Collections and Archival Access

The Archives of American Art (AAA) was founded in 1954 by Edgar P. Richardson, an art historian. Serving as director to both the Detroit Institute of Art and the H. F. du Pont Winterthur Museum, Richardson was committed to encouraging scholarly research in the field of American visual art; with help from businessman and art collector Lawrence Fleishman, he originally conceptualized the archives as a repository to house microfilm and art-related materials in order to aid such education. Later, the Archives headquarters relocated from Detroit to New York City, and in 1960, Richardson began to establish ties with the Smithsonian by serving on its art commission. It was not until 1970 when the Archives was gained by the Smithsonian Institution, and the physical archives was relocated to Washington D.C. Today, AAA is known as the world’s largest resource in “collecting and preserving the papers and primary records of the visual arts in America” (website homepage). Original materials now are housed in the Old Patent Office Building in D.C. and displayed for exhibition at the Fleishman Gallery, while a microfilm viewing and research center is located in New York City. Additionally, affiliated centers are located in Boston, Fort Worth, San Francisco, and San Marino. Currently, the collection contains over 16 million items, including scrapbooks, films, oral histories, photographs, manuscripts, sketches and otherwise.

AAA’s acquired affiliation with the Smithsonian meant an acceptance into the institution’s mission: to support the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Today, the Smithsonian highlights its commitment to this mandate through its priority to broaden access specifically through digitization of collections. Particularly for the Archives of American Art, this is accomplished with help from Terra Foundation for American Art. With the foundation’s assistance, AAA has utilized their multi-million dollar (repeated) grant to digitize and place for access over 100 individual collections, in addition to upwards of 12 thousand catalogued documents available in the online image gallery.


Upon a preliminary acquaintance with the archive’s online presence, the site is eye-catching, yet organized and simple to access. One can easily review, through titled sections, the research collection, an archive of exhibitions (documented past physical exhibits, including online components and information), publications (.pdf versions of selected research guides and links to books for purchase), information about news and events (including digital slide-shows of past events), an “about us” section, a “contact us” section, and a support tab (essentially for a user to donate or contribute financially to AAA). A display box on the the main page scrolls through featured collections by way of highlighting singular icons and titles containing hyperlinks to the specific collection. Interjected between these selections are exhibition and news announcements. Located directly below this main section, which consumes the top half of the screen, is a news/blog feed and an icon box. The icon box contains links to individual documents in the image gallery: the user must click on the icon in order to access any information on the document.

With the selection of the Research Collection tab, a user is greeted by the following options: browse by an alphabetical index of over 6 thousand creators by last name/institution, by category (fully digitized collections, oral history interviews, collections by topic), or by the image gallery’s individual item-find. The first option exists sometimes an access point to the collections; in most cases, the creator’s entry notes the collection materials, contains a brief collection summary (including size and a biographical/historical note), a finding aid, and in some cases, digitized items. For those entries without online access to material, a “how to use this collection” note specifies the requirement of an appointment, in which a link is provided to a contact form.

In terms of categorical browsing, all oral history interviews are represented through transcripts and are unaccompanied by audio. Collections by topic are, as expressed on the website, organized in broad categories, such as women, craft, African American, or Architecture and Design, and should not be considered comprehensive: users are suggested to consult the Reference Services staff or search the Archives, Manuscripts, and Photographs Catalog (SIRIS–the Smithsonian Institute Research Information System) should more targeted subject searches be required by researchers.

As for the image gallery, the only form of navigation available is a user-specified search. Interestingly, while, as noted, over 12 thousand documents have been digitized, the gallery contains over 33 thousand images, indicating that in efforts of aiding users in an item-level keyword search, documents are not only separated from their fonds but also from the original document. The limited search capabilities, as one may expect, also limit results. For example, a search for “diary” returns 85 images; a search for “diaries” returns 33. From what this writer could surmise, such results were attributed not to the listed physical details, nor citations, but rather by information pulled from an informal description of the image. Thus, the online image gallery is catalogued through search keywords rather than by uniform or recognized metadata.

The most impressive portion of the online presence is AAA’s fully digitized collection. The left portion of the page contains a brief statement about the Terra Foundation Center for Digital Collections, with multiple featured collections highlighted below it, and the right side of the page displays the complete listing of the collections in alphabetical order by creator. Similar to the first-discussed browsing option, collections are accompanied by a collection summary tab and a tab containing more information about the its holdings. Joseph Cornell’s title page, for instance, provides specifics in the collection summary information concerning the dates of digitization (from 2005-2009) and number of images (totaling 38,398), in addition to the previously mentioned information. The page notes the reasons for any material that was not fully digitized (such as duplicate material and ephemeral artifacts, as well as complete catalogs for artists other than Cornell–only “relevant pages of these items have been digitized”), related material (items located at the Smithsonian Art Museum, as well as links to related Image Gallery items). Most importantly, the tab contains the access points to the digital collection, which has been organized into series: series 1 is biographical material, series 2 is correspondence, series 3 is diaries, and so on. The information tab containing the finding aid (which also provides a downloadable .pdf version of the page) provides extensive information concerning Cornell’s biography, the collection’s scope and contents, arrangement and series descriptions, subjects and names (for instance, subjects-topical: Assemblage (Art), or Art, Modern–20th century– United States), provenance, separated and related materials, and how the collection was processed. Furthermore, each series contains an extensively detailed description and container inventory– it may be very pertinent to note that a series (essentially a topic heading) contains boxes–or portions of boxes– and their contents help define it: for instance, series 2.3, Greeting Cards, 1956-1972 is contained in box 5, folders 20-42, where each folder is linked for digital review for the user. Clicking on the folders, the user is able to select or scroll through each of the individual documents, in order of representation, as well as browse folder to folder. These folders, contained within the boxes, have been scanned in the exact order as they appear in the physical archives, and seem very much to contain the group/sub-group and series level methods of organization via adherence to provenance, a la Schellenberg. The last portion of information in the overview credits the specific archivist responsible for processing, arranging, and describing the collection. Overall, AAA enacts a seemingly painstaking effort in assuring its users that its material is both reliable, trustworthy, and in adherence to traditional archival standards.


The aforementioned information concerning the online archive’s organization and user access points should help the reader understand the remarkable level of care AAA has taken in maintaining legitimate and ethical archival practice for an online community. The complexities of the fully digitized collection, however, stand in stark opposition with the condition of the image gallery… but this is certainly because the digitized collection is massively funded in comparison; one would of course expect that more precise care and attention be brought to it. The theoretical implications of these choices for users will be discussed once foundational aspects have been identified and developed.

To address those aspects, it is worth noting that AAA is not an independent organization: its involvement with the Smithsonian Institution places its collections in a specific context, which means the Archives must identify with institutionally stipulated archival and administrative policies, including mission, goals, and visions. While some information is available in brevity on the Archives’ website, it is helpful for the user to refer to Smithsonian’s website to understand the extent of the institution’s purpose. To summarize: essentially, Smithsonian has prioritized the following challenges: to broaden access, revitalize education, cross boundaries, strengthen collections, maintain organizational excellence, and measure performance. Thus, AAA’s digitization of collections and holdings in specific reference to its online presence is fit strategically into the goal of broadening access, and furthermore into revitalizing education.

For instance: as part of their strategic plan, in 2009 the Smithsonian Institution developed a New Media Strategy. The report includes a useful, straightforward chart which expresses new directional shifts the Institution seeks to follow (see attached). Control is “what’s out,” and collaboration is “what’s in”; focus on buildings is “out,” focus on programs is “in.” Most significant perhaps in this evaluation, the real thing has been replaced by the real thing plus digital representations in order to turn “Our Smithsonian” into “Everyone’s Smithsonian.” It can be assumed, then, that with this change, in order for the Institute to accommodate user needs for today’s “new media” and technological dependence, digital surrogates may be certainly be acceptable for use in archival practice, only as long as digital representations are preserved in reference to the actual object. Perhaps an example of this is the Archives’ mandate that, as a scanning technician, “your goal is to produce reasonable reproductions, without enhancements.” It is also clear from the precise organizational structure of the digitized collections that the Institute will not sacrifice archival practice in lieu of the technological additions. Rather, it will strive to maintain and, furthermore, creatively evolve in response to such an atmosphere, those archival practices, which seems to in turn efficiently provide online users with an equally as valuable archival access to the digital collections. This is cited in the website section on technical documentation containing explicit instructions on processing, scanning, and reviewing documents, as well as for creating finding aids. In this section, one may find that instructions for archival arrangement dictate traditional archival concepts, such as respect des fonds (“Follow the creator’s arrangement if it makes sense and can be used by researchers”), and maintaining records in accordance with provenance (cataloging guidelines for related materials). But in addition to these instructions, AAA also outlays new specific archival approaches in developing a “media-rich mixed manuscript collections,” opting for a complete description of a collection before digitization, in comparison to many online archives who have opted for “more product, less process.” Once the collections have been placed online, research demand will serve as the drive for reformatting. As part of the project, AAA will strive to:

…develop processing guidelines that address specific issues related to media items and media groups within mixed media collections, such as risk assessment and content sampling, while addressing the overall processing needs of the entire collection at the same time. Actual processing times will be estimated, tracked, and recorded– information currently lacking in the field. This project will also create and share guidelines for describing media-rich collections according to EAD and DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard) — only roughly considered in existing published standards and guidelines.

Such an approach, as AAA believes, will aide in creating a substantial archival environment online in order to improve user access (specifically in regards to research) online, allowing archives to effectively evolve its educational component to include the use of mixed formats and reduce reliance on item-level access for media.

Decisively, then, by broadening its access to an online environment, AAA (and the Smithsonian Institute) has consciously elected not to sacrifice archival practice, but also expand it, in turn advancing educational opportunities, and hence committing to two of its identified priorities.


But while innovative techniques are being integrated into a visitor’s online experience, AAA seems to currently continue a traditional archival approach in reference to its audience. This is evident primarily in the ways in which the site addresses its idea of users. For example, the section containing “frequently asked questions” contains questions posed only by the following: researchers and collectors, publishers and curators, and librarians and archivists. While admittedly it may be seen as off-kilter or even slightly offensive to include another section labeled as “others” or “the general public,” it is worth mentioning that one of the few highlighted links containing easily accessible information on AAA’s archival policies does not acknowledge a non-professional audience. Additionally, AAA nor the Smithsonian Institution offers advice to this unrepresented audience on accessing collections, for recreational use, personal enrichment or otherwise. There is no witnessed effort to explain what a finding aid is, or even why the collection is arranged by creator (i.e. why archives desire to maintain original order; why provenance is essential to the collections).

However, the writer would like to make a clear distinction between an identified audience and a user. It is obvious that AAA addresses its audience as a scholarly or professional community, and that it holds a similar expectation for its users to be part of this audience. To draw from Emily Monks-Leeson’s notes in “Archives on the Internet: Representing Contexts and Provenance from Repository to Website,” pop culture’s portrayal (and possibly a publicly accepted view because of this) of archives is that of a closed space; one that houses truths, or public knowledge. Arguably, these views are inherently tied to concepts of power and control. A public institution, contained in a physical space, while obviously intended for the public, has often gained a negative connotation over ages as unwelcome to such “other” or “general” non-professional or non-research-based audiences. Yet by releasing its collections online, an archives may achieve a more realistic image of what it intends to communicate to a public. Because of its instant “democratization” of information, an archives should anticipate a new user: one who may be of a scholarly background and have experience conducting archival research, as well of course as one who has no previous experience in it. So in order to fulfill its priority of revitalizing education, the Institute should recognize the need to integrate the archival experience into the education of a public.

Fortunately, the inclusion of this new user is anticipated in the Smithsonian’s recent policies. In fact, the Web and New Media Policy clearly identifies its goals to be to enliven the Smithsonian brand to increase its appeal to and relevance for younger audiences as well to the “enthusiast” through the Smithsonian Commons project, which would allow users to interact and create both with other users and with the collection materials. While it may be slightly depressing that this is done particularly in efforts of inviting a larger audience to participate in a branding opportunity, it is at least positive that the Institute understands the implications of shifting a physical environment to an online one in reference to users and capabilities. AAA specifically has taken positive steps towards including a larger audience by expanding its outreach to YouTube and in the form of a public blog, as well as participation in “I Found it in the Archives,” a national campaign intended to promote public awareness of archives and their holdings.


As any aspiring archivist would probably opt for a visit to the physical archives over an online experience in order to view the original materials, it may be redundant for the writer to note that it seems completely worthwhile to make a visit to the physical archives, particularly based on the unique collections of AAA. On the other hand, it also seems unlikely for a researcher or even enthusiast to now specifically require a visit to the physical archives, unless one held particular cause to examine the original materials or surrounding ephemera (or, of course, the collections not yet digitized)–but is this actually a problem?

In the writer’s opinion, the Archives of American Art represents a fantastic model for an online archival atmosphere. The upkeep of both the integrity of the collection, as well as archival standards, is extremely impressive, and from an academic standpoint, very attractive for use, particularly since it is obvious that the online environment cannot simply be considered a “digital collection,” as was found with the Monks-Leeson examples. However, from a “general” surveyor’s perspective, it is difficult to image “user-friendliness” as a quality of the site. One possible suggestion for improvement here would be to include a topics list for the fully digitized collections, as well as descriptors to be listed beside each creator. Most importantly, the site should require a statement for non-professionals on how to access the collection. Just as an archivist would assist an “archives newcomer” to the best of his/her abilities, the AAA online presence should also adopt similar tasks through an instructional guide. Additionally, the online archives’ organization (and furthermore, navigation) might become a bit cumbersome once the digital collection has grown in size, and it will be interesting to see how AAA adapts to it accordingly.

But the most positive step taken by AAA to enact a complete digitization of the collections should be seen in institutional transparency. Users now, more than ever, are able to locate materials of interest to them; to easily access a collection which might otherwise never have been used by individuals (not to mention if they’d ever know of the collection’s existence). If nothing else, this can be recognized as the Archive of American Art’s defining quality which truly seems to serve the Smithsonian Institute’s mission to increase and diffuse knowledge.

Works Cited

“Archives of American Art.” Smithsonian Institution Archives. Web. 20 Feb. 2012. .

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 20 Feb. 2012. .

Monks-Leeson, Emily. “Archives on the Internet: Representing Contexts and Provenance from Repository to Website,” American Archivist (2011): 38-57.

Schellenberg, Theodore R. “Archival Principles of Arrangement.” American Archivist 24 (1961): 11-24.

“Terra Foundation Awards $3.6 Million to Digitize Smithsonian’s American Art Resources.” Philanthropy News Digest. 19 Feb. 2005. Web. 20 Feb. 2012. .

Web and New Media Stategy, Version 1.0. Rep. Smithsonian Institute, 30 July 2009. Web. .