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Reaching out: Digital access to the state's collections

Posted: June 4, 2013 - 12:00am
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Jim Simard, head of the historical collections at the Alaska State Library, examines a photographic glass plate negative from the Winter & Pond collection of the Princess May after it grounded on Sentinel Island on August 5, 1910.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Jim Simard, head of the historical collections at the Alaska State Library, examines a photographic glass plate negative from the Winter & Pond collection of the Princess May after it grounded on Sentinel Island on August 5, 1910.

Editor's note: This is part three of a three-part series that examines a few of the behind-the-scenes processes of the SLAM project. The project will place the statewide operations of the Library, Archives and Museums division in one building, currently under construction on Willoughby Avenue.

In theory, merging the State Library Archives and Museums’ digital cataloguing systems makes a lot of sense.

In reality, the idea tends to make LAM staff members run screaming from meeting rooms.

Though it seems clear that digital systems are a valuable way to highlight crossover between the collections and to increase public access, an overall digital merger between the three departments may not be the best way to go, said Linda Thibodeau, director of LAM and the state librarian.

“It would be really nice if a person could go to our website and type in something like ‘spruce root baskets,’ and find whatever the museum collection is, whatever we have in books, pictures, manuscripts,” she said. “But right now there isn’t really a commercial product out there that will pull together those disparate things and make that work. So we’ve been looking at other ways of trying to consolidate.”

The LAM team backtracked on the idea of merging the digital systems after seeing examples of how it’s been done in other places — and finding the results unsatisfactory.

“I have to say all our staff are very free with their opinions — they let us know if they think something isn’t working,” Thibodeau said.

One of the problems with merging digital systems is the specificity of the cataloguing process, which is unique to each department, said Jim Simard, head of the Alaska State Library’s Historical Collections.

“The library has its customs of how we catalog things, and so does the archives and so does the museum. And they’re quite different,” Simard said. “The reason they’re different is that there are different needs ... they exist for really good reasons.”

A different way to approach it, he said, might be to create a “discovery layer” that is curated by all three departments, that gives visitors access to specific pieces within the collections. For example, in the building itself there could be a kiosk placed near exhibits that allows exploration of a handful of related files, including film and audio. Something similar could be set up for internet users through links to related materials. (Right now the state’s collections are accessible through a searchable database, vilda.alaska.edu/index.php, and education.alaska.gov/collections/voyager.cfm.)

Bob Banghart, deputy director of LAM and chief curator of the Alaska State Museum, said the team was newly enthusiastic about the potential for digital overlap after a recent meeting with a company from Portland who designs touch-screen panels that allow this type of “discovery layer.” The company designed similar systems for the Arctic Studies Center of the Anchorage museum, he said.

“We saw that they could create a matrix of information ... that would manifest itself in these comprehensive connected points that used all the assets of the division in a digital delivery system,” Banghart said. “They knocked it out of the park, and everybody was totally excited.”

 

Integration v. autonomy

Thibodeau said the issue of how to link collections digitally uncovers a larger issue of the merger: how to balance integration and autonomy.

“For our digital presence, we’re pulling it together as much as we can, but they still are separate entities and (there are) separate ways of doing business for each of those, and we just have to learn to live with that for the time being and figure out ways to make it easier for the user,” she said.

Similarly, though there will be cross-training once everyone is in the same building, it’s important for staff to maintain their specialities in their fields, she said.

Banghart said he considers these issues part of the internal building process, one that is as important as construction of the building itself.

“Part of what my job is, is not just get the building built but to restructure what the new mechanism will look like when we’re all in one room and we all have a job to do,” he said. “How do we do it effectively and maintain the autonomy of our professions?”

Members of the team interviewed for this story said Banghart is particularly well-suited to the job of keeping an eye on both the internal and external building processes involved in SLAM. His statewide work as a consultant through Banghart and Associates centered on museum planning and design, a job that naturally involved a focus on reaching consensus through dialogue.

Banghart said part of the key to getting big projects like this off the ground is to engage each member of the team in the process, building on “the connectivity of like minds.”

“It’s social engineering, it’s human dynamics, it’s the mechanics of systems structure, it’s how communities operate, how they’re successful how they’re not, ... those are all the parts we have to keep taking apart and looking at.”

Banghart got his start at the state museum in 1974 (and constructed the current eagle tree) before founding his consulting business in the late 1970s. Some of his projects through Banghart and Associates included the Inupiat Heritage Center in Barrow, the Skagway City Museum, the Ilanka Cultural Center in Cordova, the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center in Haines and the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center and Museum in Bethel. He won the Museums Alaska Award for Excellence in October 2006 in recognition of his contributions to the state. The next year, he returned to the museum as curator of exhibitions, moving into his current position of chief curator in 2009.

Banghart said he’s been really lucky in pulling together a team of people who are so committed to the project, from Department of Transportation & Public Facilities Project Manager Kimberly Mahoney and Project Engineer Jennifer Pepin, to architect Brian Meissner, ECI/HYER and many others (for a full list visit museums.alaska.gov/LAM/slam/designTeam.html)

Paul Gardinier, who is designing the exhibits floor of SLAM, agreed, adding that DOT’s Mahoney cares as much about presenting Alaska’s collections properly as anyone on LAM staff.

“The team is phenomenal. I pinch myself,” he said.

 

The story of SLAM

Thibodeau said the idea for merging the three departments of LAM into one building has been around a long time — since the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. Land for the project was finally purchased in 2001 and 2002; since then the project has progressed incrementally, with big donations occurring last year ($49 million) and this year ($20 million), bringing the current total past $100 million. In getting the funds approved, Gov. Parnell has been extremely helpful, she said.

The project still requires $30 million to reach full funding.

Thibodeau said at first the focus of the project was on the physical benefits and efficiency of having everyone under the same roof, but as things progressed, the team began to explore ways to deepen the collaboration.

“At first it was ‘Let’s just put everybody in there, the museum downstairs and the library and archives upstairs’ ... but then we thought, how will we live together, how will we become more of a family?”

Several factors have helped the process along – such as Alaska’s relatively small population and short government history, Thibodeau said. Still, the project is ambitious for its scale and scope, and is unprecedented on the state level.

“Nobody’s doing it exactly the way we’re doing it,” she said. “I think Arizona might be as close as it comes. They have a historical library, an archives, a museum and a law library along with their state library,” although not all in one building.

In a previous interview, architect Meissner said the integration in one building is unusual in his experience.

“There’s lots of libraries, archives and museums in the world, but very, very few (buildings) that integrate all three,” he said. “It’s a new idea. A lot of the effort has been just trying to understand what that (integration) means.”

As far as the collections themselves, Simard said the integration will in some cases reestablish previously existing connections: the original collections of the library and museum began as one entity,

Authorized by Congress in 1900, Alaska’s Historical Library and Museum was mostly made up of what the Territorial governors had been collecting over the years, Simard said. A permanent home for those materials wasn’t found until 1920, when the Alaska Historical Library and Museum opened in the Arctic Brotherhood Building in Juneau. This change coincided with the arrival of A.P. Kashevarof from Sitka, who was hired as the Territory’s the first librarian and curator, a position he held through 1940. Under Kashevarof’s watch, the collection grew steadily and by the 1940s was too big to be contained in the original space. The collection was broken up in the 1960s, prior to the construction of the current state museum, funded through a one percent sales tax beginning in 1967.

The Archives wasn’t established until 1970, opening in 1972.

The SLAM project will place all three departments into the same building, currently being constructed behind the museum on Willoughby Avenue.

Construction of the vault is scheduled to be complete by early 2014, at which point the current museum will close while collections are transferred from one space to the other. The current museum will then be removed as construction of the new building continues on the site. (Plans for exhibits in the interim, between the existing museum’s closure and the new SLAM opening, are still being developed.) A grand opening is scheduled for April 2016.

For Thibodeau, seeing the first part of the building go up after all this time has been thrilling. Early on, she said, she went down to the site and stood in the hole that had been dug out for the foundation, and more recently was able to stand under part of a roof that will cover the parking garage. Next week, as the walls of the vault are constructed, she hopes to hold a staff meeting.

“We’ll go over there and stand in the vault, and just say, ‘Look around you! this is the space!’” she laughed. “All this time we’ve been thinking ‘It’s really going up,’ (but) what they’ve been doing is the foundation. Now it’s really going to be going up.”

• Contact reporter Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or at amy.fletcher@juneauempire.com.

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