Crafting the Craftsman: Digitization Brings Important Museum Database Online

An example of a slant top desk attributed to George Piedmont from the MESDA Object Database
An example of a slant top desk attributed to George Piedmont from the MESDA Object Database

In talking with Gary Albert, Adjunct Curator of Silver and Metals at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA), editor of the MESDA Journal and self-proclaimed digestive tract (“the research and archives are the food; the articles are what come out”), one thing is abundantly clear: he loves his job(s). A New Jersey native educated in Ohio, Albert moved to North Carolina and has ironically become a passionate spokesman for historic craftsman and the material culture of the early American South (Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky).

For more than fifty years, MESDA staff has been documenting the craftsmen and furniture, ceramics, paintings, textiles and metalwares of the South before the Civil War. Researchers have painstakingly built a comprehensive database of photographs, craftsman records, object records and physical artifacts. Says Albert, “MESDA founder, Frank Horton, was also the first director of restoration for the well-preserved Moravian community known as Old Salem [North Carolina]. It was his dream to create a repository for anybody who is interested in things made in the South from the first footsteps of settlement in Jamestown [Virginia; 1607] to the first cannon ball in Fort Sumter [South Carolina; 1861].”

Noting that MESDA is “the expert for the experts,” Albert described the MESDA database audience as primarily antique dealers, trade/auction houses, collectors, scholars (“Academia is beginning to understand the sociological significance of material culture. The objects tell stories of those who may not have had a voice at the time, such as slaves, immigrants, and females.”) and genealogists.

With the advent of a digitized database, the craftsman, their art, and their stories have now found a voice and a much wider audience with free access via the internet.

From index cards to keyword search

The MESDA Subject Database includes a variety of information that the researchers found intriguing, such as this post about "The Ugly Club"
The MESDA Subject Database includes a variety of information that the researchers found intriguing, such as this post about “The Ugly Club”

In 2007, in anticipation of MESDA’s 2015 50th anniversary, the board developed a strategic vision for MESDA in the 21st century, re-envisioning every aspect of the museum with the goal of meeting constituents where they are. “Where they are,” says Albert, “was and is online. They’re researching a recently purchased antique, tracking the origin of a family heirloom or looking for information on a particular craftsman.”

The process began with the exploration of potential university partners, which led to an eventual collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Digital Library and Archives to design the project. The project was divided into three separate databases: Object; Craftsman; and Subject. Funding was provided from grants and gifts (read the full release) and the first 250,000 index cards for the Craftsman Database were scanned. The cards, almost all typewritten, were the result of research associates scouring primary sources as far back as the early 1970s through the beginning of the 2000s (at which point the research was entered digitally using collection management software). The cards contained any relevant information on a particular craftsman from birth dates to real estate records to newspaper articles and will transcripts.

Following the completion of the first phase of the project, the decision was made to outsource the remaining databases in the interest of time and with the blessing of UNC Chapel Hill. MESDA vetted three service bureaus and awarded the object and subject database digitization to Crowley Imaging.  After visiting all three bureaus, the decision, Albert says, “came down to delivery time and budget.”

Over the next twelve months, more than 100,000 digital images were created from a wide variety of cards and prints. As a personal preference, Albert drove the one-of-a-kind materials in several batches to and from Crowley’s Frederick, Maryland headquarters.

According to Meghan O’Brien, Crowley senior imaging specialist, the project was fairly straightforward, but the many different document types – from index cards to photographs to handwritten notes and newspaper articles – required the skill set of an experienced imaging operator and a flexibility in scanning equipment.

The Subject Database cards were scanned on an InoTec 4×3 document scanner, which is relied on for both its production speed and archival capabilities.Images were delivered as 300 dpi color uncompressed TIFF images and 300 dpi color JPG derivatives. Each image came with an OCR/Text file to help create a keyword searchable database.  According to the website, The MESDA Subject Database contains information that the museum’s research associates found interesting or intriguing while searching for individuals to add to the MESDA Craftsman Database.

The Object Database prints were scanned on a Zeutschel 14000 large format book scanner to 600 dpi color uncompressed TIFF images and 150 dpi color JPG derivatives. This database contains records of southern-made decorative arts, including photographs and data such as materials, dimensions, makers and provenance.

All electronic files were delivered via an external hard drive. The project went smoothly, in part notes Albert, because “we worked closely with Meghan to develop a sample run that encompassed all of the different materials represented in the collections. Once we tweaked the sample run, the actual project went without a hitch. The schedule we laid out would not have been possible without Crowley’s expertise and assistance.”

The Gifts of Knowledge and Time.

With the final delivery made in June of 2016, the MESDA staff made quick work of the metadata and gave researchers a special gift with a Christmas Day online release of the Subject and Object databases (the Craftsman database digitized by UNC Chapel Hill had already been online). According to this article, authored by Albert, his own experience showed that a search for an engraver of a specific piece took him a full weekend going through the typewritten cards. The same search once the database was online? One minute.

Now that’s a gift.

About Crowley Imaging

For more information on the scanning and digitization services offer by Crowley Imaging, please visit our website or call (240) 215-0224. General inquiries can be emailed to [email protected]. Stay connected and follow The Crowley Company on FacebookTwitterGoogle+LinkedInPinterest and YouTube.

Cheri BakerCheri Baker, Crowley’s former Director of Communications, has retired but retains her love for writing and all things Crowley. With a career that spans newspaper, agency and corporate communications, her goal remains to dig behind the scenes and tell the story - whatever it may be. Find Cheri Baker on LinkedIn+

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