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Gone Digital – How the Smithsonian Plans to Digitize 130 Million Objects

Only about 1% of the Smithsonian’s massive collection of archives is on display at any given time at the museums. That means that 99% of the archives are off limits to the public and scientists alike.

“If people can’t access the archives they might as well not exist,” said Gunter Waibel.

Waibel is is the director of digitization office in the office of the CIO at the Smithsonian. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the Smithsonian is taking on the huge task of digitizing its archives as a way of expanding access to the museum’s archives.

“The Smithsonian is a huge entity; it has 19 museums, 9 research centers, which includes a library with 20 different branches and archives. What we are trying to do is coordinate digitization across all those entities. It amounts to about 139 million objects. That is just a daunting task,” said Waibel. “We have some broad institutional authorities that broadly lay out what we would like to focus on: broadening out access, conservation and scientific research.”

Museum by Museum

“Largely the digitization decisions are being made at a museum by museum basis. They know their collection better than anyone else so that makes sense. Right now we are trying to focus on digitizing about 10% of the collection. That equates to about 14 million objects,” said Waibel.

Natural History Museum

“At the Natural History Museum they have botany sheets that get digitized every day. We have about 200 sheets in our collection right now. That is of great use to the scientific community. These things used to get loaned as physical items. Now they can do their work based on the digitized version of those sheets,” said Waibel.

Air and Space Museum

“The Air and Space Museum has digitized versions of aircrafts. They are using new techniques to do it, that way they get high resolution images of these very large collection projects. You can endlessly zoom in,” said Waibel.

Mission Oriented

“You have to ask the question if this furthers our mission, and it does,” said Waibel.

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