3D imaging project to expand access to region’s history

9th August 2017

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—A surveyor’s chain that was used to plot out the township of New Albany in 1813 belongs to the most significant holdings of the Padgett Museum, where it is on display. Professional historians may handle it on a limited basis but it is off-limits to history buffs and other visitors.

That may be about to change.

A project initiated by Melanie Hughes, IU Southeast associate librarian and coordinator of automation and technical services, has been awarded a grant to digitize historical assets for 3D printing, potentially putting the surveyor’s chain and hundreds of other untouchable artifacts literally within everyone’s grasp.

Preserving the past

The Library Services and Technology (LSTA) grant in the amount of $14,623 provides meaningful support for this multifaceted undertaking.

The project is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered by the Indiana State Library.

In collaboration with the Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) University Library, the IUS team managed by Hughes and C. Bradford Griggs, assistant professor of education with a focus on secondary social studies instruction, will create digital images of artifacts from museums, libraries and historical sites in our area, many of which will be suitable for 3D reproduction.

Partners with holdings that could be photographed include the Carnegie Center for Art and History, the Culbertson Mansion, the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library, Padgett Museum of the Floyd County Historical Society.

The IU Southeast Center for Cultural Resources (CCR), on whose board Hughes and Griggs both sit, is another prime source for artifacts. The CCR contains numerous items from around the world that regularly help teachers in the region bring context and concreteness to social studies courses. Digitization of selected CCR assets will increase the Center’s ability to assist teachers, making it possible for them to bring reproductions of historic objects into the classroom without having to come to IU Southeast.

Besides bringing a STEM component to social studies education, Griggs sees the potential for digitized assets to bring history to life, or at least out of the textbook, making them “catalysts of comprehension.”

“Because artifacts are direct links to the past, students can skip right to understanding—you can sense the weight, size, smell, texture of the artifact if you are directly in contact with it,” Griggs said. “Three-dimensional representations are the next best thing because they have dimension, proportion and texture, the key facets of understanding context.”

Imaging the past

The technology behind the project is not widely available in Southern Indiana, and even at IU Southeast has been used only in a very limited way. The grant makes it possible to tap the expertise, acumen and technical resources of the IUPUI University Library, a leader in digital imaging, for the benefit of the IU Southeast service region.

Currently, Hughes and her team are working to identify five objects each from local collections that will be measured with a structured white light scanner by IUPUI informatics students. Beyond that, the team will purchase photogrammetry equipment and hire two IU Southeast students to help take photographs and use photogrammetry software to image more than 100 local artifacts.

Photogrammetry allows people to view an object from multiple angles on a computer screen. The process involves photographing the object hundreds of times from every possible angle, after which the images are “stitched” together via software to form a realistic representation. By contrast, imaging for 3D printing involves scanning to deliver a complete measurement of the surface of an object.

Digitized images can be used to enhance both access and understanding. Photo courtesy of IUPUI University Library, by Liz Kaye, IU Communications.

Some artifacts will be transported to Indianapolis for photographing, but those considered too fragile will be photographed on site, making it necessary to have mastered these techniques. To make this a reality, Hughes and Griggs may seek funding for the purchase of digital laser scanning equipment that would allow them to put into practice what the team has learned and develop a “studio” on campus as well as at partner institutions for this type of work.

The IU Southeast team will be coached by Jenny Johnson, digital scholarship outreach librarian at the IUPUI University Library. An expert in digital imaging with a passion for community partnerships who has to her credit the digitization of the photo archive of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and assets of the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, Johnson is leading efforts nationwide to establish best practices in the field. In this constantly changing world, where seemingly constant advances in computing power enable vast leaps in imaging capability, projects like Hughes’ will be making, not merely recording, history.

Broadening access

While it is easy to become fixated on the jaw-dropping ingenuity of a scanner that captures 1000 images per second, the core of the digitization project is access.

Through photogrammetry and 3D reproduction, history can be made more tangible to school children, blind or vision impaired persons, tourists and others not generally granted direct contact with historically significant yet fragile artifacts.

To hold a 3D replica of a Neanderthal skull, the bonnet of a First Lady from the 1860s or that New Albany measuring chain, or to be able to examine their likeness in minute detail on a computer, is to enjoy a much more immersive learning experience and to establish a personal connection with the past that may surpass what museums have been able to achieve in the past.

According to Hughes, the project also helps community stakeholders such as museums and cultural nonprofits meet their own needs and missions, be they preserving vulnerable historical assets, increasing attendance, contributing to historical education or promoting their holdings more effectively to funders and in the media.

By making this capacity available to partners in the community, IU Southeast can build on its reputation as a convenor of innovators in the field, as well as a strong supporter of local history.

“The benefit of this grant for IU Southeast is that we are able to strengthen our relationships with our community partners and have students actively engaged in exploring emerging technologies,” Hughes said.

As part of the drive to increase accessibility, the web platform of the CCR will be augmented to accommodate and share the scans of objects from its holdings, while conversations will be held with partner organizations to develop an information architecture to bring everyone’s images into a common “room.” By carefully documenting the project and producing a white paper at the conclusion, Hughes believes the team could contribute to even greater impacts beyond the region.

For example, the images captured during the project’s one-year life-span will also become part of the Indiana Memory initiative, which provides access to primary sources in Indiana libraries, archives, museums and other cultural institutions.

“We believe this project has strong potential to serve as a model for replication at other institutions and in other communities,” Hughes said.

Homepage photo: A 3D printed replica of a Neanderthal skull, courtesy of IUPUI University Library, by Liz Kaye, IU Communications.

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