October is American Archives Month and so I sat down with Samantha Levin, a New York-based digital archivist to ask her some questions about her job at the Fashion Institute of Technology for #AskAnArchivist Day.
Levin is the curator of digital and audiovisual assets and a special collections associate in the Special Collections and College Archives unit at FIT’s Gladys Marcus Library in New York, New York. In addition to their duties at FIT, Levin is also a freelance and private archivist, a workshop leader at the Pratt Institute, and the chair of the Greater New York Chapter of the Visual Resources Association. Levin studied sculpture at the School of Visual Art and worked in the art field before attending Pratt to study library and information science with a focus on digital asset management and digital curation.
AML: How did you become interested in archivy?
SL: My interest in archival work stems from a fascination with how older objects and documents reflect histories from eras past. I certainly romanticize old documents and objects created long ago, but I also perceive a great significance to preserving whatever truths old documents hold, and have a passion and compulsion for preserving them. I became interested in digital archives when artists I know, who rely upon digital media to make their living, lost digital content, either because their social media accounts were shut down, or because their hard drives failed. I realized that our culture’s wider historical record was subject to these same challenges, and I joined the archival profession to help solve that issue in my own small way.
AML: What does the Curator of Digital and Audiovisual Assets do at FIT?
SL: I am responsible for all the digital and time-based media that the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Special Collections and College Archives unit holds. There is quite a lot of material that falls under that umbrella, and so it’s a busy position with several long-term projects constantly progressing. At the moment, I am cleaning up metadata for a collection of around 80,000 digital assets digitized from our physical collection, and preparing them for ingest into a new digital repository that uses Archivematica and Omeka S. I’m also responsible for getting data from our older finding aids into software called Access to Memory. I run a web archiving program that works to preserve the Fashion Institute’s website as it changes over time. I accession new digital media as various departments from the college donate it to the College Archive, and ensure that it gets inventoried properly. I am working on processing and publishing a small oral history collection of a little over 400 interviews that go back to the 1970s, and I’m also supervising a volunteer who is carefully inventorying our video collection of about 4000 magnetic media cassettes.
AML: Who are you curating digital and audiovisual assets for; who are your designated communities?
SL: We primarily serve FIT students who are largely interested in all things fashion including design, history, science, and business. But we also support a lot of students who study art, illustration, and a wide variety of design fields including toy, jewelry, interior, graphic and more. FIT is part of the State University of New York, which means we serve the public, so we also meet many researchers from around the world who are studying various aspects of fashion history, preparing for museum exhibitions, researching aspects of costume design for television and film, researching for book or magazine articles, or even seeking information about their relatives.
A very large portion of our collection is related to the fashion industry, so most of our patrons come to us with fashion research subjects in mind. We don’t yet have a large portion of holdings that are born-digital. The web archive certainly falls into that category, and is part of the college archives, which additionally serves to fulfil our legal requirements for records retention as a New York State school. Most of our digital holdings are digitized and meant for eventual online publication to make our holdings more discoverable to a wider audience. We also digitize to support preservation efforts, but we lack the human resources to do that in a comprehensive way.
AML: How do digital archives support fashion, textile and costume studies?
SL: Our holdings support fashion, textile and costume studies, as well as students of other disciplines since fashion is one of the world’s largest industries that impacts our economy, culture, and ecosystem. As one could imagine, any portion of our collection that can be published online will become available to scholars worldwide. This is especially important for rare materials that only exist at FIT SPARC.
Collections that have been split between different archives can also be merged digitally, expanding any understanding that a collection’s wider context might provide. For example, our project with the New York Public Library to digitize sketches created by the New York firm André Fashion Studios in the 1930s and early 1940s helped merge the two institution’s collections together for viewing online. It’s slow and careful work to digitize and describe our holdings, but we are diligently working towards that end, and have attracted researchers from around the world via our online platforms SPARC Digital, and Archive on Demand.
Digital archives also support scholarly work by preserving content through digitization, description and application of digital preservation best practices. Just as we preserve physical materials, we must collect born-digital materials in step with the fashion industry to preserve its history. Right now, the most prominent born-digital collection is the web archive, which has a scope that is limited to the college’s own website and affiliated web pages. This will serve to support our alumni, although our web development team has expressed a need for it as well. We hope to expand this archive to the wider fashion industry to collect websites at risk of deletion.
AML: What is the most interesting resource that you have come across in the collection?
SL: It’s difficult for me to choose just one item, but amongst my favorite of our holdings include photographs taken of the designs of Lucile’s costume designs from the early 1900s. They are softly lit black and white depictions of models (or mannequins), wearing flowing fabrics. I’m not a fashion historian, but I’m told that Lucile was one of the first fashion designers to photograph women wearing her designs instead of or in addition to sketching her designs. I also really enjoy some of the oral history interviews I’ve processed including one with Fred Pomerantz who talks about his childhood working in Manhattan’s garment district starting at age 11, and how he eventually opened his own dress company. The FIT Pomerantz building is named after him. Fred’s bruiser personality really comes through in the interview, and it completely belies the stereotype that I’ve always had of garment workers and fashion businesspeople being staid and fashionable. His experiences were quite extraordinary, and it’s clear he lived through some difficult times.
AML: What are you currently working on?
SL: This week I’m working on a grant application, getting additional oral history recordings published online with closed captions, and as the college website is about to get completely overhauled in November, I’ll be continuing to perform quality assurance that all its pages have been captured in our web archive. I also have two amazing volunteers who are helping me out with getting an inventory of our video collection and rehousing documents related to the oral history collection.
AML: What are you reading about professionally?
SL: I try to keep up with developments from the Internet Archive, new developments in digital preservation, and am reading up on uses of Linked Open Data so we can apply it to the digital repository my colleague Joseph Anderson is developing. I’ve begun reading about shared stewardship of collections as established by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and on a personal level I’m about to start reading a book called Everybody’s Scene: The Story of Connecticut’s Anthrax Club, which is related to my interest in preserving the history of subcultures in the United States. No idea how good it will be, but cross your fingers for me.
AML: What sort of training or knowledge would you recommend for library and information science students or professionals interested in digital archivy?
SL: The needs of digital archival work changes frequently and are complicated. The basics of general archival preservation are key, but digital behaves differently than analog and physical media, and it’s important to keep that in mind. Figuring out what you might be interested in might help guide you in your studies. My interest in preserving and managing visual digital media for the arts led me towards studying visual resource management and digital curation. I also studied digital asset management and database management. Another track might involve diving into metadata or linked open data, or if you’re super tech-savvy, emulation is an important arena to explore, as is the conservation of time-based media.
Digitization is a whole world unto itself, and different digital formats behave in completely different ways. Digital preservation doesn’t require programming skills, although it’s very helpful to understand how scripting, command line, or SQL can help in digital preservation. It is very important to be comfortable with software and hardware, and understand that you will need tech support for various processes that you may not be able to do yourself. Rights management for digital media is a very complex arena to study. Also, while digital archiving is not new, it’s not very old either. Many digital archivists learn as we go. The field is still growing, discovering, and getting its best practices established. The best way to learn about it may be to keep abreast of what the wider profession is learning as it goes along, and as new digital tools get created.
AML: Thank you for speaking with me and providing a glimpse into the practice of digital archivy within fashion, textile and costume studies!