#AskAnArchivist: An interview with FIT’s Samantha Levin

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.
Samantha Levin

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.

Lucile Fashion Photograph c. 1917. Image courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY FIT Library Unit of Special Collections and College Archives.

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

Coat with Sideways Button Closure and Brown Accessories. Image courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY FIT Library Unit of Special Collections and College Archives.

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. 

FIT Oral History: Fred Pomerantz. Video courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY FIT Library Unit of Special Collections and College Archives

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!

The University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection

The University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection is a digital collection developed in 2018 by the university libraries in cooperation with the College of Business’s Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design.

The physical collection, established in 1951, includes textiles, costumes and ephemera from Rhode Island and all over the world, spanning in time from ancient Egyptian cloth to garments by 20th century designers. It was developed to support teaching at the university, encourage research, and provide artifacts for use in classes and exhibitions. Only a small portion of the physical collection—which numbers more than 25,000 objects—have been photographed or digitised for inclusion in the digital collection.

One of the goals of this digital initiative is to publicise the collection and make it more accessible in an online format. In Historic Textile and Costume Collection in the Academic Setting Linda Welters and Margaret Ordoñez note that digital fashion, textile and costume collections provide for greater collection access, detailed imagery and the ability to view the collection, whilst minimising handling of the actual objects. Additionally, they point out that linked data and further information such as donor records, exhibition history and conservation issues make a digital collection more complete.

Digital fashion, textile and costume collections provide for greater collection access, detailed imagery and the ability to view the collection, whilst minimising handling of the actual objects.

Linda Welters and Margaret Ordoñez

The collection uses the Omeka content management system, which allows libraries, archives and museums, as well as scholarly collections to host visual content and develop digital exhibitions. The platform is customisable to the needs of the developer, allowing a plug-and-play system without the need for advanced computer coding knowledge. 

The landing page features university branding, a search bar and five main subpages: About, Browse Collections, Exhibitions, News and Contact Us. Next a visual header from an item in the collection, recently added items, a featured item, featured [sub]collection and a featured exhibit. Administrative data regarding ownership, funding information and a copyright notice are located at the foot of the page.

As of September 2021, the digital Historic Textile and Costume Collection collection has 19 thematic subcollections, with titles such as “Accessories” and “Materials of the future” which contain as few as two or as many as 70 items. Each subcollections contains metadata such as subject, title, date range, description and contributor, in addition to images and links to the digital objects. Social media links, not visible on the collection homepage do appear within the subcollection record.

“Cubism” University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection

The digital object record includes entries on subject, data, format, description, source, accession identifier, collection contributor, (original) creator, medium, provenance as well as an indexical subcollection hyperlink, the suggested citation and social bookmarking links. The source entry contains information related to the physical item’s donor, and in some records notates that it was a university purchase. Some objects’ records list just a name, while others have a more complete record of the item’s provenance and include information about the item’s initial appraisal. Object description ranges from a few sentences to fully-researched entries with accompanying bibliographic information. 

Regarding imagery, besides a digital photograph of the full textile, there are a variety of images included in the different records. For example, the Cubist textile record from ​​the Tirocchi subcollection contains just one image and is enlargeable. The record for the Woman’s Velveteen Top by Pucci contains a full image of the garment, and also one close-up photo of the collar and label. An enlargement of the Pucci image shows that the photo is not in a high enough resolution to allow for a closer look. However, the record for Woman’s Apron, Hutsul Culture, Ukraine, features two additional high-resolution close-up photos allowing for a very detailed inspection.

An analysis of contributors to the objects’ scholarship and description reveals a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as faculty from the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design, highlighting the use of this digital collection as an important education tool used to support scholarship in the fields of fashion, textile and costume studies.

Besides the digital collection, which is accessible via the library’s digital collections website, the only other access point for the physical collection is the Quinn Hall Textile Gallery, a small rotating exhibition space on campus. The digital collection supports the gallery through digital documentation of current and previous exhibitions and allows for greater access to the collection material. For example, the most recent exhibit, Jessica Strubel’s The Kaleidoscope of Textiles: Dress as Multidimensional Cultural Documents has also been digitally curated within the collection allowing for the exhibit to be seen by a worldwide audience.

In an Analysis of University Historic Clothing and Textile Websites Catherine Murphy suggests a successful digital collection includes images, accompanying text, exhibitions, and social networking links, as well as funding, copyright and site developer information. The digital Historic Textile and Costume Collection includes all of this information and is an example of a successful digital collection. Some recommended improvements would be to develop a standard for imagery including multiple views and closeups within the digital object records, standardisation of metadata fields throughout the collection, provide links to related resources and an increase of information in the entries for some of the objects who lack detailed information.

The strength of this collection is its function—not only as a digital surrogate of the physical collection, but the department’s integration of the collection as a digital humanities laboratory and the creation, transmission and preservation of departmental scholarship.

*Header “Arts and Crafts Movement,” University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection

The Nudie archive

Perhaps you don’t know his name, but you likely know his work. Nudie Cohn (1902-1984), born Nuta Kotlyarenko into a family of bootmakers in imperial Kyiv, emigrated to America at the age of 11. Trained as a tailor in his youth, Cohn’s first foray into fashion was as a designer for New York burlesque dancers. Later, Cohn moved to Los Angeles and made a name for himself as a western-wear designer and is responsible for the literal eye-catching rhinestone cowboy aesthetic.

It’s better to be looked over than overlooked
Nudie Cohn

The Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors Archive is held by the Autry Museum of the American West and consists of 28 linear feet (65 boxes) of materials including customer clothing files, correspondence, boot patterns, financial records, photographs and publications, spanning the years 1950-1994. The Online Archive of California offers the finding aid online and breaks down the contents of 64 of those boxes.

From catalog record there is no direct link to or suggestion that any part of the collection is online, but there is a link to the museum’s online resource catalog. A search of “Nudie” returns 96 records. A very helpful note notes that of these 96 records: 37 are categorised as art and artifacts, 36 photographs and visual imagery, one sound and video record, four manuscript records, 14 Books and Serials and four are subject heading records. Hyperlinks allow the user to easily access these catalog categories. Users are also able delimit by returning only records with images.

Forty-five of the online records are visual resources, and most are not enlargeable due to copyright restrictions, like this photo of Elvis Presley modeling Cohn’s famous gold lamé suit. (More info about Cohn and Elvis can be found at this blog.)

Other interesting visual resources include scans of boot patterns for the likes of Paul Newman and Hank Williams Jr.—just two examples of the archive’s holding of more than 400 folders of boot pattern templates, which according to the scope notes include those of Gene Autry, Jackson Brown, Glen Campbell, Linda Carter, Cher, Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood, Jerry Garcia, Billy Gibbons, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Robert Redford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, among others.

The Nudie collection is held at the LEED-certified 100,000-square-foot Resources Center of the Autry, located in Burbank, Calif., just north of Los Angeles. According to their website, the “Library and Archives at the Autry hold unique, rare and significant primary and secondary resources focusing on the peoples and cultures of the American West. The collections contain rare books, serials, maps, photographs, artwork, sound recordings, and manuscript collections.”

Header photo by Mike Salisbury

The Commercial Pattern Archive at the University of Rhode Island

The Commercial Pattern Archive, part of the Distinctive Collections at the University of Rhode Island, encompasses an extensive collection of commercial clothing paper patterns. The archive contains more than 60,000 patterns from the mid-19th century to the present and are described and available via a free database that includes images of clothing and pattern schematics.

The primary access point is the pattern number, but users can also submit an advanced search by year, garment, occasion, needlework, gender, age, keyword, pattern company or collection. There are about 50,000 images in the database, some of them full size, and schematics can be printed for personal and academic use.

Along with the patterns collection, the collection also includes books, pamphlets, journals, and ephemera on the subjects related to tailoring, textiles, fashions and the commercial pattern industry. All print material in Distinctive Collections is catalogued in the URI Library Catalog.

The archive is also available for in-person visits by appointment.

Textile resources at the American Philatelic Research Library

The American Philatelic Research Library, a special library located in Bellefonte, Penn., focuses on the study of postage stamps and postal history. According to their website, the library “has one of the world’s largest and most accessible collections of philatelic literature. The collection includes books and journals about stamps and postal history, as well as the history of philately and related subjects like transportation and geography.”

One of the journals that the library carries is Textile-Rama, the quarterly bulletin of the (now defunct) Textile Study Unit of the American Topical Association. The Textile Study Unit studied everything “from fibers to finished fashions including processes and decorative arts” on stamps from around the world.

The catalog entry from the Rocky Mountain Philatelic Library notes that Textile -Rama ran from 1977-2009 in 33 volumes, but the APRL only carries the 1995-2003 issues. Each issues is about ten pages long and is illustrated from March 2000, full color from December 2000.

Articles include examples such as French tapestries in Polish philately, Halas lace stamps of Hungary, Kilssam: the traditional domestic handweaving carried out in Korea, Nanduti lace of Paraguay, among many other fascinating topics. Each issue also includes topical collecting checklists and those of newly-issued stamps that focus on fashion, textile and costume topics.

The APRL offers photocopy and scanning services as well as reference assistance by phone and email. American Philatelic Society and library members may borrow books directly by mail and non-members may borrow books through interlibrary loan. The collection may be searched via the Union Philatelic Catalog.