#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 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

Costume Institute’s Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library Opens 15 Special Collections for Research

The Costume Institute’s Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library announces the opening for research of 15 special collections, including scrapbooks, sample books, collections of photographs and sketches, as well as designers’ business and personal records. The collections document European and American fashions from the late 19th through the early 21st centuries and complement the Museum’s holdings in the Costume Institute and digital collections.
Scrapbooks and ephemera collections
Bal Oriental, 1969: Original and reproduced sketches of costumes, hair ornaments, and coiffures designed for specific invitees to the spectacular 1969 Bal Oriental, given by Baron Alexis de Redé in his apartments at Paris’s Hotel Lambert and attended by denizens of European and American high society. Attached to some of the sketches are swatches of fabrics and trims used in the designs.
June Rhodes Hamilton papers: Social correspondence, ephemera, and press photographs related to fashion publicist June Rhodes Hamilton’s summer 1931 attendance at the Paris openings for the autumn/winter 1931 collections.

Photograph collections
Peter Lindbergh exhibitions collection, 1997-2008: Documentation from photographer Peter Lindbergh’s exhibitions “Milla Jovovich”, “Invasion 2000”, and “Images of Women”. For each exhibition there is a checklist with detailed information about individual prints, including dimensions, captions, and gallery case numbers; as well as a set of wire-bound laminated reproductions of the images included in each exhibition.
Paul Poiret garment photographs, 1925-1927: Five wood-mounted black and white images of models wearing dresses by Paul Poiret in fabrics designed by Raoul Dufy, and most likely all taken by Parisian photographer Boris Lipnitski.
Sidewalk to Showroom album, 1968-1970: Album of deckle-edged pages onto which are pasted black and white photographs by Ellen Breslow of street fashion taken in the period from 1968 to 1970, together with typed introductory paragraphs and captions as well as the typescript of a complete manuscript on the topic of street fashion.
Historic photographs collection, 1860s-1930s: Predominantly studio and some candid black and white photographic prints of individuals, couples, and families from the 1860s to the 1930s that appear to have been collected as documentation of everyday dress.

Textile samples
Rodier sample book, Spring/Summer 1938: Textile swatches produced by French textile design and manufacturing firm Rodier for the 1938 spring/summer season. For each named design, swatches are provided in a variety of colorways, accompanied by a sketch of a representative women’s clothing design showing the fabric represented by the largest sample swatch.
Miss Anea, [1960s]: Embroidered bead, sequin, and spangle samples on silk, velvet, wool, and taffeta fabric swatches produced by the embroidery studio Miss Anea in the 1960s for designers including Norman Norell and Pauline Trigere.
Sketch collections
Worth sketch collections 1918: Two sets of hand-colored lithographs of dress and blouse designs by House of Worth, including those mailed to an American potential customer in 1918, exemplifying the firm’s aggressive marketing of garments at the time of reduced purchasing of luxury items in Europe
Jay Thorpe sketch collection, 1913-1936: Thirty-eight albums of sketches documenting Paris fashions from 1913 to 1936 that were originally created for the retail store Jay Thorpe, which flourished in New York City from 1920 to the late 1950s. Color digital images are available for fourteen of the albums, and are linked to the collection’s finding aid.
Designers’ records
Kenneth Jay Lane collection of Roger Vivier designs, 1956-1961: Press photographs of Roger Vivier shoes designed for Christian Dior in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as original shoe design sketches by Kenneth Jay Lane, and ephemera including a brochure and a paper pattern for a shoe upper.
Robert Barger and Jacques Fath collection, 1949-1952: Photographs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and tear sheets documenting Parisian fashion designer Jacques Fath and American model Robert Barger. The photographs include studio shots of Barger modeling, candid photographs of each man alone, with each other, and with their respective families in social settings on board ship, in restaurants, and at private homes.
Vera Host collection, 1931-1970: Pencil and watercolor sketches of day and eveningwear, swimwear, and outerwear signed by American designer Vera Host, as well as newspaper and magazine clippings documenting her work and career, photocopied correspondence, her resume, and an unidentified photograph.
Vera Maxwell collection, 1919-1958: Original watercolor sketches of designs for women’s suits, dresses, and separates; black and white photographs, and some copy negatives; promotional and publicity materials; and drafts of the unpublished memoirs of the designer considered one of the trailblazing first generation of mid-20th century women who pioneered sportswear for active and working women.
Mainbocher collection, 1880s-1977: Genealogical information and family photographs; publicity photographs and clippings; images of and correspondence from notable clients; biographical writings; as well as documentation of the Paris-based American designer Mainbocher’s uniforms designed for the United States Armed Services during World War II.
The collections are available, by appointment only, to qualified researchers onsite at the Costume Institute’s Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library (https://www.metmuseum.org/art/libraries-and-research-centers/the-irene-lewisohn-costume-reference-library).
These collections are the first group to be opened for research as part of a two year project to make available more than 25 sets of special collections housed in the Costume Institute’s Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library.

Registration is Open for 2015 Fashion: Now & Then: Passé, Presente, 未来

October 22-24, 2015

New York City, NY, U.S.A.

The Adrian G. Marcuse Library at LIM College is excited to host the fifth annual Fashion: Now & Then Conference, a three day conference in which participants will discuss the past, present, and future uses of fashion information and the global reach that the fashion industry possess. Participants will be drawn from the fashion industry, libraries, archives, academic institutions, publishers, collectors, and museums to represent a full range of expertise.

The theme for this year’s Fashion: Now & Then Conference is Passé, Presente, 未来. We are looking forward to presentations that will demonstrate how fashion information and the global reach of the fashion industry has evolved through time and how it will continue to evolve in the future.

For more information on the conference, please check out the Fashion: Now & Then blog.

For more information on the schedule, please check out the Adrian G. Marcuse Library website. You can register here.