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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > November 2010

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Vol. 30 No. 9 — November 2010
Butte Digital Image Project: Shifting Focus From Collection to Community
by Patricia Pierson

By staying open to possibilities during the
digitization process, we were able to shift our
goals to meet community interests.
The Butte Free Public Library was established in 1894. At that time, head librarian J. Davies published a catalog of the opening collection. Two fires and one flood later, many of the monographs from that original collection list have, remarkably, survived. Because of this, in part, the library, now known as the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library (BSBPL), launched the Butte Digital Image Project (BDIP) in July 2009. This is an initiative to create digital surrogates of monographs and pamphlets in the library collection dating from the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century. Even though the collection—focused on Butte, mining, labor, Montana, and Western history—no longer circulates, BSBPL wanted to both preserve and provide access to these items.

Grants from the Montana Cultural Trust, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and Butte’s Urban Revitalization Agency provided funding for equipment and staffing for the BDIP. The funding provided for a new full-time digital collections librarian position, and this is the position I now hold.

Digitizing the Library’s Collection

Monographs and pamphlets in the library’s collection are prioritized for digitization, with fragile items and those focused on Butte given the highest priority. Scanned items and their metadata are uploaded to the Montana Memory Project (MMP), a statewide online resource providing access to digital content that relates to Montana’s cultural heritage and operated by the Montana State Library ( All items in the BDIP are hosted on the MMP site. Digital items are cataloged, and access is provided through both OCLC’s WorldCat and BSBPL’s Koha ILS. The library maintains a Flickr pro account (, posting historic photographs and their metadata. Links to both the library’s Flickr page and the MMP are located on the library’s webpage ( for easy community access.

Refocusing Our Digitization Efforts

When the BDIP was launched, the expectation was that the library would digitize and make available physical items from the library collection. As the project was promoted to the community, though, an interesting thing happened. Not only did community members support the project, they began to ask about digital preservation of their personal images and documents. While they were interested in sharing their personal, historic items, however, they did not want to give up ownership to do so.

In thinking about the situation, BSBPL could see the benefits to the community in providing access to privately held pieces of community history. Personal items such as these are typically accessible only to family members and can, without the memories and stories that go with them, lose the narrative explanation that gives them historical context. In providing preservation and access for personal photographs and documents, BSBPL would be helping to save pieces of community history that had the greatest potential for being lost.

Electronic resources have set a precedent for providing access to collections that the library does not own. Libraries have had to shift focus from building a solely physical collection owned by the library to providing access to resources owned by others. In some ways, providing access to historic content that we didn’t own was simply continuing to follow the path toward access-centered collections.

Issues Surrounding Private Collections

While the library could see the benefit in digitizing and providing access to the community to privately held items, there were many questions to answer before launching such a project. How would this fit into the existing project? How would the library protect itself legally? What about copyright issues? How would participants be chosen? What sorts of items would the library digitize? How would they be prioritized? How would items be accessed—through MMP, WorldCat, the library catalog? Would this service be promoted? If so, how? What about hosting and storage? How could the project be funded?

While the BDIP continued to operate under the original scope of the project, discussions began regarding what community-contributed content might look like for the BDIP. In the discussions, legal and copyright issues were the biggest concerns. How could the library preserve and provide access to privately held material legally without requiring the patron to give up ownership?

To resolve this issue, BSBPL investigated liability and copyright issues and developed a release form that would give the library ownership of a digital copy while allowing the community member to retain ownership of the original item. With this hurdle out of the way, the field was open to try a test project.

The Test Project

For the test, several local historians were contacted in hopes that they might know of someone who had strong ties to the community and items of historical interest. From these sources, a small pool of people was created and contacted. The selection process at this point was to accept the first person who agreed to be a guinea pig. Louis Fontana, 89, a longtime Butte resident, graciously agreed to contribute items to the test project.

Having selected the candidate, the next step was to meet with Fontana to evaluate his items. He had family photographs, old Butte photographs, and a commemorative booklet for a local volunteer fire department (the Meaderville Volunteer Fire Department, or MVFD). After discussing the background of the items, some photographs were rejected because of copyright issues—these photographs had been taken by a professional photographer. The photographer’s son still owned the business and the copyrights to his father’s photographs. The commemorative booklet was technically in the public domain because it was published in 1960 without copyright notice. However, because members of the MVFD potentially were still part of the community, BSBPL tracked down the former fire chief and obtained permission to digitize this item.

The rest of Fontana’s photographs, along with the booklet, were scanned and uploaded to the MMP with their metadata.

BSBPL wanted the same access to these items as the rest of the items scanned for the BDIP. This meant original MARC records would need to be created. MMP, through OCLC, offers a feature to CONTENTdm users in which metadata is crosswalked to MARC records created in WorldCat. Once OCLC created records for these items, BSBPL’s test of digitizing privately held items would be successfully completed.

Lessons Learned From the Test Case

Provenance and copyright. Because potential community-contributed content would become part of the BDIP and would be uploaded to the MMP, it would need to be accompanied by as much information as possible to allow creation of the best possible metadata and MARC records. While Fontana’s items proved a valuable contribution to the community’s history, we weren’t always able to get all the traditional elements of metadata/catalog records. For those items, consideration had to be given to the potential contribution of the item and to how much information was enough.

Knowing the creator of an item is important to both metadata and MARC records and can shed light on potential copyright issues. Some of Fontana’s photographs were excluded because of a clear copyright issue. With others, that distinction wasn’t as obvious. For example, Fontana couldn’t remember the photographer of a picture taken at Sam’s Club. BSBPL felt the photograph was important to the community—it had been taken in the Butte neighborhood of Meaderville, a neighborhood that was demolished as open pit mining expanded. Clearly, the importance of preserving this information overrode the potential copyright risk. The metadata for the photograph on the MMP asks the photographer to contact the library. The decision was that if contacted, BSBPL would be willing to remove the photograph from the website.

In another instance, we received a group of scanned photographs from a community member, but the photos lacked any kind of provenance or description. Some of the photographs appeared to be from books or newspapers; some were old postcards. None of them had been taken by the person who donated them. The risk of copyright issues in this case proved too high.

This did point to the need for a way to prescreen submissions in the case of a full-fledged effort to solicit contributions from the community. This prescreening needed to be easy, short, and friendly. We’re exploring the use of a short form to include a couple of questions about where the photographs came from and who took them. This might help to point out potential issues and to prioritize those submissions that might be digitized most easily.

Access and promotion. We want to provide access to items in the BDIP through as many discovery points as possible. To do this, we provide a link to the MMP on the library website. In addition, we provide links to the MMP in our Koha catalog and also in the WorldCat record. On our Flickr page, we provide links to both our catalog and MMP in the metadata under each photo. These provide multiple discovery points for each item.

When I took over as digital collections librarian, the Fontana photographs had been uploaded to the MMP, but the MARC record had not been created. In tracking the creation of these records (it took several months), I decided it took less time to create original MARC records than it did to wait for the crosswalk to happen. At this point, we are creating our own records. As it turns out, a glitch in the system was responsible for the delay, and this has since been corrected. If we become inundated with contributions in the future, the crosswalk process might be an option to reconsider. MARC records provide an important source of discovery, but original cataloging takes staff time. With community-based content, copy cataloging is not an option and is something that will need to be considered.

The BSBPL Flickr site has become a way to generate interest in the project and to drive people to both our catalog and the MMP. We’ve had a total of 75,520 views (as of mid-September). Although it takes time to post photographs, add metadata, and create tags, the potential exposure and project promotion is well worth the staff time. The site provides another access point, hopefully drawing people in to the MMP site as well.

At this stage, we’ve promoted the community contribution aspect of the BDIP to local genealogy, history, and preservation groups. On the whole, people who are serious about family and local history and historic preservation tend to organize and document their photographs and support efforts to preserve and make accessible this type of community history. This makes them likely candidates for submissions. While we have only completed our test case, we are currently lining up other contributors and hope to have more community-contributed content uploaded and cataloged by the end of the year.

Workflow and prioritizing items. Our test case showed that as long as contributors can provide enough background information, scanning the items and creating good metadata and MARC records is a fairly straightforward process. Because we are a small project, straightforward items would naturally get high priority—we would be able to upload many more of these items in the time required to do extensive background research when information is sketchy or incomplete. Items without good information would need to be considered very unique or of high value to balance out the time required and the potential for copyright issues.

In trying to save community history that could potentially be lost, our priority is on longtime, older Butte residents. In Butte’s history, many older neighborhoods were lost when these areas were demolished to make room for open pit mining. Residents from these areas would be a priority. As with Fontana’s photographs, we would potentially take small risks in order to preserve important community content.

Future Digitization Directions

Butte Digital Image Project—Phase 2. BSBPL is currently applying for grant funding to continue the BDIP beyond summer 2011. Phase 2 of the project would focus on gathering content from the community in an expansion of our test. BSBPL would create a digital collection of privately held historic images, documents, and other materials. The benefits of this project to the community would be to preserve and provide access to the type of local history that is most at risk of being lost and to provide an opportunity for the community to come together in sharing information and memories.

Oral History Project. Listening to the stories behind the photographs opened a discussion of ways to preserve not only community photographs but also community stories. Because the stories behind the pictures were so interesting, BSBPL decided to apply for a Humanities Montana grant to record oral history interviews. The hope is that both the oral history project and the BDIP will support each other. Oral history interviews could reveal interesting items for digitization and could provide some amount of prescreening. Community submissions for the BDIP could lead to strong candidates for oral history interviews. The digitized interviews themselves could become part of the BDIP and MMP, preserving community history in a variety of formats.

World Museum of Mining collaboration. BSBPL is working with the World Museum of Mining in Butte in a collaborative effort to provide access to more than 5,000 historical photographs owned by the museum. The museum would digitize this content and upload it to the MMP. BSBPL would help the World Museum of Mining provide more access points to its collection by creating catalog records in WorldCat and in our local Koha ILS under a branch library designation. In exchange, BSBPL patrons would have access to the watermarked photographs, and the photographs will increase the digital content in our own collection.


In moving from a digitization project based on preserving physical items owned by the library to one based on preserving digital copies of items owned privately by Butte citizens, BSBPL can play a part in preserving materials that might otherwise be lost over time and by providing equal access to materials that would generally be restricted to small groups. By staying open to possibilities during the digitization process, we were able to shift our goals to meet community interests, developing a digitization project that directly reflects the goals and interests of the Butte community.

Patricia Pierson ( is the digital collections librarian at Butte-Silver Bow Public Library in Butte, Mont. She digitizes, catalogs, and promotes the BDIP. She is a 2008 graduate of Indiana University’s school of library and information science.
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