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Bringing the Smithsonian to a Library Near You, Thanks to Cengage Learning
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Posted On March 11, 2013


A licensing agreement between the Smithsonian Institution and Gale, part of Cengage Learning, will see Gale digitizing some Smithsonian archives and creating searchable databases, available by subscription for libraries of all types, residing on a Smithsonian branded platform that Gale is creating for the Smithsonian. The project will start with the complete backfiles of Smithsonian and Air & Space magazines. That’s 43 years of Smithsonian and 26 of Air & Space.

Digitizing magazines is obviously a core competency of Gale’s—millions of articles from a wide variety magazines populate its many databases. It’s also no stranger to partnering with major cultural institutions—just look at its involvement with National Geographic, The British Library, Library of Congress, and the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs. But the Smithsonian project goes beyond the realm of published magazines. It will also digitize archival materials, such as rare books, personal papers, photographs, and manuscripts. In the future, Gale will foray into 3D digitization of Smithsonian-owned objects. With Gale's help, the Smithsonian’s vast collection will be preserved electronically and made searchable.

Where the Magazines Are

The initial digitization of Smithsonian and Air & Space is expected to be completed in May 2013 and a prototype is planned for display during the ACRL conference in April. Knowledgeable searchers may be wondering what makes this project different from any other Gale database. After all, aren’t the magazines already available online? Well, sort of. At Smithsonian websites, you can find digital versions of both publications (smithsonianmag.com and airspacemag.com). However, they are not complete backfiles; there is no metadata attached; and site search is rudimentary. What the websites do offer is all the graphics (plus, for some articles, additional photographs not in the magazine) and the invitation to share via social media. According to a Smithsonian spokesperson, the magazines will remain free on the website. The Gale project is not intended to replace the web versions.

Gale’s World History in Context database includes more than 9,000 articles from Smithsonian, but coverage is selective and only dates back from 1983. Articles are in HTML and lack the stunning photographs and other graphic material from the original magazine. According to Fulltext Sources Online, aggregators such as ProQuest, Factiva, and LexisNexis cover Smithsonian, but they do so selectively and rarely in full text. Gale is the supplier to many of the aggregators, although some acquire direct from the Smithsonian.

When it comes to full text, EBSCO, in its Academic Search Premier database, contains more than 5,200 Smithsonian articles in full text and another 5,000 in abstract form only. The articles are in HTML and give the captions for graphic material but not the graphics themselves. ProQuest includes some 4,200 Smithsonian articles in full text, but as with EBSCO, they are HTML documents with no graphics included. Both EBSCO and ProQuest do add extensive indexing drawn from their individual thesauri.

Gale, however, views its digitalization as a “whole magazine” experience. It’s not just articles selected from the magazines; it’s every article, all the graphics, and even the advertisements. It’s value added through metadata. It’s the next generation of online access. Although the magazines will be cross-searchable with other databases, they won’t be added into existing Gale databases.

Enhanced Learning Opportunities

From Gale’s perspective, this partnership ties in with its other digital collections to provide enhanced learning opportunities. “At Gale, we have extensive experience digitizing rare, historical content from the world’s most prestigious public and private institutions,” said Frank Menchaca, executive vice president of research solutions at Cengage Learning. He points to the research potential inherent in cross-searching Smithsonian materials with other Gale products, such as its Nineteenth Century collections. Plus, Gale’s graphing and term clusters tools will enable additional insights and discoveries. He sees great potential in mining data from disparate sources and enthuses over researchers' ability to identify patterns over time by these text-mining activities.

Carol LeBlanc, senior vice president, consumer and education products for Smithsonian Enterprises, sees the agreement with Gale as “a new, comprehensive way to reach the library and academic markets.” She sees Gale creating a “compelling series of Smithsonian collections, enhanced by Gale’s delivery system.”

Digitizing the Smithsonian collections is no small task. Dubbed “the nation's attic” for its eclectic collecting activities, the Smithsonian estimates it owns some 137 million objects, works of art, and specimens. The institution consists of 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, and nine research facilities. Subject areas include American history, science, art, aviation, and world cultures. Which of these to be digitized by Gale and in what order will be decided jointly by the two parties. Linda St. James, Smithsonian spokesperson, said that digitization will be determined “project by project.” She is enthusiastic about Gale’s involvement, but she cautions that there is a long time frame for such massive amounts of digitization. “It will be a long, slow process.”

Menchaca anticipates that Gale will have the first Smithsonian research collection available in 2014 and points to “integration through metadata” as the connecting force of this collection with other Gale collections. As for the 3D dimensions of the agreement, don’t expect to see those anytime soon. First in the queue are the 2D artifacts. Gale will have a learning curve when approaching digitization of and applying metadata to 3Dl objects. Given the expansive nature of the agreement, Gale should have sufficient time to come up to speed.

In many ways, this is an ideal partnership. The Smithsonian has the primary resources, artifacts, and objects, while Gale brings its expertise in digitization, taxonomy building, and electronic delivery to the table. Digitizing the Smithsonian’s art, history, aviation, and cultural materials not only gives them a measure of preservation but also brings them to a wider public. Digitizing the National Zoo’s animals, however, is apparently not part of this agreement.


Marydee Ojala is the editor-in-chief of Online Searcher magazine, chairs WebSearch University, and is Program Development Director for Enterprise Search & Discovery.

Email Marydee Ojala

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