College Park Aviation Museum: Digital Preservation Survey

The College Park Aviation Museum (CPAM), located less than ten minutes from campus, is an institution dedicated to “promoting aviation innovations at College Park Airport and in Prince George’s County while fostering research, inventiveness, and lifelong curiosity about the history and science of flight.” The museum is on the grounds of the College Park Airport, which has the distinction of being the site where Wilbur Wright taught the first military aviators to fly in 1909, and because it has been in operation ever since, it is known as the world’s oldest continuously operating airfield. Inside the museum’s exhibition space, a visitor can encounter historic aircraft and artifacts related to local aviation history while also getting an unobstructed view of the airport’s runway through a large wall of windows. The museum is a great destination for families, with numerous hands-on activities for children and a balcony overlooking the runway where visitors can bring picnic lunches.

The exhibit hall of the College Park Aviation Museum 

In keeping with its mission to preserve local aviation history, the museum has a small research library which contains materials focusing on the people, aircraft, and events associated with the College Park Airport and aviation in nearby Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties. Additionally, the library holds general materials on the development of civil and military aviation, significant aviators, and aviation technology, as well as a collection of children’s books dating from as early as 1910. Complimenting the books, magazines, and audiovisual material in the library, their archival holdings include photographs, negatives, newspaper articles, letters, logbooks, pamphlets, posters, scrapbooks, and other records. Significant topics represented include Airmail, the Benjamin Foulois Collection, The Cloud Club and Columbia Air Center, the Elaine Harmon Collection (Women’s Air Service Pilots), Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO), Preservation of College Park Airport Collection, and the U.S. Army Signal Corps Aviation School.

To learn more about the digital holdings of the organization, I interviewed Laura Baker, who began her career at the CPAM as a Museum Educator two years ago and was recently promoted to Curator of Collections. Laura was very enthusiastic to have CPAM be one of our class’s digital preservation projects, because she wants CPAM to be a forward-looking, modern institution with as much of their holdings digitized and made accessible as possible. Baker is new to her position, and has recently been focusing on staffing changes and important projects like the creation of a new air mail exhibit, so she has not yet had the time to do a full survey or audit of the museum’s digital holdings. Our interview was fortuitously timed because she said she is looking forward to focusing more on the collection and its priorities. The interview questions were a useful starting point for thinking about what digital material the museum has, how it is currently being managed, and what steps need to be taken to preserve it.

There is no complete inventory of library or archival holdings that can be consulted to identify the museum’s digital holdings, although individual inventories exist for specific categories or digitization projects. Laura reported that the bulk of the museum’s digital holdings are in photos. There are, for example, a large number of airmail photos that have been scanned at 600 dpi in conjunction with the recent exhibit. There is also a collection of historic photos that are lower quality jpegs and have been problematic for the museum because no one knows where these photos are originally from. They seem to be copies of photos from other institutions, and researchers will sometimes contact CPAM for copyright clearance for these photos, but the museum does not know the status of these photos or who to contact for the proper permission. An educator is currently working to try to solve this problem. In addition to historic photos, there are also a number of contemporary photos of museum events, like the recent Airmail Centennial. These photos are stored on the common drive, along with a small amount of scanned documents like airmail pamphlets and letters. A limited number of these photos are also on the CPAM website, but the website is hosted through the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission and CPAM does not have full control of their website. This puts some frustrating limits on how many photos they can share and how they can be displayed.

In the past, the museum partnered with Digital Maryland (DM) to digitize and host their ERCO photo collection. When I asked Laura about how this relationship worked and if it was something they would like to continue in the future, she said she did not know but was eager to investigate. The relationship with DM was lost after staffing changes, but the Digitization Supervisor, Linda Tompkins-Baldwin, recently visited the museum to explain how DM works and renew CPAM’s ability to post directly to the DM site. She also offered to help the museum in whatever way they needed throughout the digitization process. From the museum’s perspective, there are significant benefits to partnering with DM again. It allows CPAM to put more content online without hitting roadblocks from the Commission, it serves as an additional backup of digital files, and it comes at no cost to the museum. DM will pick up the materials from the museum and do all the digitization work so that CPAM can focus on other projects. The downside to partnering with DM is that it is only a collections database and cannot serve as a platform for digital exhibits or other types of interpretive content that the museum would like to produce. Also, if the museum wanted to charge fees for use of the photos, DM works on an “honor system.” Laura does not see these issues as a reason not to partner with DM again, but if the museum upgrades from PastPerfect into something with more online capability, she believes they could have a more meaningful digital collections presence than what DM offers. She also cautioned that if the partnership is restarted, it needs to be integrated into the daily operations for collection management so that it will survive any future staffing changes.

In addition to digital photos, the museum has a number of materials in other formats. There is a wall of VHS tapes, DVDs, and cassettes, which mostly chronicle events that have taken place on the airfield (like air shows) or movies shown at the museum for a program. The museum plans to migrate AV materials in obsolete formats to digital files in the future. Moreover, there are CD-ROMs with contemporary photographs of CPAM events and both floppy disks and USB-drives that contain unknown content. After our interview, Laura was able to locate an inventory of these various formats. The museum does not have any old hard drives or computers–Laura stated that it is their policy to get rid of old equipment when it is no longer needed, transferring the files stored there to newer systems. CPAM has been collecting oral histories in conjunction with the Library of Congress (LOC) Veterans History Project. When asked if the museum keeps a copy of those oral histories after submitting them to LOC, Laura consulted with the person in charge of the project. She discovered that the most recent oral histories are stored on the common drive and the older ones are stored on DVDs. There is a hard copy list of the oral histories with the names and dates of each.

When asked how the digital content is being managed, Laura said there currently is no plan in place for preserving digital content. After reviewing the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) Levels of Digital Preservation together, we concluded that the museum is not yet at level one in the five categories. Employees are generally conscientious about labeling files in ways that make them easy to find, creating file structures that make sense, and refraining from “cluttering” the drive with unnecessary files. Laura reported that moving forward, new policies are in place for naming conventions, and educators are sorting through the common drive to identify photos. There are no file fixity and data integrity checks on the museum’s digital content, and the files on the common drive are not set for restricted access because the museum has had problems in the past with employees restricting access to administrative files and not telling others how to access those files when they leave the museum’s employment. In regards to metadata, inventories of digital content tend to be created on a project-by-project basis and it seems some content produced in the past may not be inventoried at all. They also use the collection management system PastPerfect, and Laura would like to see more complete and accurate records kept of all objects in the collection, admitting that this has not always been done well in the past.

On the museum’s perceptions of the state of their digital content, Laura said that right now the museum’s digital content is limited and not much is being done with it, but the institution is eager to do more. She assessed the creation and preservation of digital content as not quite “mission critical,” but “definitely a priority,” and actions are already being taken in that direction. The museum’s director believes that digital content is an important part of how museum’s operate today and wants to see CPAM catch up to what other institutions are doing. Meeting this goal, however, sparks important questions–how does the museum do it, how do they pay for it, and who is going to be the person(s) doing the work? These practical questions can sometimes constrain CPAM’s ambitions, as they (like nearly all museums) have only limited time, equipment, and funds.

When asked what digital content the museum is not currently collecting but would like to, Laura said the museum has made it a goal of diversifying their collections. They operate in a county where the majority of residents are African-American or Latino, and they would like to see more people of color represented in their collection. They also want to collect more material related to women and aviation. The goal of diversification is not one explicitly linked to digital content, but if there are digital materials they could be collecting that would make their collections more inclusive, that is something they would like to pursue. They would also be interested in archiving digital content related to exhibits and events that are happening at the museum and the airport. The museum does not have a blog, but they have written blog posts for the Smithsonian National Postal Museum that they would like to see preserved.

The museum does not have an archivist on staff, so the digital materials fall under Laura’s purview, but there are plans to hire a Collection Assistant and an Assistant Director to assist with projects that might include digital preservation in the future. Laura would also like to initiate a relationship with the University of Maryland to get one to three interns working in the museum on a semester-by-semester basis, although to do so she feels the museum needs more support and equipment. Right now, for instance, the museum only has one computer that would be available to interns. Laura would also like to get better digitization tools and train volunteers or interns on how to use them. There is only so much that the museum can put on their common drive, however, so they would also need more storage space if they were to significantly increase their volume of digital content. To both sustain existing content and to produce more, the museum would have to consult with Prince George’s County and various other funding streams, and perhaps look into applying for new grants. Given the current limits of their staff, equipment,  and budget, Laura believes its necessary to get a grant to outsource the creation and maintenance of their digital content or to use a free service like DM.

One Reply to “College Park Aviation Museum: Digital Preservation Survey”

  1. Great write up! It seems like you got a really rich view into the state of the varied digital content the museum has and it’s current state. It also seems to be clear that your questions have already prompted some preliminary review and inventory of content that is itself a good ultimate outcome or objective. It seems like you have a good set of information in hand to be successful with the Next Steps assignment. Looking forward to reading your write up for that assignment.

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