41st Annual Meeting – General Session, May 31. Conservation Treatment Documentation Databases panel discussion; Jay Hoffman, Linda Hohneke, Sarah Norris (moderator), and Mervin Richard

Though the use of a database as part of a conservation treatment documentation work flow has been presented in the past at AIC at least once in my memory and has been the subject of presentations at the Museum Computer Network’s annual meetings in 2008, 2010 and 2011, as a field, we don’t often talk about this aspect of our work.
There were a couple of reasons why I was looking forward to this session before the meeting. Firstly, I was eager to hear how other institutions make use of databases in their documentation. And having followed some of  the progress of the Mellon Foundation funded project ConservationSpace through their various sites, I wanted to learn more about it too. At the end of this well attended session, not only were both of these satisfied, I also came away with some thoughts about how to improve my current work flow, even though the system used by the institution I work for wasn’t addressed directly. And I felt more convinced that we need to have more opportunities to discuss issues like this one that impact conservators across specializations.
Sarah Norris, a conservator at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, had worked with a contract MySQL developer to create a treatment documentation database for her institution. In addition to serving as a panelist, Sarah also served as moderator for the discussion.  Linda Hohneke is the senior book conservator at the Folger Shakespeare Library and one of the co-creators of the Filemaker Pro-based documentation database used at the library. Jay Hoffman is founder and CEO of Gallery Systems, a company that produces collections, exhibitions, and conservation management software, notably TMS. Mervin Richard is chief conservator at the National Gallery, Washington and co-director of the ConservationSpace project. Each of these systems has a varying level of complexity and requirements for support, but each has been created with the input of conservators.
Sarah began the session by asking each panelist to speak for 10 minutes about their databases. Helpfully, she provided a handout with possible discussion topics to help the session “stay out of the weeds”. These topics included:

  • the basic structure of the databases,
  • how they manage photographic and written documentation,
  • how they address the needs of libraries, archives, and museums,
  • how they facilitate workflow within the institution,
  • how do they ensure data security,
  • what level of IT support is required for these systems, and
  • what are user costs?

Perhaps the simplest of the four systems presented was the Folger Library’s FilmakerPro-based system, but, really, it is far from simple. They began using this system at the Folger Library in 1997, and a number of people were involved in its creation. The system allows the entry of simple and complex information in a consistent, controlled manner so that the department could track a variety of statistics. The conservators have the ability to add options to multiple choice questions, and they can choose to enter their descriptions in a fielded form or as prose. They are able to upload images into the system, saving the images as NEF and JPG formats. Typically the curatorial department adds requests to a queue to form a request list, and approval for a proposed treatment is done within this system.  The IT department installs the software, keeps it backed up on the server nightly, and troubleshoots.
In commissioning the MySQL-based content management system for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Sarah Norris had a number of requirements. The system needed to allow her to:

  • track requests
  • search systems
  • generate documents in PDF format and create a printable photo
  • help her with photo management
  • automatically generate lower resolution photographs
  • have user management features with regard to who gets to see what fields and the ability to add fields.

The resulting system has different views for different staff roles. Staff members who are not conservators can request treatment through the system, see the status of their requests, and the treatment history of objects. Conservators have access to more information within the system. They can see what’s scheduled for evaluation, and can add background information and estimated treatment time.  Examination and treatment reports are created from forms consisting of drop down boxes (to ensure the use of controlled vocabulary), check boxes, and radio buttons. Note fields are included on these forms to allow for the addition of free-form information.  Values can be entered in some fields to indicate the scale of work required. Photodocumentation is undertaken outside the system and photos are linked from that external drive. When a report is closed, the system creates a PDF and then moves it to a separate, institutional server with the associated image TIFF files where they are then managed by the state. This system is also capable of generating statistics about treatments, the types of treatments being undertaken, and for which departments, allowing treatment documentation to work in a number of different ways.
Jay Hoffman indicated that TMS is going through a major update in which the conservation activity areas of that database are being improved. This process began in 2009 with the formation of a Conservation Working Group consisting of 50 stakeholders. This group work to define work flows, terminology, and general practices. A starter set of templates has been developed for standard data entry, and two sets of wire frames (sketches of what the data entry forms will look like) have been created. These new conservation activity areas respond to a number of needs:

  • to manage projects which may be worked on by several people (projects may mean multiple objects for an exhibition or it may mean a complex object)
  • to create custom templates for different kinds of objects and provide flexibility for different kinds of institutions
  • to output traditional forms (I assume he meant PDF versions of treatment reports created via fielded forms)
  • to link to annotated images
  • to see information from different perspectives

Later during the session, Jay noted that for institutions already using TMS, Gallery Systems is committed to migrating conservation content into this new system which will be rolled out with TMS 2014.
Merv Richard described ConservationSpace as an open source system to manage conservation documentation, manage reports, correspondence, and images. He reviewed the history of the project which began with a pair of meetings in 2006 and 2007 to assess the current state of conservation documentation. Summaries of the findings of the 2006 meeting were disseminated in the GCI Newsletter and Studies in Conservation. The Design Phase, run by Ken Hamma, began in 2009.
The Planning Phase, which ran from 2010-2011, consisted of community design workshops which looked at the kinds of activities defined particular tasks; common types of documentation and events; specific documents created; and functionality wish lists.
Bert Marshall is the project manager for the Build Phase, which has consisted of clarifying work flows. The resulting system must simplify task work flows, allow for discoverability, assist with documentation and allow for collaboration. ConservationSpace is also working to ensure that ResearchSpace and other Mellon-funded database systems work seamlessly with it. The system will be open source and web based to allow for flexibility. It also needs to include imaging tools which would permit the addition of high resolution images, the ability to annotate images and conduct basic editing.
It is envisioned that ConservationSpace will be available either as an enterprise or hosted application. The enterprise system could be integrated with an institution’s Digital Asset Management System, allowing ConservationSpace to pull information from a collections management systems, and would require IT support. The hosted system would provide support and data storage. Both systems would require a maintenance fee, however the details of how much that will be have not been worked out yet.
Release 1, described as functional, allowing for documentation but will have a  limited number work flows, will come out in early 2014. More information about ConservationSpace is available at ConservationSpace.org and sites.google.com/site/conservationspace.
One topic that generated a fair amount of commentary from the participants and the audience was the need to generate statistics about our work and to get some assistance in prioritizing treatment needs. Most systems discussed allow or will allow for establishing treatment priorities, though Sarah indicated that she preferred to make this part of a discussion to be had with various stakeholders so that the treatment queue could be managed more effectively.  A number of library preservation labs are looking at interoperability with various other  database systems, such as those that deal with circulation, as a means of informing prioritization.
On the topic of migrating conservation data from one system to another, it was noted that all data migration requires work, and you have to be careful about how its set up.  Though different from data interchange, the need to import and export information in and out of these systems is required no matter what. Standards and controlled vocabulary are required for these various schemes so that we can share and collaborate no matter what system a conservator uses.

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