March 16 2010 07:08 PM

Balboa Park's museums warm up the lamps for mass digitization


Long before the world's libraries and museums recognized the importance of the web, computer engineer Brewster Kahle recognized the importance of the web having its own library and museum.  

In 1996, the San Francisco-based Internet Archive ( set out to capture websites in order to document the development of the web, and in 1999, the nonprofit organization began to accumulate and digitize more traditional collections. In 2007, the state of California granted the Internet Archive—with no real physical location for visitors to access—official library status.

Like many libraries, the Archive is a bit stuffy, a bit academic, but incredible to inquiring minds. Yet unlike traditional libraries, there are no waiting lists, since the materials are always available for download, and no late fees, since visitors can keep the files forever.

The organization is now the caretaker of more than 4 petabytes, or 4 million gigabytes, of cultural and scientific material, ranging from classical texts to live-music recordings to ethnographic film. The Archive's best-known collection is the Prelinger Archives, which includes propaganda classics like the how-to-survive-an-atom-bomb educational video Duck & Cover and the anti-communist cartoon Make Mine Freedom, in which a snake-oil salesman tries to sell John Q. Public a bottle of Dr. Utopia's Ism elixir. The site now attracts more than a million visitors a day—and these visitors aren't just passive consumers of culture: They engage, submit and remix.

“Social-behavior films and government films often get more than a million downloads each, and they're being used and reused in new and different ways we never would have imagined,” Internet Archive founder Kahle says.

Now, cultural institutions are catching up—including 20 organizations in Balboa Park that have bound together to follow in the Internet Archive's footsteps (with a little bit of the Archive's help and inspiration).

Under the leadership of Rich Cherry, who previously headed up IT for the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, the Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC) is entering the second year of its three-year, $3-million mission funded by the Benbough Foundation. The goal, simply put: The museums need to not only promote themselves on the Internet, but become Internet institutions.

 “Today, it's what's on the web,” Cherry says. “If I can't Google it, it doesn't exist. So, putting all this content on here is, to my mind, key to ensuring that these museums can meet their mission in the next 20 years. If they don't put this content online, they're not going to be relevant in the society that's developing around them.”

Part of the problem, Cherry says, is that the museums in Balboa Park have functioned in isolated cells, where IT managers in one building have never even met their counterparts in another museum a few hundred yards away. Through the project, they're sharing expensive digitization equipment, attending conferences and learning a single piece of web software that will link them all together.

In the darkened digitization room in the bowels of the Hall of Champions, San Diego's sports-history museum, a technician from the San Diego Air and Space Museum hunches over a stack of photographs. He flinches when a reporter touches one, a black-and-white shot of Pacific Southwest Airlines stewardesses in miniskirts playing basketball, without wearing gloves. Nearby, a computer automatically digitizes a video lecture by a biology professor wearing a frizzy beard clearly dating back to 1970s.

“The museums have done a fairly good job of putting together shows in their physical space, but they haven't really done a lot online using the virtual space,” Cherry says.

So far, the BPOC has digitized nine terabytes of information, most of it more than 700 videos transferred from U-matic tape, an archaic videocassette format introduced in 1971. That's a drop in the swimming pool compared with the Internet Archive, but the BPOC is finding that the sheer breadth of the collections (from 1980s reggae performances at the World Beat Center to hippopotamus-mating-ritual lectures at the San Diego Zoo) means materials otherwise buried in the vaults will appeal to researchers, students and pop-culture fans alike.

“You take a museum like the Museum of Photographic Arts. They've got wall space to put up maybe 300 photographs,” Cherry says. “Well, they have 8,000 photographs in their collections, so, by definition, some of it never sees the light of day.”

Similarly to how the Internet Archive encourages user involvement, Cherry envisions the museums using social-networking sites like Flickr to “crowd source” the collections—that is, fill in the missing information about the work by soliciting the public.

“You can imagine the communities that can be built up around those kinds of things,” Cherry says. “Some of these people are fanatics.”

But there's also an urgency to digitize these collections as hard copies continue to degrade.

“Anytime you play it on a projector, you're causing damage to the film, so we really would like to transfer it to another medium,” says Katrina Pescador, head archivist at the Air and Space Museum, which has the largest collection BPOC aims to digitize.

Through the collaborative, the Internet Archive is helping the Natural History Museum scan the life's work of Laurence Klauber, the former CEO of San Diego Consolidated Gas & Electric Company (now SDG&E), better known as “Mr. Rattlesnake.”

Currently, Klauber's more than 200 diaries and field journals are stacked up in the cold and claustrophobic rare-books room on the museum's third floor. A black-out curtain blocks light from entering an arched window, and the air conditioning is set to 60 degrees to protect the room's sensitive collections, some of which date back to the 1500s.

Like an engineer toiling in the bowels of a submarine, Margi Dykens, director of the museum's research library, cranks a wheel to shift the stacks, creating an aisle.

Klauber “was, in my opinion, totally [obsessive],” Dykens says. “He started back in the 1920s with a diary and recorded everything he did every day.”

It's one of the world's priceless herpetology collections. The idea, Dykens says, is to scan all his texts, then link the records through the web to images of the individual specimens. That could include digitizing thousands of snakes pickled in jars.

“We're just at the beginning of this whole process, believe me,” Dykens says.    

Editor's note: After this story was published, we replaced words in a quote at the request of Margi Dykens. The change, denoted with brackets, does not alter the meaning of the sentence.

Write to and


See all events on Wednesday, Oct 26