#AskAnArchivist: An interview with FIT’s Samantha Levin

October is American Archives Month and so I sat down with Samantha Levin, a New York-based digital archivist to ask her some questions about her job at the Fashion Institute of Technology for #AskAnArchivist Day.
Samantha Levin

Levin is the curator of digital and audiovisual assets and a special collections associate in the Special Collections and College Archives unit at FIT’s Gladys Marcus Library in New York, New York. In addition to their duties at FIT, Levin is also a freelance and private archivist, a workshop leader at the Pratt Institute, and the chair of the Greater New York Chapter of the Visual Resources Association. Levin studied sculpture at the School of Visual Art and worked in the art field before attending Pratt to study library and information science with a focus on digital asset management and digital curation. 

AML: How did you become interested in archivy?

SL: My interest in archival work stems from a fascination with how older objects and documents reflect histories from eras past. I certainly romanticize old documents and objects created long ago, but I also perceive a great significance to preserving whatever truths old documents hold, and have a passion and compulsion for preserving them. I became interested in digital archives when artists I know, who rely upon digital media to make their living, lost digital content, either because their social media accounts were shut down, or because their hard drives failed. I realized that our culture’s wider historical record was subject to these same challenges, and I joined the archival profession to help solve that issue in my own small way.

AML: What does the Curator of Digital and Audiovisual Assets do at FIT?

SL: I am responsible for all the digital and time-based media that the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Special Collections and College Archives unit holds. There is quite a lot of material that falls under that umbrella, and so it’s a busy position with several long-term projects constantly progressing. At the moment, I am cleaning up metadata for a collection of around 80,000 digital assets digitized from our physical collection, and preparing them for ingest into a new digital repository that uses Archivematica and Omeka S. I’m also responsible for getting data from our older finding aids into software called Access to Memory. I run a web archiving program that works to preserve the Fashion Institute’s website as it changes over time. I accession new digital media as various departments from the college donate it to the College Archive, and ensure that it gets inventoried properly. I am working on processing and publishing a small oral history collection of a little over 400 interviews that go back to the 1970s, and I’m also supervising a volunteer who is carefully inventorying our video collection of about 4000 magnetic media cassettes.

Lucile Fashion Photograph c. 1917. Image courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY FIT Library Unit of Special Collections and College Archives.

AML: Who are you curating digital and audiovisual assets for; who are your designated communities?

SL: We primarily serve FIT students who are largely interested in all things fashion including design, history, science, and business. But we also support a lot of students who study art, illustration, and a wide variety of design fields including toy, jewelry, interior, graphic and more. FIT is part of the State University of New York, which means we serve the public, so we also meet many researchers from around the world who are studying various aspects of fashion history, preparing for museum exhibitions, researching aspects of costume design for television and film, researching for book or magazine articles, or even seeking information about their relatives.

A very large portion of our collection is related to the fashion industry, so most of our patrons come to us with fashion research subjects in mind. We don’t yet have a large portion of holdings that are born-digital. The web archive certainly falls into that category, and is part of the college archives, which additionally serves to fulfil our legal requirements for records retention as a New York State school. Most of our digital holdings are digitized and meant for eventual online publication to make our holdings more discoverable to a wider audience. We also digitize to support preservation efforts, but we lack the human resources to do that in a comprehensive way.

AML: How do digital archives support fashion, textile and costume studies?

SL: Our holdings support fashion, textile and costume studies, as well as students of other disciplines since fashion is one of the world’s largest industries that impacts our economy, culture, and ecosystem. As one could imagine, any portion of our collection that can be published online will become available to scholars worldwide. This is especially important for rare materials that only exist at FIT SPARC. 

Collections that have been split between different archives can also be merged digitally, expanding any understanding that a collection’s wider context might provide. For example, our project with the New York Public Library to digitize sketches created by the New York firm André Fashion Studios in the 1930s and early 1940s helped merge the two institution’s collections together for viewing online. It’s slow and careful work to digitize and describe our holdings, but we are diligently working towards that end, and have attracted researchers from around the world via our online platforms SPARC Digital, and Archive on Demand

Coat with Sideways Button Closure and Brown Accessories. Image courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY FIT Library Unit of Special Collections and College Archives.

Digital archives also support scholarly work by preserving content through digitization, description and application of digital preservation best practices. Just as we preserve physical materials, we must collect born-digital materials in step with the fashion industry to preserve its history. Right now, the most prominent born-digital collection is the web archive, which has a scope that is limited to the college’s own website and affiliated web pages. This will serve to support our alumni, although our web development team has expressed a need for it as well. We hope to expand this archive to the wider fashion industry to collect websites at risk of deletion.

AML: What is the most interesting resource that you have come across in the collection?

SL: It’s difficult for me to choose just one item, but amongst my favorite of our holdings include photographs taken of the designs of Lucile’s costume designs from the early 1900s. They are softly lit black and white depictions of models (or mannequins), wearing flowing fabrics. I’m not a fashion historian, but I’m told that Lucile was one of the first fashion designers to photograph women wearing her designs instead of or in addition to sketching her designs. I also really enjoy some of the oral history interviews I’ve processed including one with Fred Pomerantz who talks about his childhood working in Manhattan’s garment district starting at age 11, and how he eventually opened his own dress company. The FIT Pomerantz building is named after him. Fred’s bruiser personality really comes through in the interview, and it completely belies the stereotype that I’ve always had of garment workers and fashion businesspeople being staid and fashionable. His experiences were quite extraordinary, and it’s clear he lived through some difficult times. 

FIT Oral History: Fred Pomerantz. Video courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY FIT Library Unit of Special Collections and College Archives

AML: What are you currently working on?

SL: This week I’m working on a grant application, getting additional oral history recordings published online with closed captions, and as the college website is about to get completely overhauled in November, I’ll be continuing to perform quality assurance that all its pages have been captured in our web archive. I also have two amazing volunteers who are helping me out with getting an inventory of our video collection and rehousing documents related to the oral history collection.

AML: What are you reading about professionally?

SL: I try to keep up with developments from the Internet Archive, new developments in digital preservation, and am reading up on uses of Linked Open Data so we can apply it to the digital repository my colleague Joseph Anderson is developing. I’ve begun reading about shared stewardship of collections as established by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and on a personal level I’m about to start reading a book called Everybody’s Scene: The Story of Connecticut’s Anthrax Club, which is related to my interest in preserving the history of subcultures in the United States. No idea how good it will be, but cross your fingers for me.

AML: What sort of training or knowledge would you recommend for library and information science students or professionals interested in digital archivy?

SL: The needs of digital archival work changes frequently and are complicated. The basics of general archival preservation are key, but digital behaves differently than analog and physical media, and it’s important to keep that in mind. Figuring out what you might be interested in might help guide you in your studies. My interest in preserving and managing visual digital media for the arts led me towards studying visual resource management and digital curation. I also studied digital asset management and database management. Another track might involve diving into metadata or linked open data, or if you’re super tech-savvy, emulation is an important arena to explore, as is the conservation of time-based media. 

Digitization is a whole world unto itself, and different digital formats behave in completely different ways. Digital preservation doesn’t require programming skills, although it’s very helpful to understand how scripting, command line, or SQL can help in digital preservation. It is very important to be comfortable with software and hardware, and understand that you will need tech support for various processes that you may not be able to do yourself. Rights management for digital media is a very complex arena to study. Also, while digital archiving is not new, it’s not very old either. Many digital archivists learn as we go. The field is still growing, discovering, and getting its best practices established. The best way to learn about it may be to keep abreast of what the wider profession is learning as it goes along, and as new digital tools get created.

AML: Thank you for speaking with me and providing a glimpse into the practice of digital archivy within fashion, textile and costume studies!

Fairchild Books: Book review requested in exchange for free book

Photo by David Lezcano on Unsplash

Greetings colleagues!

It’s been ages since I last posted and I hope you’re all well. I thought you’d like to hear about a wonderful offer for FTC SIG members, along with the opportunity to shape an information resource that will be useful to us all.

Fairchild Books is currently considering publishing a new text titled The Fairchild Books Dictionary of Fashion Details, a visual reference for a full range of contemporary garment parts as well as classic and historical styles. Would you be interested in replying to this brief review survey to give your feedback on what you would like to see included in this text?

https://forms.office.com/Pages/ResponsePage.aspx?id=EhEUMOud80C-HK92sH16BtFgCKT1VE5Ls-4qmCR0cB5UM0s0UTkxNTlISkoyRVJYNkJSN0MzWTVXNy4u  

The honorarium for a completed review survey will be your choice of any book (of up to $100 value) from Bloomsbury.com.  The survey should only take a few minutes to complete.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact Jenna Lefkowitz at Bloomsbury (contact information below.)

Very best wishes to you all,

Sandra Ley, FTC SIG Founder

sjley@pima.edu

Jenna Lefkowitz, Assistant Editor

Fairchild Books, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.

1385 Broadway, 5th Floor

New York, NY 10018

Phone: 212-419-5414 / Email: jenna.lefkowitz@bloomsbury.com

Bingeable: Making the Cut

Warning: fan girl post

I binged Making the Cut and I loved it.

Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum wear black and white polka dots and smile at the camera in a banner advertising "Making the Cut" from the Amazon webpage.

The designers / contestants in this reality show create products, and each episode’s winning clothes are “immediately” available to actually purchase online via Amazon. I know, I know, its so commercial… and wonderful all at the same time.

Plus I can use the fashions and lessons here in the classroom to show that we can design and market for real people at affordable prices and still make a successful brand.

Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn of Project Runway fame, are back with a broader vision: finding not just a good garment, but an all-around designer/entrepreneur to be the “next global fashion brand.” The challenges go beyond the clothes, to include managing a working group, creating an ad campaign, and standing the pressure of competition. In both the first and second season, I thought they picked the person who could do all that and be a design wizard, too.

The week I watched the second season, I dreamed about being a designer — which was useful in that it pushed out so many other contemporary worries. For several days running, there was no pandemic in my thoughts. Nice break.

Also, I thought the styles were worth the watch. In the first challenge, Gary Graham made a handkerchief hem dress out of an army blanket and an indigo batik he created himself. It won the night, as well it should. I seldom disagreed with the judges, so the experience was satisfying.

Several designers on this year’s show emphasized designing for all kinds of bodies, a breath of fresh air. This is something I can take into the classroom as an example of working with real people and being successful. The clothes are not priced in the stratosphere, either. Mr. Graham’s dress is $79.90.

Recommended! Enjoy!

The University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection

The University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection is a digital collection developed in 2018 by the university libraries in cooperation with the College of Business’s Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design.

The physical collection, established in 1951, includes textiles, costumes and ephemera from Rhode Island and all over the world, spanning in time from ancient Egyptian cloth to garments by 20th century designers. It was developed to support teaching at the university, encourage research, and provide artifacts for use in classes and exhibitions. Only a small portion of the physical collection—which numbers more than 25,000 objects—have been photographed or digitised for inclusion in the digital collection.

One of the goals of this digital initiative is to publicise the collection and make it more accessible in an online format. In Historic Textile and Costume Collection in the Academic Setting Linda Welters and Margaret Ordoñez note that digital fashion, textile and costume collections provide for greater collection access, detailed imagery and the ability to view the collection, whilst minimising handling of the actual objects. Additionally, they point out that linked data and further information such as donor records, exhibition history and conservation issues make a digital collection more complete.

Digital fashion, textile and costume collections provide for greater collection access, detailed imagery and the ability to view the collection, whilst minimising handling of the actual objects.

Linda Welters and Margaret Ordoñez

The collection uses the Omeka content management system, which allows libraries, archives and museums, as well as scholarly collections to host visual content and develop digital exhibitions. The platform is customisable to the needs of the developer, allowing a plug-and-play system without the need for advanced computer coding knowledge. 

The landing page features university branding, a search bar and five main subpages: About, Browse Collections, Exhibitions, News and Contact Us. Next a visual header from an item in the collection, recently added items, a featured item, featured [sub]collection and a featured exhibit. Administrative data regarding ownership, funding information and a copyright notice are located at the foot of the page.

As of September 2021, the digital Historic Textile and Costume Collection collection has 19 thematic subcollections, with titles such as “Accessories” and “Materials of the future” which contain as few as two or as many as 70 items. Each subcollections contains metadata such as subject, title, date range, description and contributor, in addition to images and links to the digital objects. Social media links, not visible on the collection homepage do appear within the subcollection record.

“Cubism” University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection

The digital object record includes entries on subject, data, format, description, source, accession identifier, collection contributor, (original) creator, medium, provenance as well as an indexical subcollection hyperlink, the suggested citation and social bookmarking links. The source entry contains information related to the physical item’s donor, and in some records notates that it was a university purchase. Some objects’ records list just a name, while others have a more complete record of the item’s provenance and include information about the item’s initial appraisal. Object description ranges from a few sentences to fully-researched entries with accompanying bibliographic information. 

Regarding imagery, besides a digital photograph of the full textile, there are a variety of images included in the different records. For example, the Cubist textile record from ​​the Tirocchi subcollection contains just one image and is enlargeable. The record for the Woman’s Velveteen Top by Pucci contains a full image of the garment, and also one close-up photo of the collar and label. An enlargement of the Pucci image shows that the photo is not in a high enough resolution to allow for a closer look. However, the record for Woman’s Apron, Hutsul Culture, Ukraine, features two additional high-resolution close-up photos allowing for a very detailed inspection.

An analysis of contributors to the objects’ scholarship and description reveals a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as faculty from the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design, highlighting the use of this digital collection as an important education tool used to support scholarship in the fields of fashion, textile and costume studies.

Besides the digital collection, which is accessible via the library’s digital collections website, the only other access point for the physical collection is the Quinn Hall Textile Gallery, a small rotating exhibition space on campus. The digital collection supports the gallery through digital documentation of current and previous exhibitions and allows for greater access to the collection material. For example, the most recent exhibit, Jessica Strubel’s The Kaleidoscope of Textiles: Dress as Multidimensional Cultural Documents has also been digitally curated within the collection allowing for the exhibit to be seen by a worldwide audience.

In an Analysis of University Historic Clothing and Textile Websites Catherine Murphy suggests a successful digital collection includes images, accompanying text, exhibitions, and social networking links, as well as funding, copyright and site developer information. The digital Historic Textile and Costume Collection includes all of this information and is an example of a successful digital collection. Some recommended improvements would be to develop a standard for imagery including multiple views and closeups within the digital object records, standardisation of metadata fields throughout the collection, provide links to related resources and an increase of information in the entries for some of the objects who lack detailed information.

The strength of this collection is its function—not only as a digital surrogate of the physical collection, but the department’s integration of the collection as a digital humanities laboratory and the creation, transmission and preservation of departmental scholarship.

*Header “Arts and Crafts Movement,” University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection

Introducing your 2021-22 Moderating Team!

Cheryl Miller is the Head, Library Metadata and Discovery Services at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, CA. After attending Pomona College in Claremont, CA and UCLA GLIS in Los Angeles, Cheryl worked at other museum libraries and cataloged for a private collector before finding a home at the Autry. She has presented at ARLIS-NA Conference, RBMS Conference, California Rare Book School, and the Association of Tribal Libraries, Archives and Museums annual Conference. Currently, Cheryl is working with the Autry’s Metadata Team to create a new thesaurus of updated name and subject terms for indigenous names, subjects, languages, and locations, with the goal of addressing how the groups refer to themselves.

“I look forward to serving as FTC Co-Moderator and discovering new ways to highlight our extremely varied work in Fashion, Textiles and Costumes librarianship.”

Caetllonn Seadjwyc recently acquired her MLIS from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Prior to embarking on a career in librarianship, she designed, manufactured, and sold her jewellery collection throughout both Canada and the US, among many other endeavors. Caetllonn has long since demonstrated an affinity for all things fashion, textile, and costume related, most recently evidenced by an ever-expanding series of style-related Pinterest boards and far too many pieces of vintage fabric tucked away in her storage closet.

“I’m delighted to be part of a community that is as interested and inspired by garments and the many varied stories they tell—some frivolous, some political, but always intriguing—as I am! I look forward to interacting with as many FTC SIG members as possible during my time as a Co-Moderator… and beyond, too.”

Emily Anna Smith holds an MLS from Rutgers University, a BA in history from Mary Washington College, and has completed coursework at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  She is the Interlibrary Loan Coordinator at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ.  While her career has largely focused on cataloging and interlibrary loan, her heart has always dwelled in the realm of fashion.  She has been fortunate enough to dovetail her professional skills in organization, classification, and research with her sartorial passions.  Her scholarship centers on the ways social media transmits and shapes perceptions of fashion and has become a tool to explore the nexus of fashion and identity.  She has given two presentations at separate Fashion: Now & Then conferences at LIM College that use the microcosm of the red carpet at the Academy Awards to explore these themes.  The first was “Who Are You Wearing?” How Social Media and the Oscars Red Carpet Have Democratized the Discussion of Fashion (2013) and the second Whatever Lola Wants: Billy Porter, Gender Norms, and Social Media on the Oscars Red Carpet (2019). You can follow her on twitter @oscarscloset.

“I am excited and honored to be part of a community with so many fascinating and important stories to tell.  Fashion, textiles, and costume are such a vital aspect of contemporary and historic cultures.  I’m looking forward to meeting you, virtually and in person, and learning about your work and passions.  It is my pleasure to serve as your Vice-Moderator.”