Digital Indy: Institutional Collaborations Bring 3D to Indianapolis' Public

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About Digital Indy

My name is Victoria Duncan and I am Digital Projects Manager at the Indianapolis Public Library, which means that I manage Digital Indy, the site which houses the library’s digital collection of cultural heritage material. I have no background in 3D imaging. I received my MLS specializing in rare books and manuscripts from Indiana University and briefly worked in the antiquarian book trade before landing in the digital archives world because that’s where the jobs were. I found that I really liked the project-based nature of the work and learning new technology, which I eschewed during my formal education. The department I head is unique in that the vast majority of what we scan and digitize comes from collaborations with other institutions. Our metadata and workflows are influenced by the collection owners, institutions that would not have the means to digitize their own collections. We work with everyone from performing arts groups to neighborhood organizations. Our biggest collections are those from the Indianapolis Firefighters Museum, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and Indianapolis Public Schools.

Image from Major Fires, 1956-1964 in the Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Digital Collection

Our first attempt at 3D scanning came three years ago when we digitized a collection for a local professional dance company, Dance Kaleidoscope. Their archives of hundreds of costumes and accessories begged for something a bit outside the box. We partnered with IUPUI, a university which was already a leader in 3D scanning in Indiana, to do some white light scanning using the Creaform Go!SCAN 50. There were some challenges with the shiny fabric and we ultimately produced two successful renderings, which we were thrilled with.

The workflow for this particular process had IUPUI Center for Digital Scholarship faculty doing the scanning, then School of Informatics students taking over from there. The finished images were loaded into the IUPUI Sketchfab Pro account and post-processed before they were shared with us. This was incredibly important for us as a public library with small staff and little training in this area because we were then able to take the link straight from Sketchfab and easily load the image into CONTENTdm, our CMS. This saved us time as well as storage costs and made us much more confident to try again.

The Next Phase

In 2018 we began expanding our existing The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis collection, created some ten years ago, thanks to a grant awarded by the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, Inc. As part of this collection expansion, we were looking for creative additions to the collection and thought that the many artifacts in the museum begged to be 3D scanned. Once again, we turned to IUPUI for help. The Indianapolis Children’s Museum 3D scanning project represents a collaboration between three institutions in three distinct roles: ourselves as the funding arm and host, the Children’s Museum as collection owners and metadata creators (aside from some administrative metadata on our part), and the IUPUI School of Informatics and Computing who provided the images using the photogrammetry process. Further training in post-processing came from the IUPUI Center for Digital Scholarship.

By this time we had already done two 3D scanning projects with the brilliant C. Thomas Lewis and Albert Williams, professors at the IUPUI School of Informatics and Computing, when they collaborated with us on two captures using a Matterport scanner: one of The Spades Park Branch Library and the other of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis exhibit: Take Me There: China. For the artifact photography, they determined that photogrammetry would provide the best capture given the challenging mix of materials, which ranged from bone to shiny stone. The setup was on-site at the museum and the photography was completed over the course of two sessions.

Twenty artifacts were selected by the museum and in the end sixteen rendered successfully. The results were even better than expected and add depth to the overall collection. This collection is one of the few we have that specifically target school-age children; the 3D scans help bring the collection to life for young people who can get easily bored—especially when you are trying to sell them on a static version of the most fun museum in town!

This collaboration brought a new set of challenges in that once the model was created it was sent to us as files. This was a change in workflow from our previous experience of loading images already in Sketchfab. Instead, we were given the texture files in TIFF format along with an FBX file. In addition to being a bit perplexing to a layman, they were also a little disturbing to gaze upon.

Texture file for a Camarasaurus skull. This is what it looks like when they abyss gazes also into you.

Uploading to Sketchfab

The Sketchfab interface was quite easy to discern, but my first uploads looked terrible. For two-dimensional scans I was trained in how to use Photoshop to get a truer image and negate imperfections that happen in the scanning process, but for 3D scans I had no idea what the standards were. I turned to the IUPUI Center for Digital Scholarship, who sent over an angel in the form of 3D Projects Coordinator Derek Miller. He taught me to create texture files:

And how to use light:

And transformed this:

Camarasaurus skull

Into this:

…saving both the project and my reputation. Though it took more time than anticipated, I was thrilled to learn a new set of skills and to be able to dip my toe into the process a bit more.

Advice for Potential Collaborators

Though plenty of public libraries have been experimenting with 3D printing for years, much of the scanning technology still remains out of reach. In the last couple years new apps have emerged that enable 3D scanning with a phone and these are great for makerspace-type projects such as “print your own selfie” events. However, for publics who are also members of the digital archives community, the computer processing power needed to render a preservation-quality image, even beyond the initial cost of the image capture equipment, is likely untenable. However, the good news is that embarking on such a project on your own is an unnecessary burden.

3D technology has exploded in popularity and virtually every school of Informatics in the country is experimenting with it on some level. There is a large pool of students in need of projects. Publics often have access to funding that other institutions do not, and 3D projects have the wow factor that is attractive, particularly to private funders. What’s more, public libraries have going for them a lot of good will in the community which makes someone more willing to, say, do a last-minute house call to help an untrained librarian figure out why her 3D scans aren’t popping.

The most important piece of advice I can give is to make sure you understand exactly what is expected of your institution in terms of time and expertise beforehand. Using Sketchfab significantly diminished the time it would have taken to load the files into CONTENTdm. However, assuming that the workflow the second time would be like the first and having to navigate new ground without a background in 3D imaging set us back quite a bit. However, we were able to overcome this snag relatively easily and—far from being dissuaded from future collaborations—we are currently working on some 3D scans of the Indianapolis Firefighters Museum. We now consider 3D projects to be a permanent extension of the larger Digital Projects mission.

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About the author

Victoria Duncan

Digital Projects Manager for Indianapolis Public Library with a background in rare books and manuscripts and passion for taking on challenging new projects.


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