No Space Necessary: Preservation’s Final Frontier

Miller and Johnson sit at a large table. While Johnson looks at the screen of a laptop, Miller holds a scanner pointed at a bust.
Derek Miller, 3-D project coordinator, and Jenny Johnson, director of the Center for Digital Scholarship. Photo by Ben Meraz.

What do a suffragist-era mug, a statue of Benjamin Harrison, and an Indy 500 racing suit have in common? They’re just a few of the 400 objects the IUPUI University Library Center for Digital Scholarship (CDS) has preserved since 2015.

But rather than storing the objects in the stacks, the CDS is using handheld scanners to create 3-D images of the artifacts, preserving them—and making them available to students, faculty, and the public—via an online database.

“We’re trying to keep a copy of history,” says Jenny Johnson, director of the CDS. “If we can capture it, sustain it, and migrate it to whatever form it will take next, we can not only provide access for future generations, we can also help preserve these artifacts.”

Vintage racing suit from Indianapolis 500 driver Peter Revson.
Vintage racing suit from Indianapolis 500 driver Peter Revson.

Over the past four years, the CDS has partnered with the IU School of Dentistry, IU Southeast, and community organizations like the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) Museum to deliver 3-D images of artifacts that can be viewed from all angles by online users.

With scanners resembling those you might find at a grocery store self-checkout kiosk, two members of the CDS team meticulously scan an object up to five different times to ensure its wholistic digital capture. The scanners take 1,000 photographs per second and stitch the images together, and the CDS’s 3-D project coordinator then digitally “cleans up” the images before they’re shared with the world.

“We’re fortunate to have thousands of artifacts in our possession, but there are limitations to how we can share them with the public, from a finite amount of museum floor space to just the delicate nature of some items,” says Betsy Smith, executive director of the IMS Museum. “Scanning historic—and sometimes fragile—pieces in 3-D and saving them in a digital collection is a wonderful way of making more of our collection available, and we’ve been delighted to begin to do that in partnership with the IUPUI University Library.”

Working closely with faculty in the IU School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI, the Center for Digital Scholarship hopes to secure funding that will help expand its digital preservation efforts beyond artifacts themselves to include the physical spaces in which those items are housed.

“We’d like to document entire Indiana landmarks in 3-D and make them available in virtual reality,” Johnson says. “That way, users could navigate the entire space, view the art on the walls, and be able to click on anything in the environment to learn more.”


Want to help preserve history in 3-D? Please use the button below to make an unrestricted gift to the Center for Digital Scholarship Fund, or contact Cortnee Yarbrough, IUPUI University Library director of development, at cortnee@iupui.edu or 317-274-8061.

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This article was originally published in the fall 2018 issue of Imagine magazine. 

Written By
Ryan Millbern