Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian

Intellectual Access to the Collection

Several levels of access were created for the Curtis images. There are collection level records for the plates bound into each of the twenty volumes, while the 720 portfolio images have individual item-level catalog records. Data elements common to both types of records include tribal names and culture areas, as well as publication data. For each collection level record, the titles of the individual plates are listed in a note and then linked through an intermediary HTML page that acts as a list of plates with an alternate "gallery" view. Additionally, an HTML table allows users to browse by volume, providing access both to all the portfolio images associated with each volume and to the lists of images bound into the volumes.

The Dublin Core record structure was chosen for the descriptive records because of staff interest in exploring new metadata models. Data about the original source materials and the digital surrogates were integrated into each record. Records were created in the OCLC CORC database in 1999-2000; these were the first item-level digital image records to be created for the CORC database during its eighteen-month pilot phase. After several phases of Dublin Core re-mapping in CORC, copies of the records were exported in RDF-XML format for use by Library of Congress in the American Memory application. The records were then transformed and indexed for interoperable cross-collection searching by the InQuery search engine. The cataloging and indexing process was conducted by an electronic resource cataloger, with help from a research assistant who transcribed captions and did preliminary indexing. The special diacritic system used by Curtis for recording American Indian languages can not be displayed in the online records, although it can be viewed in images of the captions.

For the 1506 images in the bound volumes there is no specific indexing of artifacts or activities in individual scenes. However, the text of the titles supplied by Curtis can be picked up by a general search, and provides a variety of information such as "harvest", "granaries", and "potter." The user must keep in mind this is not controlled, consistent vocabulary, as a review of the titles for plates in volume 2 reveals: various titles describe either "house" or "home", and "maiden" or "girl". Also, note that many Curtis captions include subjective views of a "primitive" culture. (See Sensitive Images and Text.) Index terms have been assigned to the 720 portfolio images describing prominent features recognizable to the general viewer, including gender and social status of portrait subjects, as well as clothing, artifacts, structures and daily activities.

At the time of cataloging and indexing, a comprehensive source for controlled vocabulary applicable to American Indian studies was not available. Indexing terminology came from two authoritative sources: the Art and Architecture Thesaurus primarily for clothing, artifacts and structures; and the Library of Congress Thesaurus of Graphic Materials primarily for activities, customs, social status, gender, occupations, plants and animals. These two sources are not distinguished from each other in the subject fields, although particular attributes of the source terms, such as parenthetical qualifiers, can be recognized [e.g. AAT's "sashes (costume accessory)"].

The subject terms can be approached in several ways. A Subject Index provides a comprehensive alphabetical listing of all terms assigned, including tribes, personal names and specific place names. A specially tailored Subject Term Groupings list shows the index terms assigned to portfolio images for artifacts, activities, and social status arranged under thematic categories, such as "Basic Clothing" or "Travel and Transportation." The guide terms heading each of these categories are linked to prepared searches which will pull up records for all index terms included in the category. For instance, the user can click on the "Activities" category and retrieve all specifically indexed items including "Baking, " "Basketmaking" and "Bathing". Note that the topical groupings are provided for convenience, but many items could be viewed as related to more than one grouping. For instance, in American Indian culture it is problematic to distinguish between every day handicraft artifacts and ceremonial objects.

In the special presentation Edward S. Curtis in Context, several of the essay authors note that Curtis was known to have provided set props and eliminated non-traditional clothing and objects from the scenes he represented. The index terms provided in this database record what is actually featured in the photographs, not necessarily the complete or appropriate cultural objects associated with the persons portrayed in the early twentieth century. But the database, combined with the visual record provided by the images, will yield descriptions of cultural artifacts whose authenticity the user can further investigate.

Also available to guide the general user are lists of Geographic Locations and American Indian Tribes. The geographic list is a comprehensive alphabetical listing of culture areas and place and state names. The tribal list organizes tribe names within the culture areas as identified in Library of Congress Subject Headings and Encyclopaedia Britannica Online (copyright 1994-2000). See also the map North American Indians as Witnessed by Edward S. Curtis.

Return to Building the Digital Collection
Return to Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian