Every now and again it is useful to take a look at past programs and reflect on what we learned. I had the great pleasure of working on such a project over the last several months. The American Architectural Foundation asked us to assist with an evaluation of the Save America’s Treasures project that was funded by the federal government from 1999-2010 through the National Park Service and its partner agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. Some $315 million dollars were distributed to cultural and educational institutions over that period through 1,300 grants. Many of the grants restored buildings, historic monuments, or ships, but our purpose was to review the 479 SAT grants focused on collections.

In just over a decade, the Save America’s Treasures program made possible the preservation and, in many cases, digitization of a remarkable number of historical resources. In our report to the American Architectural Foundation, we developed case studies of 21 SAT grant-funded projects to offer some examples of what was accomplished. The case studies simply illustrate what cultural organizations were able to achieve with their grants. No doubt, the other SAT grantees could tell similar stories.

The timing of the SAT grants was critically important. They coincided with the rapid development of digital technology and the grantees took the opportunity to use the funding to digitize and make widely available their important historical resources. Absent the funding, these collections would have remained largely hidden from public view.

While each of the grants had its special features, we found the following commonalities:

  • We found overwhelming appreciation and gratitude for the SAT grants the institutions had received. Without exception, the grantees concluded that without the SAT grant, they would not have achieved the results that were possible with external funding.
  • Most of the grant projects were conceived of as preservation projects—the need to rescue deteriorating collections—but because they originated in the earliest days of digital technology, nearly all of them morphed into digitization for access projects, as well.
  • The Save America’s Treasures guidelines were flexible enough to include many types of collections—film, recorded sound, print, even microfilm. SAT’s flexibility resulted in a great variety of collections being made accessible to the public.
  • Copyright law, more than any other reason, is the barrier that precludes some collections from being accessible through the web. Audiovisual resources have particularly high intellectual property hurdles to overcome before materials are Internet accessible. However, SAT also created new opportunities for showcasing newly restored silent films in festivals.
  • The requirement for matching funds was useful in incentivizing parent organizations to support preservation and digitization projects. This in turn raised the profile and value of preservation entities within the larger institutions.
  • At the time most of the SAT projects were launched, there were no standards or best practices in audio and film preservation, as well as for digitization of documents, photographs, and collections. Receiving SAT grants motivated many of the organizations to work with like-minded institutions to develop workflows, guidelines, and best practices that became professional standards.
  • The SAT projects had a profound professional development effect on many of the staff involved. Many respondents described the SAT project as their institutions’ first foray into the digital environment. Few, if any, staff had significant experience with digital technology, and by working on the SAT projects, staff re-oriented their professional responsibilities toward access, moving away from an earlier focus on collection building. Many described this process as one of the most significant influences on personal careers.
  • All of the case studies reveal how vulnerable collections, artifacts, documents and artistic works are to being lost.

The case studies are useful in documenting how decisions were made and priorities were established in the early days of digital technology. They also remind us that in all museum, library, and archival collections, there are still amazing collections that are “hidden” and waiting to be digitized and made accessible to researchers, students, and the general public.