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Sometimes, the objects we find in storage surprise us.

Imagine this: the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) project team is working in the Collections Storage Building, selecting objects to be conserved as part of our grant-funded work. From the top level of pallet racking, about 15 feet above the ground, we remove some pallets of boxes and bring them down to ground level to unpack. We then climb the moveable stairs to take a peek at the area that we have exposed. The sight that greets us is confusing, but intriguing: a giant, golden-toned teapot, sitting in the center of the racking, far enough back that it was not visible from the ground. It was almost like revealing a magic lamp! We test-lifted it and realized that it was very light for its size, and must be hollow, so we carefully moved it off of the racking and to ground level

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The giant teapot trade sign as we found it in the Collections Storage Building (after we had moved it down from the top shelf).

From the bracket that we found on the handle, it quickly became apparent that this was some sort of a trade sign, likely for a tea shop or coffee house. The body of the teapot occupies a space about three feet on every side – it would have been a very eye-catching sign! A little bit of research led us to some other interesting examples, including one that currently hangs above a Starbucks in Boston and is set up to blow steam out of its spout!

Our teapot has some mysteries, though – the golden paint has some texture to it, as if there were at one point a stripe along the widest part of the teapot’s body, with vertical stripes reaching from that stripe to the lid. Was the teapot originally painted a different color, or with a pattern? We did some minor tests to see if we could isolate different layers of paint, but we were not successful. We might decide in the future to do a more thorough analysis, but that would be after discussion with the curators. We also noted that our giant teapot does not have a hollow spout, and therefore, despite being hollow, probably never had the mechanism to blow steam in the same way as some others.

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The giant teapot on the table in the lab - you can really get a sense of how large it is!

Ultimately, we don’t know a lot about where the giant teapot was originally used, or where it may be displayed in the future. We treated this object with nothing more than a simple cleaning – it was overall very stable to begin with, just dusty and dirty from being in storage. By minimizing treatment to the point of only stabilizing the object, we are leaving the option open for a future conservator to do more work while still ensuring that it’s going to be safe and sound in storage. It also allows us to treat more objects from storage as we progress through the grant. Maybe someday in the future we’ll see the giant teapot again, but for now it’s safe and sound in the Main Storage Building!

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The giant teapot after treatment, ready to go back to storage.

Louise Stewart Beck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.

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IMLS grant, conservation, collections care, by Louise Stewart Beck, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

Over the last two years, if you happened to peek through the windows of The Henry Ford’s conservation lab windows, you might have seen a large, wooden, box-like object on the table. You may have speculated about what it was – a camera, a projector? The answer is that this device is called a “Megalethoscope” – a Victorian photography viewer created optical illusions using light and photographic images.

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The Megalethoscope during treatment in the lab.

The Megalethoscope is one of thousands of objects from The Henry Ford’s Collections Storage Building (CSB) that is being conserved, digitized, and rehoused thanks to a ‘Museums for America Collections Stewardship’ grant from the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS), received in October 2017. Heading behind the scenes, this blog will explain the process that an artifact moves through from conservation to photography—and eventually, becoming viewable on Digital Collections.  

Conservation Treatment

Once an artifact is selected, tagged, and inventoried, it is given a preliminary cleaning with a vacuum and transported into the Conservation Lab.

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(Left) Photo of how the Megalethoscope was found in storage; (Center) The instruction panel that shows how the Megalethoscope works; (Right) The Megalethoscope mounted correctly on its stand.

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The top panels on the Megalethoscope before and after it was cleaned and waxed.

Prior to cleaning, a small spot was tested to determine the best method and materials to use.  A mild detergent, diluted in distilled water did the best cleaning job without damaging the wood. The cleaning solution was gently rubbed on the wood surfaces with swabs to remove all of the dirt and grime, and then the surface was cleared with distilled water to remove soap residue. To bring back the shine of the wood finish, furniture wax was applied and buffed.


Years of storage on its end had caused the joints of the Megalethoscope’s viewer to separate (highlighted in red). Damaged areas were repaired removing the old, dried-up glue, and replacing it with fresh glue.

Large shrinkage cracks had developed in the two side panels that serve as light reflectors, and in the back panel that covers a large pane of glass. Shrinkage cracks develop when wood expands and contracts because temperature and humidity levels fluctuate too much.

Since the cracks were big enough to see through (approximately 1/8th inch wide) thin strips of Japanese tissue paper were soaked with a reversible adhesive, then dried, to fill each of the cracks. As each strip of tissue was compacted into the cracks, the adhesive was activated with solvent. This caused the dry paper to adhere to the edges of the crack and create a bridge. This fill was smoothed down flush with the rest of the wood panel, providing an even surface that could be in-painted to match the adjoining wood panels.

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Using Japanese tissue to fill shrinkage cracks.

Watercolor and acrylic paints were used on the paper fills to hide the repairs and to paint in the large scratches and abrasions that covered the body of the Megalethoscope. To give the painted areas the same shine as the wood finish, a topcoat of acrylic gloss medium was applied.

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(Left) In-painting the paper filled cracks; (Right) Paper fills after they were painted (in green).

To finish the treatment, the glass and mirror pieces of the Megalethoscope were cleaned with a solution of ethanol and distilled water, then wiped with microfiber cloths to prevent streaking. Any metal parts were cleaned with a mild solvent to remove small areas of corrosion and then waxed and buffed them to bring back their shine.

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The Megalethoscope (Left) before and (Right) after conservation treatment.

Investigating Megalethoscope Slides
During treatment, an original photographic slide left inside of the Megalethoscope was discovered. This led to additional investigation. The slide depicted is of the Ponte dei Sospiri in Venice (the Bridge of Sighs). We wondered if there were more of these slides in the collection and after checking our collections database, found a box labeled “Megalethoscope Slides” in the Benson Ford Research Center (BFRC). The contents of the box were not catalogued, so we decided we needed to go to the Archives to see for ourselves!

When the box was brought to the Reading Room at the BFRC, we opened the box and found 21 slides, all in good condition! Many of the slides were photographs of Italy and Paris, plus a handful depicting interiors.

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(Top) The Ponte dei Sospiri slide with handwritten inscription (Bottom) inside the Megalethoscope after it was taken out of storage.

Megalethoscope slides are large, multi-layered assemblies. Each slide consists of an albumen photographic image with pin pricks matching the areas where there is a light source or reflection (ex. an illuminated cityscape). Behind it are layers of colored tissue or cellophane and sometimes extra imagery when lit from behind; finally, there is a backing of a thinner, translucent canvas. All of this is stretched over a curved wooden frame. The curve creates a stereo view of the image which encompasses the viewer’s sight lines when they place their head into the Megalethoscope, much the way today’s virtual reality goggles work. Light is directed onto the slide to create different effects.

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Cross section of a Megalethoscope slide. (Image courtesy of The American Institute for Conservation & Artistic Works, Photographic Materials Group Journal, Topics in Photographic Preservation 1999, Vol. 8, Art.5 (pp.23-30).

The slide that was found with the Megalethoscope in storage did not have any color effects, so we were excited to find that the majority of the slides in our archives had variations in color and optical illusions. The slides were moved to the conservation lab, where their surfaces were gently vacuumed. A smoke sponge removed any remaining dust and dirt. A few of the slides had small punctures or tears to the canvas, but since they were stable, we decided to not repair them at the present. We were thrilled to be able to reunite the slides with the Megalethoscope and have a fully functioning artifact!

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(Top Left & Right) In "St. Mark's Square” you can see how people appear when light is applied to the image.

Photographing the Megalethoscope

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The Megalethoscope on a cart for ease of movement during photography.

There are many steps that artifacts go through to be digitized and made available online, especially for objects as complex as the Megalethoscope. After the slides were conserved and cataloged, they were brought to the photography studio. For 3-D artifacts like the Megalethoscope, photography typically includes an image of the front, the back, and each side, if necessary. Photos serve as a reference material for historical researchers, and they document the condition of the artifact at that time.

The slides needed to be photographed in two ways: as they appeared in normal light, and as they would be seen through the Megalethoscope.  Our senior photographer Rudy Ruzicska came up with a very clever arrangement to recreate this effect by placing two sets of milk crates with a sheet of Plexiglas suspended between them. He placed lights directly under and at an acute angle above the Plexiglas. The slides were placed in the middle of the Plexiglas with black paper border around the edges to prevent any light glare.

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Light arrangement for photography of Megalethoscope slides. (Left) Rudy shooting with his custom set-up during the dark shot of the “St. Mark’s Square” slide; (Right) A closer view of the set-up.

The Megalethoscope images were then photographed under normal (“daytime”) light to document their appearance, and with their “nighttime” illumination effect by turning off the studio lights. The first time we saw the images illuminated in the dark, we all gasped – they became so vibrant and magical! 

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A selection of the final images, with color and effects as they would have been seen inside the Megalethoscope.

The Megalethoscope was re-housed in a specially designed box which will store the unit and its base together safely, along with all of the slides. It was then moved to permanent storage in the Main Storage Building (MSB), as have most of the artifacts that we have worked on during the IMLS grant.

Thank you for joining me on this behind-the-scenes journey of an artifact from storage, to conservation, and through to digitization. I hope you enjoyed the ride!


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Alicia Halligan is an IMLS Conservation Specialist at The Henry Ford


IMLS grant, digitization, conservation, collections care, by Alicia Halligan, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

This blog post is part of an ongoing series about storage relocation and improvements that we are able to undertake thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

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A typical aisle in the Collections Storage Building before object removal.

Autumn of this year marks the end of a three-year IMLS-funded grant project to conserve, house, relocate and create a fully digital catalogue record for over 2,500 objects from The Henry Ford’s industrial collections storage building. This is the third grant THF has received from IMLS to work on this project. As part of this IMLS blog series, we have shown some of the treatments, digitization processes and discoveries of interest over the course of the project. Now, we’d like to showcase the transformation happening in the Collections Storage Building (CSB).

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A view of the aisle and southwest wall before dismantling to create a Clean Room.

Objects were removed from shelves allowing an area in the storage building to be used as a clean space for vacuuming and quickly assessing the condition of these objects before heading to the conservation lab. Since the start of the grant in October 2017, 3,604 objects have been pulled from CSB shelves along with approximately 1,000 electrical artifacts and 1,100 communications objects from the previous two grants. As of mid-March 2020, 3,491 of those objects came from one aisle of the building. As a result, we were finally at a point of taking down the pallet racking in this area.

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Pallets of dismantled decking and beams. A bit of cleaning before racking removal.

While it has taken multiple years to move these objects from the shelves, it took only three days to disassemble the racking! Members of the IMLS team first removed the remaining orange decking. On average, there were four levels of decking, separated in three sections per level. Next, we unhinged the short steel beams that attach the decking to the racking. Then was the difficult part of Tetris-style detachment of the long steel beams directly by the wall from the end section of height-extended, green pallet racking. As you can see this pallet racking almost touches the ceiling! After that, the long beams could be completely removed before taking down the next bay. Nine bays were disassembled this time to reveal the concrete wall and ample floor space. Just as the objects needed cleaning to remove years of dust and dirt, so did the floor!

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The aisle in 2018. An open wall and floor!

What’s next? We will methodically continue pulling objects and taking down racking until no shelf is left behind! We are grateful to the IMLS for their continued support of this project and will be back for future updates.

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Marlene Gray is the project conservator for The Henry Ford's IMLS storage improvement grant.

IMLS grant, collections care, by Marlene Gray, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

imlsThis blog post is part of a series about storage relocation and improvements that we are able to undertake thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

In the course of our work as conservators, we get some very exciting opportunities. Thanks to a partnership with Hitachi High Technologies, for the past few months the conservation lab here at The Henry Ford has had a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) with an energy-dispersive x-ray (EDX) spectroscopy attachment in our lab.

hitachi-usWhat does this mean? It means that not only have we been able to look at samples at huge magnifications, but we have had the ability to do elemental analysis of materials on-demand. Scanning electron microscopy uses a beam of electrons, rather than light as in optical microscopes, to investigate the surface of sample. A tungsten filament generates electrons, which are accelerated, condensed, and focused on the sample in a chamber under vacuum. There are three kinds of interactions between the beam and that sample that provide us with the information we are interested in. First, there are secondary electrons – the electron beam hits an electron in the sample, causing it to “bounce back” at the detector. These give us a 3D topographical map of the surface of the sample. Second, there are back-scattered electrons – the electron beam misses any electrons in the sample and is drawn towards a positively-charged nucleus instead. The electrons essentially orbit the nucleus, entering and then leaving the sample quickly. The heavier the nucleus, the higher that element is on the periodic table, the more electrons will be attracted to it. From this, we get a qualitative elemental map of the surface, with heavier elements appearing brighter, and lighter elements appearing darker.

microsope-scanConservation Specialist Ellen Seidell demonstrates the SEM with Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation volunteer Pete Caldwell.

The EDX attachment to the SEM allows us to go one step further, to a third source of information. When the secondary electrons leave the sample, they leave a hole in the element’s valence shell that must be filled. An electron from a higher valence shell falls to fill it, releasing a characteristic x-ray as it does so – the detector then uses these to create a quantitative elemental map of the surface.

scanA ‘K’ from a stamp block, as viewed in the scanning electron microscope.

The understanding of materials is fundamental to conservation. Before we begin working on any treatment, we use our knowledge, experience, and analytical tools such as microscopy or chemical tests to make determinations about what artifacts are made of, and from there decide on the best methods of treatment. Sometimes, materials such as metal can be difficult to positively identify, especially when they are degrading, and that is where the SEM-EDX shines. Take for example the stamp-block letter shown here. The letter was only about a quarter inch tall, and from visual inspection, it was difficult to tell if the block was made of lead (with minor corrosion) or from heavily-degraded rubber. By putting this into the SEM, it was possible a good image of the surface and also to run an elemental analysis that confirmed that it was made of lead. Knowing this, it was coated to prevent future corrosion and to make it safe to handle.

Elemental analysis is also useful when it comes to traces of chemicals left on artifacts. We recently came across a number of early pesticide applicators, which if unused would be harmless. However, early pesticides frequently contained arsenic, so our immediate concern was that they were contaminated. We were able to take a sample of surface dirt from one of the applicators and analyze it in the SEM.

scan2An SEM image of a dirt sample from an artifact (left) and a map of arsenic within that sample (right).

The image on the left is the SEM image of the dirt particles, and the image on the right is the EDX map of the locations of arsenic within the sample. Now that we know they are contaminated, we can treat them in a way that protects us as well as making the objects safe for future handling.

We have also used the SEM-EDX to analyze corrosion products, to look at metal structures, and even to analyze some of the products that we use to clean and repair artifacts. It has been a great experience for us, and we’re very thankful to Hitachi for the opportunity and to the IMLS as always for their continued support.

Louise Stewart Beck is the project conservator for The Henry Ford's IMLS storage improvement grant.

technology, collections care, by Louise Stewart Beck, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, conservation, IMLS grant

imls-logoWhile researching the many electrical objects being digitized as part of the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences grant, a few stories have stood out to me. These stories sometimes involve the people behind the scenes: manufacturers, inventors, etc., and other times are about how the object was used. Below are four such objects and their stories.

This Jenney Electric Motor Company rheostat has uncovered an interesting story about the company’s namesake. It was designed by Charles G. Jenney who was awarded a patent for it in 1892. Jenney, originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana with his father to design and produce electrical equipment for the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company. On February 27, 1885, Jenney, who had been contracted to the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company by his father while still a minor, successfully petitioned to be removed from the company, and, a month later, he founded the Jenney Electric Light Company later the Jenney Electric Company. The Jenney Electric Company was demonstrating Jenney’s dynamos, arc lamps, and incandescent lamps by August that same year. This company was bought out and Jenney started again, this time with the Jenney Electric Motor Company in 1889 for which he produced electrical equipment like this rheostat, filed for more patents, and wired and lit the streets of Indianapolis.

Continue Reading

power, electricity, by Laura Lipp, IMLS grant

imls-logoOne of the main components of The Henry Ford’s IMLS-funded grant is the treatment of electrical objects coming out of storage. This largely involves cleaning the objects to remove dust, dirt, and corrosion products. Even though this may sound mundane, we come across drastic visual changes as well as some really interesting types of corrosion and deterioration, both of which we find really exciting.

imls-draftingboardAn electrical drafting board during treatment (2016.0.1.28)

Conservation specialist Mallory Bower had a great object recently which demonstrates how much dust we are seeing settled on some of the objects. We’re lucky that most of the dust is not terribly greasy, and thus comes off of things like paper with relative ease. That said, it’s still eye-opening how much can accumulate, and it definitely shows how much better off these objects will be in enclosed storage.

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Before and after treatment images of a recording & alarm gauge (2016.0.1.46)

The recording and alarm gauge pictured above underwent a great visual transformation after cleaning, which you can see in its before-and-after-treatment photos. As a bonus, we also have an image of the material that likely caused the fogging of the glass in the first place! There are several hard rubber components within this object, which give off sulfurous corrosion products over time. We can see evidence of these in the reaction between the copper alloys nearby the rubber as well as in the fogging of the glass. The picture below shows where a copper screw was corroding within a  rubber block – but that cylinder sticking up (see arrow) is all corrosion product, the metal was actually flush with the rubber surface. I saved this little cylinder of corrosion, in case we have the chance to do some testing in the future to determine its precise chemical composition.

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Hard rubber in contact with copper alloys, causing corrosion which also fogged the glass (also 2016.0.1.46).

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Hard rubber corrosion on part of an object – note the screw heads and the base of the post.

This is another example of an object with hard rubber corrosion. In the photo, you can see it ‘growing’ up from the metal of the screws and the post – look carefully for the screw heads on the inside edges of the circular indentation. We’re encountering quite a lot of this in our day to day work, and though it’s satisfying to remove, but definitely an interesting problem to think about as well.

There are absolutely more types of dirt and corrosion that we remove, these are just two of the most drastic in terms of appearance and the visual changes that happen to the object when it comes through conservation.

We will be back with further updates on the status of our project, so stay tuned.

Louise Stewart Beck is Senior Conservator at The Henry Ford.

#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, by Louise Stewart Beck, conservation, collections care, IMLS grant

imls-logoIf you’ve ever walked by the conservation labs at the back of Henry Ford museum, you’ve probably seen the conservators at work on a variety of objects, of a variety of sizes. With a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, we are primarily working on “bench-top” objects – which can be picked up and moved by hand. There are, however, a handful of extra-large objects that we have planned to work on over the course of the grant, including (but not limited to!) historically significant motors, electrostatic producers, and transformers. These objects are important within the electrical scope of the grant, and they need work to be stabilized and preserved for the future.  Note that “extra-large” for us is a lot different than extra-large for the rest of the museum – the Allegheny is magnitudes larger than anything we are working with, for example! The “extra-large” objects that we are working on range up to 2 tons in weight, and require specialized equipment such as forklifts to move. We draw the line at artifacts requiring specialist rigging or outside contractors. These sorts of objects do bring their own issues – moving them from one place to another is difficult and requires careful planning, they require a good deal of space in the lab, and the treatments can take a significant length of time. We’re moving at a quick pace with the work on this grant, so taking up two to three weeks just working on one object isn’t a good solution for us.

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The first extra-large object we’ve grabbed, viewed top-down – a Sprague streetcar motor.

So how do we balance the amount of time it takes to treat very large objects with the need to keep up a pace in order to achieve completion goals? We’ve tackled this perrenial problem in an interesting way. Since we don’t have an enormous number of extra-large objects to complete, we are allowing three months for the conservation of each. What this means practically is that we can bring the object into the lab, give it a space, and then as we have breaks between work on smaller objects, we can dedicate a few hours to it here and there. Breaking up the conservation work in this way has been very successful so far!

The first object that we’ve treated in this way is a Sprague streetcar motor. This is a really interesting and important object, believed to have been used in Richmond, Virginia on the first major electric street railway system, and dating to the end of the 19th century.

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Two of the coils on the motor before treatment.

In the image above are shown two of the coils on the motor before treatment – the textile covering was loose and dirty, and in some places the damage extended to the layer below the outer wrapping as well. The treatment for this object required not only cleaning, but repair to these areas of damage.

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Their ‘tails’ have been rewound and reattached, and the dust and dirt have been removed. The area around the coils has also been cleaned and the wire wrappings have been tidied. The engine overall is nearing completion, but does have some areas that still need cleaning. It’s been great to have it as a project we can come back to for small spurts of time, which is exactly what we were hoping for our extra-large object treatment plan. 

Louise Stewart Beck is an IMLS Conservator at The Henry Ford.

#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, collections care, conservation, by Louise Stewart Beck, IMLS grant

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We are about 35% of the way through our 24-month project to digitize 900 artifacts from our electrical distribution collections, thanks in large part to a
generous grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and nearly 100 objects from the grant are currently accessible through our Digital Collections.

Outside that project, but on a related note, we’ve just finished digitizing 132 photos of figures associated with the same companies as the objects we’re digitizing in the grant.  For example, now you can see images of
people associated with Westinghouse Electric Company, and also find objects created by that company, most of which were conserved and photographed through the grant.  One intriguing image we found is this 1880 photograph of Thomas Edison associate Charles Batchelor, which notes it is “the first photograph ever taken by incandescent electric lamps.” 

Visit our Digital Collections to see
all of these portraits of electrical pioneers, and keep an eye out for more artifacts digitized through the grant to be added over upcoming months.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

power, digital collections, electricity, by Ellice Engdahl, IMLS grant

The world’s first xerographic image made by Chester Carlson and Otto Kornei (Image courtesy of Xerox Corporation, Xerox Images Library).

imls_logo_2cA date, and a place, written by hand: 10.-22.-38. Centered underneath: Astoria. The letters are composed of bold strokes, defined at the edges and flaking towards the center. The whole arrangement seems to be crumbling towards the bottom of the page, like it is made of dust that could be wiped away by the backstroke brush of a hand. Its purpose uncertain, this is not a “note to self” to be in a place, on a certain date—this is the first successful Xerox copy ever made.

The inventor of the modern photocopier, Chester Carlson, began thinking about mechanical reproduction and the graphic arts at a young age. His first publishing effort was a newspaper called This and That, circulated among family members when he was ten years old. The first edition was handwritten, with later issues composed on a Simplex typewriter given to him as a Christmas present in 1916. In high school, Carlson was forced to work multiple jobs in order to support his impoverished and ill family; one of these jobs found him sweeping floors at a printing shop. Working around printing machinery inspired him to publish a science journal, but the tedium of setting type by hand, line by line, led him to give up on this idea quickly. The machines did not support the quickness of his mind. It was in these frustrations with printing equipment—the fussiness of equipment that reproduced documents during his youth—that motivated Carlson to create the instantaneous printing process that would eventually be central to the creation of the Xerox photocopier. Continue Reading

photocopiers, IMLS grant

This mid-20th century phonograph by Zany Toys, Inc., was one of the artifacts treated by Conservation for cadmium corrosion.

Many reading this post will remember that in 2013, The Henry Ford was awarded a two-year, $150,000 Museums for America: Collections Stewardship grant by the United States Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  In this grant, The Henry Ford set out to identify, clean, treat, rehouse, and create digital catalog records for more than 1,000 communications-related artifacts related to photography, data processing, printing, telecommunications, sound communication, and visual communication.  We’re pleased to announce that with about a month left to go in the grant period, we have put more than 1,000 objects through almost every step of the process, and expect to finish up a number of additional objects before we run out of time.

Given how close we are to the end of this project, I asked a few of the staff who’ve spent time working with these objects to weigh in with their thoughts on what was interesting, what was challenging, or what they’ve learned through this process. Continue Reading

communication, conservation, collections care, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, by Ellice Engdahl, IMLS grant, digitization