September 2001 Volume 23 Number 3

Conservation Surveys: A Digital Success Story

by Ann Svenson Perlman

Early this year I surveyed 80 textiles for an historic home here in Hawaii. This was phase one of a two phase conservation survey scheduled for 2001. I proceeded as I have in the past by fine-tuning my fairly elaborate survey form to meet the needs of the collection and the institution requesting the survey. I use FileMaker Pro, which has served me very well for the past 11 years as my database program for surveys, report data, and invoicing. (This year I upgraded my conservation database in FileMaker by having it made into a relational database, a complex change.)

In preparing for the actual on-site part of the process I did what I have always done; I printed out enough blank paper copies of the four page survey to cover the artifacts in the collection. I lugged a lauhala briefcase full of survey forms to the site and filled them out by hand, in pencil, one by one, for each artifact. I also photographed each artifact with an old digital Sony Mavica. The images were saved to 10 floppy disks.

At the end of the eight days on site, I returned to my studio and transferred the notes from the paper forms to my original database forms on the computer. I downloaded the images from the floppy disks and corrected each useable image in PhotoShop 6. The entire process took four days!

The resulting report is well organized, informative, and pleasing to the eye, but it occurred to me that in these digital and computer oriented days there must be a more expedient and cost effective way to produce the same high quality survey report. Of course an obvious answer to my newly identified quest is the laptop computer, but for me it was not the solution. I own a dinosaur Mac that is heavy, slow, and antiquated in its version of File Maker. I had already prioritized my 2001 equipment needs towards a new digital camera and did not have the extra thousands of dollars burning a hole in my budget for a new laptop. So a new digital camera was in and the laptop was out.

Early in the year, between phase one and phase two of the survey, I became interested in a program that was included in a recently purchased FileMaker Pro 6 upgrade, FileMaker Mobile, which made FileMaker available through a palm device. It was then that I began to research and consider the use of a palm device for conservation surveys. I had seen other friends and professionals using the small computers, and I was intrigued.

I spent a fair amount of time on the Internet researching the pros and cons of several types of palm devices including two of the most popular: the Palm Pilot and the Handspring Visor. In the end, the Handspring Visor Prism made the most sense for my needs. I appreciate the easy expandability, the rechargeable battery, the automatic syncing with my desktop computer, and the color screen. It cost $399, plus $80 for an 8MB memory module (ended up not being necessary) and $80 for a stowaway keyboard (very necessary). So now I had a 16MB computer and keyboard that I could carry in my purse.

My next hurdle was to test a database program on my Visor to make sure that it would really work onsite. Although I owned the FileMaker Mobile, I felt the need to do a bit of comparison research. I chose HanDbase, which is a relational database shareware program, designed for palm devices. It was inexpensive and easily downloadable from the Internet. I set up each program with a mini survey form having important category similarities to my original File Maker survey form.

The FileMaker Mobile only allows 20 fields, which at first seemed too limited. The HanDbase program allows many more fields than I needed which seemed terrific. I then chose several textiles in my studio and "surveyed" them with my Visor.

Almost immediately I found that the HanDbase program was in fact very limited by the number of characters that each field allowed. It seemed that I was barely able to write a couple of sentences. The FileMaker Mobile, in contrast, allowed seemingly unlimited entry of characters. I was able to write long into the night in any given field, and I found that I could use 20 fields without compromising the survey. So, during my comparison and practice phase, the FileMaker Mobile won.

The interface and synchronization with my Desktop was the final palm device test before phase two of the onsite survey began. The interface and synchronization turned out to be no problem. In FileMaker Pro 6 there is an import records feature where the relationships between the desktop program and the palm device program can be specified, related, and mapped. When my Visor synced with my desktop, my records were added and were available to be incorporated into my main FileMaker database. Easy enough.

One last impediment to the time and cost effective survey of my dreams was the quality of my digital images. I was no longer satisfied with spending time tweaking images so that they were useful for documentation. I needed images that were high enough in quality that they would require no time in PhotoShop.

I spent months researching digital cameras. I almost bought the Sony DC-300 (3.3 mega pixel, stores images to a small compact disk, $1000) but in the end bought the Olympus E-10 digital SLR camera (4.3 mega pixel, smart media or compact flash storage, $2000). The low light capability, the excellent lens quality, the up-gradeability (lenses: wide angle, macro), the high rating on accurate color recognition and representation (especially problematic for some digital cameras in the red family where colors come out indistinguishable or muddy) and the ability to capture a very high resolution image allowed me to justify the added expense. This is a camera that should serve me for years.

So, I had the Visor loaded with my survey form, and I had the digital camera that would produce high quality images. I was ready. I was also nervous. Would this work? I spent three days onsite typing notes into my Visor onto my own FileMaker database survey form and photographing the artifacts without flash in the low light of the historic house. I was able to check my images on site, deleting undesirables and insuring quality. I was able to check and edit my notes to insure that I had all the necessary on site information for the report. I arrived and departed with one bag containing my camera, Visor, and keyboard.

Back in my studio I synced my Visor with my desktop, transferred my files to my waiting FileMaker Pro 6, downloaded my images to a folder, imported my un-manipulated images into FileMaker Pro 6, printed the survey to hard copies, and burned a CD as an archival copy of the survey. This produced a report that is well organized, informative, and pleasing to the eye, only this time it took only a couple of hours, instead of days. Success!


HanDbase. Available at www.ddhsoftware.com for ($24.99).
Looks like there is a HanDbase Plus available now ($29.99).

FileMaker Mobile. Available through www.filemaker.com. ($49.00) Needs FileMaker 5.0v3 or later.

Targus Stowaway Keyboard. Available at many Internet sites ($79.99).

Handspring Visor. Available at www.handspring.com and elsewhere on the Internet.

Information & Reviews on Digital Cameras. www.imaging-resource.com. This web site is a terrific resource.

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