NIST Digital Archives include a few mysteries

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has launched a new website, the NIST Digital Archives, to make its document and artifact holdings available to the online world.

The site, which went live March 31, is part of the NIST Information Services Office museum and history program. It is intended not only to make information more available for research but to raise awareness of NIST’s work. And it even included some "mystery items" NIST would like to know more about.

“It helps bring to light that we have been around for a very long time and we have produced a great many scientific studies,” said digital services librarian Regina Avila.

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The agency dates back to 1830, when it was the Office of Standard Weights and Measures in the Treasury Department, before becoming the National Bureau of Standards in 1901. It now is part of the Commerce Department and since 1988 has been NIST.

The site is not hosted in the government’s .gov domain, as is the official agency site, That is because it is using the ContentDM content management platform hosted by OCLC (formerly known as the Online Computer Library Center).

“It’s the content management software that the library community uses,” said Barbara Silcox, program manager for digital information services. “We get a lot of services from OCLC and they are hosting the software.”

The Information Services Office had been considering an online presence for several years, but “the field has been changing so dramatically it was hard to put a stake in the ground and decide how to do it,” Silcox said.

NIST was able to use the ContentDM largely out of the box, with some customization to design the site’s landing pages. What increases the significance of the online collections is the use of metadata to link publications and other documents, and to link documents with museum artifacts.

“We had to scratch around for metadata,” Avila said. Some was already available at NIST and some was gathered elsewhere. Metadata is being added as the site grows and new material is brought online.

The inclusion of photos of artifacts from the NIST Museum at the agency’s campus in Gaithersburg, Md., was a bit of synergy.

“When we settled on the software for a repository of documents, we found it was conducive to photos also,” Avila said.

The museum collection includes more than 1,000 objects, including items such as a 19th century Vernier compass and an 1830 bound set of logarithmic and trigonometric tables used by Ferdinand Hassler to survey the U.S. Atlantic. The collection also contains a bust of Hassler, the first superintendent of the U.S. Survey of the Coast and first head of the U.S. Office of Weights and Measures.

“It was fun to photograph them but challenging,” Avila said. “Some artifacts were broken; others had missing pieces. Some were heavy and others were fragile.”

Some of the items were even unknown. “We had some artifacts in our collection we want to identify, so we thought we could exhibit them online and ask for help,” Avila said.

There now are photos of 137 artifacts on the site, with documentation. Also available on the site are full-text papers from the Journal of Research of the National Institute of Standards and Technology dating back to 1981. Journal papers dating back to 1904 eventually will be added to the site, along with historical photos, material from the oral history collections and video recordings of NIST conferences.

If you are able to provide information about any of the mystery items displayed on the site, you can e-mail the information to

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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