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“Digitizing” the Skyline: Dreaming the Skyline Marks Libraries’ Fourth Externally Funded Digital Collection

By BTL on November 26, 2012 7:00 AM | Permalink

As the Las Vegas Strip took shape after the 1950s, casino resorts distinguished themselves with architectural innovations designed to evoke wonder, pleasure and whimsy.

That vision is documented in the architectural drawings, historical photos and ephemera that are now available online in Dreaming the Skyline.

Archivists, digitization specialists, designers, teaching faculty and students all worked together to build a one-of-a-kind digital collection that enables researchers to make connections, develop original interpretations and illuminate our shared history.   

Bringing the Strip Down to Size

When Dr. Glenn Nowak’s architecture students needed examples of performance spaces in Las Vegas resort casinos, they discovered firsthand some of the obstacles researchers face when using archival material. Viewing Homer Rissman’s design for the Holiday Casino, which would one day become Harrah’s, required the intervention of a special collections librarian to locate and unfurl a four-foot diagram of the hotel’s first floor. While the dimensions of the presentation portfolio mirror the importance of the artifact, they pose obstacles for preservationists, librarians, researchers and students. Faced with the blueprint, students were on their own to find out more about the drawing’s context and its relationship to other projects by Rissman, buildings on the Strip and Las Vegas history. 

The Dreaming the Skyline digital project gathers the artifacts from UNLV Libraries’ vaults together with narratives and rich metadata that help researchers make connections between individual documents and the “big picture” of the history of the Strip. Researchers, faculty and students have come to expect and embrace intuitive, accessible archives. Librarians value both moving away from the days of reaching for heavy but fragile pieces and utilizing better tools to document the relationships among items in a collection and between those collections and our community’s history. Of course, the greatest reward of digitizing large collections is the capacity to reach larger audiences.

The number and size of UNLV Libraries’ resort architectural drawings make the task of cataloguing, preserving and accessing them difficult for librarians behind the scenes. Time, cost and effort are all important variables considered by UNLV Libraries’ Digital Collections and Special Collections units when collaborating on which projects to tackle next. Since researchers have gone to great lengths to utilize these drawings, braving the more rigid and limiting process of physical archives, the value of this work is clear. The Rissman and Stern drawings were good candidates for digitization because while their scope is small, important concepts around evolution and growth coalesce around these pieces of Las Vegas’ cultural heritage, and presenting them online lays the groundwork for a larger, ongoing project.

Amassing hundreds of fragile pencil sketches, Dr. Peter Michel, Director of Special Collections, and Cory Lampert, Head of Digital Collections, chose to shrink the skyscraping edifices of Homer Rissman and Martin Stern Jr.’s dreams into flexible and advanced digital media. The UNLV Libraries have a proven track record in procuring grants from the Nevada State Library and Archives under the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) for the creation of digital collections. Project grants last one year, and most of that time is spent selecting materials, training staff and designing the project scope. By the end of a grant documents are scanned and made available to students, researchers or anyone else interested on the Internet.

The scanning process for the architectural drawings was outsourced to a company called “Backstage Library Works.” The large four-foot designs were captured in panels then digitally stitched together at high resolution for close-up zooming, enabling researchers to see even small details that might be easy to miss on the original print. With the help of Nowak, library staff then learned the language of architectural design and construction to create what is now by far the most field specific and navigable architectural database in the world, allowing users to search by keyword and get precise results.

The concept of Dreaming the Skyline developed from an idea to present photographs of buildings and the design logic, genius and innovation behind the Strip’s evolution. The drawings also represent a maturation and refinement of architectural practices in Las Vegas that resonates with what have become industry standards in resort architecture across the globe. Michel asserts that “Resort casino architecture began in Vegas.” Its evolution and constant innovation is now visible in gaming and resort industries from Atlantic City to Macau. Other inspirations for the project include Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas, which captures the prevailing argument among architects and historians that Las Vegas has set the industry standard.

Librarians at UNLV recognized they had unique records that document this history. The drawings in Dreaming the Skyline convey the history of the Strip through the drafting process for the design of the resorts themselves, which were responsive to needs of resort-goers and changes in industry trends. The implicit evolution of the Strip can be found in the details between the creative alterations of design drafts and renovations of existing resorts. While these nuances make the collection more diverse and complex, they also necessitate that the team narrow the selection of which design version should be included in the final digital collection. 

The Dreaming the Skyline project is more versatile and complex than any other collection of historical architectural drawings on the web today. Designers of the web site drew from the needs of researchers and the insights of the Special Collections staff to organize the drawings by project and to commission headnotes and essays that illuminate each resort’s character.

Reaching Out to the Community

Aside from the clear benefits of preserving and distributing such unique, fragile and oversized materials in a digital form, Michel notes that the birth and growth of Las Vegas genuinely interests and benefits audiences at UNLV, in Las Vegas and beyond.  UNLV librarians responded to the needs of end-users like Nowak, who participated in the project development. Architects have used UNLV’s physical collections to study design concepts for theaters and facades, and Nowak created a studio class on theatrical space in which students spent a semester examining these collections, extracting those most relevant to their interests and providing input on what should be included. 

The Urban History Association convened in Las Vegas in 2010 and drew greater attention to the need for improved access to these materials as architects and historians expressed interest in accessing the Stern and Rissman drawings. Professors at other institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania, also requested the digitization of some of the records for instructional use in courses on the architecture of Las Vegas.

The Dreaming the Skyline project also creates an opportunity for architectural firms to contribute artifacts from their collections to further the cause of preserving and showcasing Las Vegas architectural history. The project as it stands covers Rissman and Stern’s designs of resort buildings on the Strip through the 1980s; contemporary Strip architecture and the architects’ off-Strip commercial and residential work are not included. A future project might include gathering earlier Rissman work done in residential Chicago to showcase the evolution of his portfolio from residential to resort architecture. Michel and Nowak are collaborating to further the project by reaching out to the community to collect documentation of more recent architectural designs on and off the Las Vegas Strip to expand the timeline and inclusiveness of materials. 

With the recent launch of the project, its creators are eager to discover how the site will be used by educators and researchers.  Faculty have just begun to discover the educational applications of this dynamic digital archive for architectural, Nevada, urban history and public history instruction. Dreaming the Skyline offers an entry point to archival research, reproducing the primary sources but also supplying context and laying the groundwork for students to form their own interpretations. Lampert keeps relevance to teaching and potential curriculum uses in mind throughout the design process: “There are information literacy and evaluation skills you could use when you get search results in a digital collection because we have so many varieties and formats of information. There is a visual literacy component—images, multimedia and other formats, beyond just a journal article.”

Student interns are enlisted to assist with the curation, material selection and metadata development process. Recent library school graduates and current public history students serve as “project archivists” and gain practical experience and financial benefit from these positions. Aaron McArthur, a Spring 2012 PhD graduate from the UNLV History Department and project archivist for Dreaming the Skyline, parlayed his experience into a successful application to Arkansas Technical University to direct its public history program. Several other student project archivists have also found employment or furthered their education in the field as a consequence of their involvement in digital projects. Michel remarked that as a historian he wants to bring history to the public and this is essentially what digitization does with greater efficiency than virtually any other medium.  Furthermore, he loves having history students involved in that process. Lampert agreed, contending there “is a natural affinity between the two areas. So far, three student project archivists have been hired into professional careers and others have pursued higher education in the field. This aspect of mentoring has been pretty successful.”

The Libraries have completed the transformation of representing the architects’ visions of metal, glass and plaster to pixels and code. While Dreaming the Skyline required visionaries like Homer Rissman and Martin Stern Jr., their imaginations only made up a small part of the formula that would become the Las Vegas Strip. These architects, like our librarians, relied upon a large cast of behind the scenes workers from whom they found inspiration. To carry the Strip from dream to reality, buildings underwent multiple design drafts, responsive to shifting needs of resort-goers. And so, a parallel process from dreaming to doing took place in the very construction of this elaborate digital archive, making the UNLV Libraries more functional, accessible and attractive thereby reasserting the ingenuity and relevance of the great Neon City in the desert.

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