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Capturing the Expansive History of Out of Home—Duke University Archives

Duke’s R.O.A.D 2.0 Archive Captures the Expansive History of Out of Home

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Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Coca-Cola (10 Advertisements).repository.duke.edu/dc/outdooradvertising/BBB3296.


Capturing the Expansive History of Out of Home—Duke University Archives

Duke’s R.O.A.D 2.0 Archive Captures the Expansive History of Out of Home—

Here’s Why You Should Care



by Will Farmer
Media and Communications Manager, OOH Today



The Resource of Outdoor Advertising Descriptions 2.0 (ROAD 2.0) project includes images related to outdoor advertising from the twentieth century. It began as a metadata-only database in 2003, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Later, using a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), Duke University Libraries digitized many of the images described in the original database.

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The digitized version of the collection launched in spring 2011 with over 22,000 items selected from four archival collections: the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) Archives, the OAAA Slide Library, and the papers of prominent outdoor advertising figures John Paver and John Brennan. A fifth collection, the R.C. Maxwell Company Records, was digitized as a complement to the NHPRC grant-funded collection, and was added to the ROAD installation later in summer 2011. ROAD 2.0 is now a portal to over 31,000 outdoor advertising images.

We spoke to Joshua Rowley, who is a Reference Archivist at Duke University. He expanded on the difficulty of putting an archive of this size together, as well as the importance it holds. Here’s what he had to say:

Joshua Rowley

Discussion with Joshua Rowley, Reference Archivist at Duke University

Will Farmer: Who can access the archive and how can they access it?

Joshua Rowley: Although the source collections are housed in the Hartman Center, part of the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke, the ROAD digital collection is publicly available to anyone in the world with access to a computer with internet service. You do NOT need to be affiliated with Duke in any way to access and explore the collection. Really the entire goal of a digital collection like this (and pretty much all digital collections in a library setting) is to make what would normally be hidden content accessible to the public.

WF: Who are the most frequent users of this archive?

JR: Good question! This kind of data is difficult to capture so we really don’t know. The collection is intended for research and teaching purposes, but we don’t often hear from people letting us know how they are using the collection. We do periodically use google analytics to at least get a sense of how much traffic the site receives and where those people come from but that is not exactly nuanced or detailed. The R.C. Maxwell collection receives a lot of interest because of its thousands of photographs of Trenton and the Atlantic City boardwalk in the early 20th century.

CAMEL FILTERS. THEY’RE NOT FOR EVERYBODY. Durham, repository.duke.edu/dc/outdooradvertising/AAA1645.

WF: What are the difficulties of putting together an archive of this size?

JR: I wouldn’t call them difficulties per se, but every digital collection comes with challenges. First of all, there is an intense amount of cross-departmental labor that goes into creating any digital collection.  A digital collection this size (over 30,000 images) typically takes years to go from concept to online publication and requires the physical and intellectual labor of dozens of people along the way.  The physical collections needs to be pulled, imaged (scanned), and descriptive metadata created for each individual item—information like location, advertiser, placement company, format (slide or photograph for instance), etc. All of this work is done to national standards and is incredible labor intensive.  This doesn’t even get into the amount of infrastructure required to store 30,000 high resolution files or the ongoing maintenance required to ensure their long-term preservation. It perhaps goes without saying that all of the above has a significant monetary cost as well!

WF: What era/eras are the most important in the history of outdoor advertising?

JR: Taken as a whole you really get a feel for the evolution of the industry from hand painted signs to urban illuminated spectaculars to the more familiar structures of today. For me personally, it’s fascinating to see how the automobile, national highways, and eventually the interstate system influenced the course of the industry. While this allowed advertisers to reach more people than ever, they were also zipping by them at ever greater speeds. You really notice how that fact manifested itself in billboard design—bolder more inventive imagery with concise and easy to read copy.

 1981 Monte Carlo. Durham, repository.duke.edu/dc/outdooradvertising/AAA6335.

 WF: What is the future of this database? Is it a work in progress? 

JR: This database has been the definition of a work in progress and it will hopefully continue to evolve moving forward.  The project started in 2003 as a grant funded project limited to an online searchable metadata-only database describing about 50,000 outdoor images—in other words a metadata without the actual photographs. You can read a bit more about the evolution of the ROAD project here. Of course, our main priority is to maintain what we’ve already built for as long as possible. The public facing platform that displays the collection and allows its searchability may evolve over time but the files that populate the site we should have forever (hopefully!). The ROAD 2.0 site actually brings together images from multiple outdoor advertising collections housed in the Hartman Center: the OAAA Archives, the OAAA Slide Library, the R.C. Maxwell Records, the John Paver Papers, and the Brennan Outdoor Advertising Survey Reports.  As we continue to acquire more collections documenting the history of the outdoor advertising industry—which we fully intend to do—we could conceivably continue to add collections to this digital database.  If you’re at all curious about the other outdoor collections housed in the Hartman Center we have an introductory guide online here.

WF: What is the importance of preserving the history of outdoor advertising?

JR:  The mission of the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History is to acquire, describe, and make accessible materials that document the history of advertising communications in all its forms. Outdoor advertising is an important and, in my opinion at least, too often overlooked medium in the history of advertising. We have dozens of collections in the Hartman Center documenting the evolution of the OOH industry. We have scholars from all of the world visit the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library to explore and study a wide range of topics related to the industry: billboard architecture and technology, regulatory and beautification efforts, urban landscapes and planning to name just a few. In other words, we are (probably!) the premiere destination for students, scholars, and OOH industry professionals interested in exploring the history of outdoor advertising. Although temporarily on pause due to the pandemic, the Hartman Center offers annual travel grants, funded by the Foundation for Outdoor Advertising Research and Education (FOARE), to researchers interested in studying aspects of OOH history. You can read more about that program here.

Works Cited

1981 Monte Carlo. Durham, repository.duke.edu/dc/outdooradvertising/AAA6335.

“About Road 2.0.” Resource of Outdoor Advertising Descriptions, repository.duke.edu/dc/outdooradvertising/about.

CAMEL FILTERS. THEY’RE NOT FOR EVERYBODY. Durham, repository.duke.edu/dc/outdooradvertising/AAA1645.

Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Theater, Coca-Cola (10 Advertisements). repository.duke.edu/dc/outdooradvertising/BBB3296.


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