In March 2014 Will Rourk, Information Visualization Specialist for the University Library, jumped at an opportunity to scan 3D images of a chemical hearth, part of a Jefferson-era chemistry lab exposed by renovations to the Rotunda. Rourk’s instinct was to make this piece of UVA history—hidden in the walls since the 1850s—freely accessible to the University community and beyond. This instinct to preserve and share an image of the University as it was led Rourk to seek a partnership with CyArk, a non-profit organization that creates freely accessible 3D images of World Heritage sites.
CyArk is the brainchild Ben Kacyra, an Iraqi-American civil engineer and entrepreneur who helped develop the first practical, portable laser scanner. He founded CyArk in 2003 as a response to seeing the Taliban in Afghanistan blast the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan into rubble. The tools he uses to build his cyber ark of endangered cultural heritage sites are the same that Rourk uses at UVA. The scanners send pulsed beams of light against surfaces, generating “clouds” of millions of precise points to capture 3D data that, unlike physical structures, can be preserved permanently, safe from natural and man-made catastrophe.
The common interests of CyArk and the Library led Rourk and Chip German, senior director of Content Stewardship, to propose that the University—a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site with Monticello since 1987—be included in CyArk’s “500 Challenge,” an ambitious plan to digitally preserve 500 at-risk cultural heritage sites in five years. Although UVA isn’t at risk in the same way sites in war-torn areas of the world may be, bits of its history do disappear because of inevitable construction and renovation. For example, Rourk was recently able to scan a cistern from the 1850s that has since been removed to make way for a utility basement room in the Rotunda. As Rourk points out, very little from the 19th century is visible in the Rotunda. Its history, he says, lies inside the walls, covered by repairs made after a fire in 1895. And while natural disasters in this area are rare, they do occur—in 2011 a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook the University and destroyed historic houses in the Piedmont.
In November of 2015 UVA became an official partner in CyArk’s “500 Challenge,” a venture that has quickly grown into a collaboration between CyArk, the Library, the Academic Preservation Trust (APTrust), the Office of the Architect, and others. The Library will do most of the 3D scanning and aerial photogrammetry—a means of capturing 3D images from surface points in photos taken by airborne quadcopters. The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) will help with the photogrammetry. Rourk, as the main liaison with CyArk, will be in charge of collecting and sending the data, and is forming a team of experts that includes Chip German, director of the APTrust; IATH; and Mark Kutney, a conservator with the Office of the Architect/Facilities Management, to evaluate the scans.
According to Rourk, a partnership with CyArk puts the Library on the road to more local archiving efforts, bringing to UVA more than a decade of experience from the front lines of the world’s cultural heritage sites, and helping us understand better how to archive 3D and other cultural heritage data. IATH may tap CyArk’s expertise for initiatives such as Jefferson’s University—Early Life Project, 1819-1870, a plan to virtually reconstruct Jefferson’s Academical Village as he knew it. Students will benefit from CyArk’s participation in the classroom, helping train the next generation of digital archivists. And Cyark’s long-term preservation strategy ensures that the images and data will be secure and publicly accessible in perpetuity.