DAM Champ: Natalie Morath
GM has played a key role in the global auto industry for more than 100 years. That history lives on in physical and digital assets. We interviewed Natalie Morath, Lead Archivist & Curator for General Motors Design Archive & Special Collections (DASC), about her role in the preservation of the history of automotive, industrial, and architectural design at GM.
DAM champ: Someone who supports finding, setting up, or maintaining a digital asset management system (DAM). There is a wide variety in DAM champions, who come from positions in production, creative, management, IT, and marketing.
I am one of the biggest users of the DAM system at GM. Another archivist is really the point person for the administration of the DAM, so I try to support his role by providing as much feedback to him as possible on my user experience. Everyone at the DASC uses the DAM system on a daily basis, so I am often training and troubleshooting with my fellow users as well.
Explain a little bit about how you interact with digital assets during your work day.
While the collection I manage is largely physical, our external and internal users are almost always looking for digital assets to support research, marketing, communications, and publishing, etc., so my daily interaction with the digital assets is based around fulfilling those requests. That translates to digitizing content to populate our DAM, writing accurate metadata to make it “findable” in the future, and searching the DAM for digital assets that will meet people’s needs.
What is the biggest benefit DAM provides a large, historic organization like General Motors?
GM is an enormous global company, and our various brands have changed significantly over time. The result of that is an incredible quantity of historically important content in a variety of formats. Our DAM system is ideal because it’s a centralized digital repository for ALL of the assets spread throughout our different brands, locations, departments, etc., and it can accommodate different media types. GM employees around the globe are adding, improving, finding, and using content on a daily basis, all on the same system, at the same time. It’s easy to take for granted once it’s up and running smoothly, but it’s quite miraculous when you stop to think about it.
What is (or was) your biggest challenge as a lead archivist and curator?
For me, getting up to speed on the company’s history was (and is) a big challenge — especially because many of our reference questions come from automotive enthusiasts who are already extremely knowledgeable. My background is in art history, so I feel very confident when dealing with “design” elements of the job, but I am not a subject matter expert on automotive history, and I doubt I ever will be, even after 40 years at this job. The only way to address this challenge is to be a subject matter expert in automotive research. I might not know the answer to every question off the top of my head, but at least I know where to find the right answer.
What teams/departments do you interact with most? And how?
Most of our interactions are with the other archival branches within General Motors — the GM Heritage Center, which is a private museum and archive documenting GM history, and the GM Media Archive, which is a branch within Communications that manages issues like image usage agreements, copyright, etc. Our department was newly established in 2009, so we lean on our two counterparts on a regular basis, and they provide immense support. Establishing a new archive has been a really unique component of this job. Most archivists are working within an existing repository, but our staff has been able to actively shape the DASC.
Within the Design organization specifically, we interact with many different departments. As an example, we’re in the planning stages of the next exhibition for our gallery space, so we’ve met with photographers, exhibition designers, graphic designers, printing, and imaging specialists, etc. We are lucky to be part of an organization that employs so many incredibly talented people, and it’s a fun challenge to find ways to involve them in the Archive’s mission.
What have been some of the lessons learned that you think others would benefit from?
One of the best things I’ve done for myself, professionally, is find other archivists who do a similar job in a similar organization. It is not always easy to find like-minded folks out there, but conferences, professional organizations, and social media can help. The other corporate archivists I’ve networked with have been enormously helpful to me; they are the only people who can really understand the challenges of my job, and sometimes just having the opportunity to commiserate with someone who understands is a relief. But most of what I get out of these relationships is great ideas. I love seeing how other archivists address similar challenges, and I hope I’m able to inspire them as well.