Matthew Lincoln, PhD Cultural Heritage Data & Info Architecture

Scraping the Smithsonian

I’m proud to push one of my first real forays into digital humanities toolmaking to GitHub today: si-scrape, a Ruby script that scrapes data off of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection web portal

It’s a quick and dirty implementation at the moment (one that will be happily outdated once the Smithsonian finishes deploying a Linked Open Data interface!) but it could hopefully serve as a model for web-scraping other institutions whose public-facing collection websites are at least partially machine-readable.

All you need to run it is the URL that generates once you define a search query. For example, searching for objects of the type Works of Art that feature the keyword "space" generates this URL:

Plug this URL into si-scrape.rb and it will deliver a ~50 MB HTML file that concatenates all the returned records that normally paginates over hundreds of pages. You can then further parse this HTML to pull out the desired data. The Smithsonian has done rather well with this web interface; almost all of the metadata fields for a given object have been nicely tagged in the HTML so that you can easily have the computer hunt down date, title, or topic classes.

I intend to make future versions of this script that will output a flat CSV that one can open and manipulate in Excel, making this script more accessible to the broader humanities community that doesn’t care to fumble with Ruby and Nokogiri. Such an implementation would need to be flexible enough to accept the huge range of metadata fields that the Smithsonian’s expansive and diverse collections demand. More experienced Ruby wranglers are welcome to contribute!

I’m already using this script to do some bulk processing of the keyword schemae in the Smithsonian art collections. In a future post I’ll be talking a bit more in depth about that, but for now here is a pretty teaser of a topic co-occurrence map of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s painting collection, all of it collected using si-scrape.rb:

Topic co-occurrence map of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's painting collection

Download the full ~15MB image

P.S. And yes, I got the idea for this while I was in the shower yesterday.

P.P.S. And it’s gotten added in to the Muse-Tech-Central list!

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Cite this post:

Lincoln, Matthew D. "Scraping the Smithsonian." Matthew Lincoln, PhD (blog), 08 Aug 2013,

Tagged in: CodeLAMVisualizationDigital Humanities