Plains Ledger Art Digital Publishing Project (PILA) - Description

The Plains Indian Ledger Art Project (PILA) facilitates the digitization of the unique genre of Plains drawing on paper created during the 1860-1900 period, in order to promote preservation, research, and public access  through its websites: Central to the project is the understanding that ledger drawings hold profound historical, cultural, and epistemological perspectives that inform the past, present, and future of Native American|Indigenous communities. The project is housed in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego. This document describes the numerous aspects of the project. PILA is offered world-wide, without charge, as an educational resource for all.


Researchers estimate today that well over 200 books of Plains Indian ledger drawing still exist in institutional and private collections. They are extremely fragile, as the binding of the volumes and the paper were not intended to last centuries and cannot withstand frequent or intensive handling commonly associated research on visual objects of artistic and historical significance.

In addition, at times, high valuation of ledger drawings in the Native American art market leads to the dismantling of ledger books and the sale of individual sheets. Like other original manuscripts, complete ledger books hold irreplaceable individual and tribal narratives, historical, cultural, social, ceremonial, and aesthetic information of interest to American Indians, researchers, and the general public alike.

Digitization Program

PILA utilizes existing digital images created by the ledger book custodian, or works with the owner to facilitate the creation of high-resolution digital images of the ledger drawing. Current PILA digitizing methodology and standards are based on those developed by Nebraska State Historical Center, Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center, Digital Imaging Laboratory. Its digital standards may be viewed online.

PILA digitizes ledger drawings depending on the fragility and conservation requirements of the particular ledger books. Generally, they can be scanned on a high-resolution flatbed scanner, but those that cannot be laid flat due to their binding or fragile condition are professionally photographed with a digital camera. Master files are scanned in 48 bit uninterpolated color at 1200, 800, or 600 pixels per inch (ppi), and saved in uncompressed TIFF format. Color calibration and correction (if necessary) is done at the time of the scanning.  The JPG format files served from the PILA website are created from the Master TIFF files which are then archived.


The PILA website makes 1000s of ledger drawings, organized by ledger volume and Maker community, freely available to anyone that has access to a computer and internet connection. It serves as an attractive virtual repository for institutions and private owners to make these widely dispersed and particularly fragile manuscripts available to a wide audience. For Native American communities and the general public alike, PILA allows for access unbound by geography. For scholars, it overcomes the major limitations to the study of Plains Ledger drawing;  access to customized and searchable digital images encourages interdisciplinary methodologies and develops new approaches to this unique record of Native American voices.


PILA welcomes the participation of museums, libraries, private owners, and other custodians of ledger art to include digital images of Plains ledger drawings in the PILA project and provide permission for them to be displayed on the PILA website. Depending on the circumstances, PILA can offset the cost of in-house scanning, third party digitization services, or PILA staff will travel to the custodian’s site and perform the digital imaging.

The project asks for non-exclusive permission to place digital images in the PILA database for access through the PILA website. No other use of these images is allowed without specific authorization from the custodian. For further information, please contact the PILA Director.

Ledger Book Reconstruction

The PILA image database served by the website allows collaboration with custodians and PILA users to reconstruct ledger books by accumulating images of each page from different sources and displaying them in their original association with each other. PILA has begun to reconstruct the Vincent Price Ledger, a ledger book of 86 drawings of battles between Northern Cheyenne (Tsistsistas) warriors and US soldiers, previously owned by the actor/collector.

Dark Digital Archive

Highest resolution and cropped files for each of the digitized ledger books are places in a digital archival storage regimen. PILA participates in UCSD Libraries’ Digital Asset Management System (DAMS), a locally developed digital repository designed to store and manage the digital assets of the UCSD Libraries. As such, PILA serves as a digital repository for all ledger art custodians who participate in the project.


A number of factors make Ledger Books extremely difficult to locate and study. They are held in collections scattered across the United States (an unknown number are abroad), so there is no efficient way for scholars to view physically large numbers of them. The expense of traveling to work with even those ledger books in the United States, let alone those in foreign countries. Currently, most scholars rely on collecting digital images, websites, and sets of slides of the ledger art that they want to study, a highly cumbersome and inconvenient approach.

Comparing drawings from a number of ledger books within the oeuvre of a single artist or following a specific tradition presents major logistical and organizational challenges. In addition, the relatively small size and limited resolution of much of the material readily available, as well as older images in the form of slides, prints, or transparencies, hampers the detailed analysis of these visual materials. When scholars are able to study an actual book of drawings, they cannot readily compare multiple volumes side by side and face a laborious process that may pose a danger to the fragile originals even if the other ledger materials happen to reside in the same collection. These conditions and other concerns seriously impede any efforts to compare different pages of the same work side by side, for example, or the elements of different books.

The design of the PILA website mitigates many of these research problems:
• places high resolution images of complete ledger books in one location
• reduces wear of fragile original ledger drawings while encouraging access
• provides ethnographic, historical, and, aesthetic information for a growing number of curated ledger books
• search tools work across all ledger images using common search terms.
• zooms in on images up to 10X for viewing and analysis
• enables comparisons of ledger images and details in multiple windows

Virtual Research Bench

The PILA website includes a full-featured digital research bench provided to all users who sign up for a PILA account. Account holders may:
• save any search of images in the PILA database and add personal research notes
• save any zoomed detail of a page and add personal research notes
• upload your images to public or private galleries
• create slideshows using PILA images or those in public or your own galleries
• add comments to any image, with threaded discussions and social networking features
• view a summary of all saved searches, views, notes, galleries, discussions, PILA store wish list

Research Grant Program

Recent research uses sophisticated interdisciplinary techniques that include historical, anthropological, ethnographic, and art historical methodologies. Increasingly, scholars are asking larger questions about ledger art through research that identifies undocumented ledger artists; contextualizes the life's work of an individual ledger artist; and links the content of ledger art firmly to cultural, religious, and cosmological concepts and beliefs crucial to understanding the information that these materials can convey to us.

The Plains Indian Ledger Art Project is currently soliciting funding to offer competitive grants for ledger art research. It will support established researchers in the field, as well as attract graduate and undergraduate students interested in embarking on a new generation of art historical work in Plains Indian ledger art. You may donate here. PILA will help create a collaborative community where scholars distributed geographically and in diverse fields come together to create an archive that makes in-depth research into these resources possible. Recipients will be expected to present and publish their research publically, as well as contribute to PILA.

Exhibit Loan Program

In recognition of the extraordinary visual appeal of the drawings in their original format, as the pages in a physical accountant’s ledger book, PILA established a loan program in 2012 for physical ledger books connected to the project. This program, though the support of the Bradley Foundation and in association with the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UCSD, allows institutions in areas that do not have access to Ledger Art to exhibit the originals, and provide incentives to institutions that already hold major works to open their storage facilities and display their Ledger drawing treasures alongside a PILA-arranged loan.

Educational Program

PILA affords graduate students pursuing PhDs in Ethnic Studies and other programs to gain training in ledger art research and digital database and web management. In addition, the director offers courses at UCSD that give undergraduate students and graduate students first-hand experience in the history and significance of representation through Native American material culture of the opportunity to design museum exhibits that center indigenous knowledge and experience. The San Diego Museum of Art collaborated to mount the product of the first courses offered in 2012, Alternative Accounts: Plains Indian Ledger Art from the 19th Century to Now, exhibited from December 15, 2012 to May 28, 2013.

Ledger Artist Exhibits

The Plains Indian Ledger Art Project invites contemporary ledger artists to exhibit images of their original work on the PILA website. Works for sale may be placed commission-free in the PILA store under “Original Ledger Art” section of the PILA store. Works not for sale may be exhibited there as well, or may become a curated set in the “Ledger” database.

Publications Permissions

For many ledger art custodians, PILA has become both a source and a clearinghouse for publication permissions. Authors, editors, and publishers locate images in the PILA website database and contact the PILA Director to request publication permission.


The Plains Indian Ledger Art Project receives financial support, as well as consulting and other assistance, from a wide variety of donors, including PILA users, companies, foundations, and art dealers. A partial list may be found here. PILA welcomes donations from PILA members and the general public. Donate here.


The PILA project and website provides a uniquely common platform for making Plains Ledger Art available for viewing and research. At this point the PILA web site will soon surpass the Smithsonian as the largest repository of digital images of Ledger Art, and in a form much easier to view, compare, and use to interact with others also interested in the art, its meaning, or historical significance. For many Native American communities in the Plains and elsewhere, PILA enables tribal peoples to have a direct and encompassing experience with this part of their heritage. The widespread nature of ledger art in public and private collections presents an even greater obstacle to tribal historians, educators, and cultural trainers than it does for researchers in the academy. PILA offers tribal educators, historians, and culture bearers the ability to participate directly in the archiving, organization, and the production and dissemination of new knowledge relevant to their own historical experience.

The PILA web site and research project constantly expands, both in terms of ledger books scanned and made a part of the project, and in its capability and increasing name recognition. See PILA press articles here. Researchers, museum professionals, collectors, and contemporary ledger artists all use the site frequently. The PILA Director routinely handles inquiries from interested public viewers or web searchers, academics and museum personnel, and tribal members about all aspects of ledger art. Quite a number of images of Ledger drawings are sent to the PILA Director by owners to help identify what they have. The accessibility of the PILA site on the internet has probably been the most significant driver of new ledger art “discoveries”, ledger books brought from private hands to new public audiences, over the last 29 years. As of February 2024, the PILA site had over 1900 regular user accounts and received thousands of hits per day and over thousands of substantive visits per month.