Digital History…It’s A Wrap

That title is misleading, intentionally so. My digital history class is a wrap, not my foray into this aspect of public history.

This is no longer me.

Once upon a time…

Since starting graduate school, I have gained an incredible amount of digital skills (hopefully that can appease my parents who constantly told me that if I was to go into the museum field then I needed to learn to work online). From my digital public history internship at Ford’s Theatre to my new media course, I feel so much more confident in myself and my abilities.

Internet Connectivity Problems

…these people were me.

Of course, that’s not necessarily saying too much. I had almost no faith in my skills before.

But now, I can build a digital collection, curate online exhibits on multiple platforms, standardize metadata, make appealing posters in InDesign, use Photoshop, edit Wikipedia, live tweet, write some basic HTML codes, pin items to Historypin and Pinterest, blog effectively, and a whole host of other things.

I have established opinions about how historians should use the internet to appeal to the largest audiences possible, learned what an archive actually is, and now see that learning can come in all different forms, like video games.

So yes, I have come very far in my brief time in D.C, but more importantly, I’m finally grasping exactly why people make such a big deal about the potential of the internet.

Technology has the ability to empower history in a way that print never could. It makes history accessible.

  • A single online article or website can reach millions, or billions, of people; that is just not feasible in the physical realm.
    • When I blogged for Ford’s Theatre, my posts had nearly 3,000 views. Unless I write the next bestseller (which funny how those usually aren’t history monographs), I’m never going to see those kinds of numbers again.
  • Digitized archival material means that “to those who previously had no access, online archives open locked doors.”
  • Digitizing collections is “about taking cultural heritage collections and changing them. Changing what we can do with them. Changing how we see them. Changing how we think about them., even the ones they don’t intend to display.”
  • Mobile apps can “foster a new, robust relationship between the twenty-first-century communities we serve and the collections we care for.”

The web lets historians and museums branch out of their comfort zone to reach more people and to really utilize their collections or research.

As I said, in this past year, I’ve greatly improved my own digital presence and knowledge. However, many of the skills I gained were more thanks to the simplicity of the sites than any great effort on my part. I’ve come to realize that the digital world isn’t as scary as it once seemed. So many of the sites and tools that museums are now using (or should be using) are really easy to learn and that’s the beauty of the internet: anyone can participate.

But, it’s a double-edged sword.

The fact that anyone can contribute, collaborate, or view a museum’s site means that they can also judge it.

Crowdsourcing projects, like Wikipedia or Transcribe Bentham, have led to a sense of entitlement among internet users. And Paul Ford sums this up in the great question of the internet age: why wasn’t I consulted?

But moving into the digital world is not as easy as saying spell, you need to do it right.

Embracing the digital is great, but it’s not as easy as saying spell, you need to do it right.

So what this means is that entering the digital age is harder than it sounds.

But that doesn’t mean progress should stop.

Just the opposite in fact.

Rebecca Onion’s diatribe against twitter accounts like @HistoryinPics are worthwhile to note, and I agree with a lot of her points, but I also can see the other side. Instead of railing against the practices of those who are more successful and popular than us, we should try to improve what we are doing.

Every year as new technology becomes available, we as historians and museum professionals must keep abreast of the changing times. We are often so consumed with playing catch-up that we miss new opportunities to be innovators. We get complacent in what we are doing and think that, “well, I’ve learned how to use the internet, I don’t need to go further,” but that’s irresponsible of us as public historians.

The digital world is not going away; it is much too deeply entrenched in our society to be eradicated. Thus, digital history is not going away.

This is good news. According to Cohen and Rosenzweig,

In the past two decades, new media and new technologies have challenged historians to rethink the ways that they research, write, present, and teach about the past.

So just imagine what could happen in another two decades.

I’ve come so far since I learned basic keyboard shortcuts to copy and paste or reopen recently closed tabs. I’ve advanced to a point where I feel comfortable in the digital world. I can speak about it intelligently,  offer advice, make recommendations, complete projects, and feel confident that I can do all of that well.

If Oscar Bluth can create and run a website while in prison, then surely I can keep this blog up while in grad school.

If Oscar Bluth can create and run a website while in prison, then surely I can keep this blog up while in grad school. Right?

Now it’s just a matter of maintaining this confidence. Life (read: grad school) gets in the way and time to explore digital technology falls to the wayside, but that has to stop.

I need to keep learning and seek out opportunities to expand my skills.

So to bring this post back to its title, no, the world of digital history is not over. We have not learned all there is to know.

It’s not a wrap; in fact, it’s just the beginning.

So, Wait, Video Games Aren’t Rotting Our Brains After All?

I played a lot of this Lemonade Stand game as a kid.

I played a lot of this Lemonade Stand game as a kid, way more than was required by my class assignment.

Okay to be fair, I don’t actually play video games so that title doesn’t really apply to me. I just never got as in to them as some of my friends. Most recently (and I mean like 6 years ago), I would sometimes play my brother’s Grand Theft Auto. Before that, I remember playing a Barney game on some old console and then upgrading to a Pocahontas computer game. But, I also remember that some of my classes encouraged, or even required, us to play video games.

Games like Lemonade Stand, the Schoolhouse Rock series, and the one for tech class where I had to build a structurally sound bridge clearly had some educational value. But, James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, however, suggests that almost all video games possess some scholastic quality. He says that video games possess “better theories of learning are embedded in the video games many children… play than in the schools they attend” (6).

The first half of his book outlines the different reasons why video games are so beneficial to their players. And as someone who only really played educational games before jumping to GTA, which is both violent and seemingly encouraging of immoral behaviors, I was really intrigued by all Gee had to say.

I was one of those people who, yeah on some level recognized that video games taught users skills that other forms of activities or learning don’t, but never gave it that much thought. They were a form of entertainment, not education. Then again, my teachers always said the same about watching too much television, and personally, I think I turned out fine…and even learned a lot of supplementary information in the process.

Gee makes two main arguments: that through video games, players learn a new literacy, one that is different from the knowledge obtained from a classroom and that players also experience situated learning in which they participate and interact with their subject. These games

situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design of imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships in the modern world (48).

Essentially, he is suggesting that video game have the potential to teach users the same skills as those learned in school, but through different means. Some people just do not learn well in a structured classroom, so video games offer an alternative.

Players are constantly

1. Learning to experience (see and act on ) the world in a new way

2. Gaining the potential to join and collaborate with a new affinity group.

3. Developing resources for future learning and problem solving in the semiotic domains to which the game is related.

4. Learning how to think about semiotic domains as design spaces that engage and manipulate people in certain ways and, in turn, help create certain relationships in society among people and groups of people, come of which have important implications for social justice (37-38).

Gee uses the example of Bead Bead in Arcanum to discuss virtual identities.

Gee uses the example of Bead Bead in Arcanum to discuss virtual identities.

By engaging in these games, players are able to assume virtual identities and experiment with different actions without worrying about the consequences. If your character dies, you simply restart the game. You, the player, did not actually die. No bodily harm came to you and now you know what not to do. At the same time, you, the player, are choosing what path to take. You are learning about agency, critical thinking, decision making.

An example of a practice SAT question asking students to find meaning based on context.

An example of a practice SAT question asking students to find meaning based on context.

The learn to play the game, to understand what various words, terms, or situations mean in the context of this virtual world. How is this any different from the kinds of exam questions that require students to read a passage and determine a word’s meaning based on contextual clues?

Of course, Gee says that video games should not replaced classrooms by any meaning. Instead, they should be added to the curriculum, or at the very least, not frowned upon as strictly as they often are.

Gee’s entire book really drives home this point. He tries to show that video games of all caliber have some potential educational quality to them. Players often don’t realize that they are in fact learning, they think they’re just having fun. And don’t we always want to make education entertaining?

To learn more about the second half of his book where he explores other video game examples, such as Lara Croft and Sonic the Hedgehog, read my classmate Jen’s great post here!

Collaborating on Historypin

HistorypinFor this week, we needed to create a tour on Historypin.

Like the rest of our assignments, this was fairly easy to do; choosing a topic and finding the images was the hardest part. However, I have some experience with Historypin, so I was already familiar with the site and its structure.

I chose to trace John Wilkes Booth’s escape route following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

What’s so great about Historypin (and other like-minded sites) is that you can compare and contrast images from today and a hundred years ago. Of course, it doesn’t always work because sometimes the views just don’t line up, but it’s a really neat feature and it lets people “bridg[e] the gap between the place that was and the place that is,” as John Russick so eloquently puts it.

However, Historypin is not perfect. There are definitely elements about it that could use some fixing. Sometimes you don’t necessarily know the exact date and their provided range only goes up to +/-15 years, which while that sounds like a lot, really isn’t. Their mapping feature also takes a little time to get used to and can sometimes be temperamental.

Yet, based on my experience with other digital sites, nothing is foolproof. Historypin’s main asset is the ability to see historic photos on a map, to compare those photos with what places look like today, and the fact that anyone can collaborate and create an account.

Anyone who has or finds a historic photo can upload it and similarly, any institution with a collection of images can do the same. This is great for smaller places that lack the funds and resources to build their own website, but want to engage with the public in a more digital way.

To bring this back to Russick once more, these mobile sites have the potential to “foster a new, robust relationship between the twenty-first-century communities we serve and the collections we care for.”

So while they are not perfect, these places are better than nothing and definitely a good starting point for reaching out to the masses.

Apps: The Future for Museums?

Remember Y2K? When people freaked out because they thought computers wouldn’t be able to handle the transition to the new millennium?


Or when we all discovered Google Earth and became fascinated (or terrified) by the potential to look at satellite images of our homes?

Ron Swanson

How far we’ve come from the days when having a cell phone was a big deal and when dial-up stopped being the go-to thing.


Google Maps

We take for granted all the advances technology has made. When I want to go somewhere, I go to Google Maps to see how long it will take and what’s the best route. When looking for apartments, you can type in the address and get a street view of the neighborhood without ever leaving your home.

And museums are now just beginning to take advantage of it.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, Ford’s Theatre teamed up with Google to create a street view of their museum, so now anyone can take a tour even if they live across the globe and without the funds to travel to the U.S.

The launch of Google Earth and Maps meant that people could virtually visit anywhere. You want to see the Scottish Highlands but you’re in Oklahoma? Go for it. But now, we’ve moved even further.

The ability to digitally map a space means that theoretically we can digitize everything.

“The spatial turn represents the impulse to position these new tools against old questions,” as described by Jo Guidi in his article “What Is the Spatial Turn?” We can use these technologies in corroboration with historical documents to create accurate depictions of past landscapes or buildings or really, anything we want.

And now, you don’t even need to be at a computer to access these resources.

Te increase in mobile apps and technology brings us to an interesting point, particularly for museums. These institutions constantly seek out new ways to interact with their visitors and with an app, anything, any exhibit, any place can become interactive.

In his article “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” Mark Tebeau says that “the mobile computing revolution offers tantalizing possibilities to archivists, historians, and curators interested in reaching broader public audiences.”

Tebeau discusses how Cleveland Historical is utilizing mobile apps to bring oral histories to the public. “Listening to human voices on a mobile device allows users to experience memory within the landscapes where the stories were lived” and thus, lets visitors personalize what they learn.

These apps also mean that museums are learning to relinquish some of their authority,

Collaboration is but one aspect of the digital revolution that has forced scholars to reimagine their relation to public audiences and the curatorial process itself. First, as argued above, the openness of the digital revolution has made knowledge production more democratic, challenging traditional power relations between scholars and their audiences.

History Pin

Look at all the historic photos you can view!

Apps like the Cleveland History Project, HistoryPin, or Chicago 00 let people choose how they want to learn history. If they want to be a recipient, they can. If they come across a place that interests them, they can pull out their phone and listen to a relevant oral history or scroll through historic photos.

Similarly, they can decide to give history. They can take a photo of an old building and upload it to HistoryPin for others to see.

Like John Russick said in his piece about Chicago 00,

Once created, the app could transform the current urban landscape into an historical excavation of the people and places that have defined Chicago over time. It could provide CHM with a new tool for sharing the city’s stories and help us connect the museum to the diverse audiences we hope to reach across the urban landscape.


Apps are the next step in the digital revolution and if they are able, museums should continue to pursue this technology. However, that doesn’t mean they should reduce their efforts in other areas.

Apps are often expensive to create and not everyone has a smartphone. So they should supplement museum’s current practices, not replace them.

It will be interesting to see how this situation progresses as the technology continues to advance.


Welcome to the World of Wiki

12 Dec 1947, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Cited for Contempt.  Los Angeles:  Nine of Ten Hollywood writers, directors, and producers cited for contempt of Congress, await fingerprinting in the U.S. Marshall's Office after they surrendered.  They are (left to right), Robert Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, Lester Cole, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Alvah Bessie, John Lawson, and Ring Lardner, Jr.  Dalton Trumbo is scheduled to appear shortly.  These are the men who refused to state whether or not they are Communists when questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington recently. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Photograph of the Hollywood Ten as they wait to be fingerprinted. Courtesy of the all magical Wikipedia.

This week we were tasked with editing an existing Wikipedia article or creating a new one altogether…I went with the former.

To quote Roy Rosenzweig again, Wikipedia undergoes some 100,000 edits a day, which means that trying to work on a particularly popular article might not be the best strategy. So instead I turned to a topic that I knew a bit about but had found that most other people didn’t: The Hollywood Ten.

Now who were these people you ask? Well, great question and Wikipedia now has the answer.

But essentially, they were a group of ten Hollywood (go figure) figures, primarily screenwriters, who were part of the first wave of the Hollywood Red Scare. They were subpoenaed for being a part of the Communist Party and defended themselves with the First Amendment. It didn’t work. They received fines and a one-year jail sentence.

My edited Wikipedia article about the Hollywood Ten.

My edited Wikipedia article about the Hollywood Ten.

Now, I chose this topic because there was very little written about them on Wikipedia. They have a section within the lengthier Hollywood Blacklist article, but even this consisted only of a list of their names and two sentences about the book Lester Cole wrote. There’s also a page about a 1950 documentary made of them, but even that is sketchy at best. They are at least the featured photo on the Blacklist page, so that’s something, no?

My ability to edit this article and to contribute my own knowledge about this topic is what is so great about Wikipedia and crowdsourcing in general.

Now is this topic still woefully inadequate? Of course.

I could write an entire page on these individuals and their story and maybe one day I will, but for now, at least people can gain a better understanding of who they were and why they were different from the rest of the Hollywood Blacklist.

Wikipedia follows Paul Ford’s advice about crowdsourcing: “don’t just consult them, but give them tools to consult amongst themselves.”

And boy does Wikipedia make that easy. To edit a page, you just create an account and have at it. The trickiest part is citing sources because of the format you need to use, which might discourage some people from creating proper citations.

If they could find a way to make writing citations as easy as linking to other Wikipedia pages then there would be no excuse for people not to include these.

What I liked most about this assignment was that it reinforce the notion that if you find something new, find out some great piece of information, you should share it. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy blog post or become a best-selling book, just a quick couple of lines on a website and now anyone can read it.

Wikipedia is great because it’s free, easily accessible, and there’s so much to see. So while it may not be as good as reading a scholarly monograph that dives deeply into a specific topic, Wikipedia’s breadth and its searchability means that you can learn almost anything. I have stumbled on many a Jeopardy answer thanks to my perusal of seemingly random articles and really, what is knowledge but a chance to make you look smarter?

Let the People Have Their Internet and Edit It Too!

My, what lengthy articles you have, Wikipedia.

My, what lengthy articles you have.

Yes, this title is a Marie Antoinette reference…well sort of. Okay not really, but it’s a nice segue to my actual point.

Look at all that useful information you can learn about her. And wait, if you want to learn more you can check out one of the 183 citations, 18 books listed in the bibliography, the 9 listed in further reading, or 12 external links? Wow, thanks Wikipedia!

For the record, I’ve always been a fan of Wikipedia. I was the student who wondered why we couldn’t use it in high school.

Oh the annoyed looks I got from my teachers when I wore this.

Oh the annoyed looks I got from my teachers when I wore this.

Now don’t get me wrong, I was way too much of a goody two-shoes to actually defy explicit rules that might threaten my GPA, but I still made my displeasure known, be it through eye rolls, unimpressed looks on my face, or wearing this shirt, which I sadly no longer have.

As I said, I was a good student, always have been. I wasn’t the kid trying to slack off on the assignment by only using Wikipedia, I was just one who recognized that the site had merit…and citations. My books cited other sources, so what was so different about Wikipedia? Especially since at this stage of my education, original historical research wasn’t that big of a focus.

As Roy Rosenzweig states in his article “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Wikipedia does not support original scholarship. That’s not its purpose; it is “an encyclopedia. Its goals go no further.”

So no, students should not be using Wikipedia as part of their argument in a paper. But, like an encyclopedia, it provides the necessary background information and a convenient list of sources for students to use as a starting point in their own research.

It is so thoroughly edited that unless you go to an article on a particularly contentious or popular topics, the information will be primarily accurate. He says that “the sheer volume of edits—almost 100,000 per day—means that entries, at least popular entries, come under almost constant scrutiny.”

Further, Rosenzweig states that “more than fifty-five thousand people have made at least ten contributions to Wikipedia.”

Crowdsourcing is an increasingly utilized aspect of the internet. As Paul Ford says in his article, Wikipedia “tapped into the basic human need to be consulted and never looked back.”

But they are definitely not the only ones. The Smithsonian Institution asked volunteers to transcribe historic documents. The Transcribe Bentham project did the same thing. Both were extremely successful.

The participants are not experts in the field, they’re not museum professionals or historians, but they are enthusiastic and willing to help. So why should we turn them away?

This situation feels very similar to the Rachel Onion article about the different history picture Twitter accounts. Like I said in my blog on that topic, instead of criticizing these informal, nontraditional versions of public history (and I use that term loosely), we, as historians, should work on improving our own methods until we become the go-to source.

As Paul Ford says in his article, “Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.”

The beauty of the internet is its collaborative nature, so why are we trying to take that away or pretend like it doesn’t have merit? Wikipedia is one of those things that constantly amazes me because of how well it works. When I think about it conceptually it helps me believe that there are worthy people out there. People willing to spend their time writing or editing an article so that other people can share in their knowledge is amazing. And the variety in content is incredible.

A quick use of the “random article function” brought me to a page on Bleach, Christopher Riddle (a WWII Royal Air Force pilot), Barium ferrite (a chemical compound), and Elizabeth Montagu (an 18th century British social reformer).

Further, as Rosenzweig alluded to and as I mentioned above, Wikipedia is under constant scrutiny. As you scroll through different pages, you are likely to come across some variation of this note,

“This article needs additional citations for verification. Relevant discussion may be found on the talk page. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.”

Historians Tim Causer and Valerie Wallace argue that crowdsourcing “is a viable and cost-effective strategy only if the task is well facilitated, and the institution or project leaders are able to build up a cohort of willing volunteers.”

And that is exactly what Wikipedia is. So instead of harping on how it’s not scholarly (which it kind of is depending on your definition of scholarly), why aren’t we happy that people are going to it first.

Isn’t it better that students go to a site with clearly defined rules for objective points of view and citations than reading some random person’s blog? We go to Google first, it’s just what we do. And if we can get others excited about writing and contributing knowledge, how is that a bad thing?

Online Exhibits Just Got Easier and Now There’s No Reason Not to Make Them

Screenshot of my Omeka exhibit.

Screenshot of my Omeka exhibit.

This week for class we created an exhibit on Omeka based on the collection we uploaded last week.

You can choose from different themes, add labels, position the image (to an extent), and even make a gallery within a single page of the exhibit. It requires very little training and the photos do not even need to be particularly high resolution.

This last part differs from some other online exhibit sites, most notably Google Cultural Institute (GCI), which works best with images around 600 dpi. Of course, you can use smaller and lower quality images if that is all you have, but one of the nicest features of  GCI is that you can make a panel 1200 x 1200 and then zoom in to the minute details.

Regardless, both Omeka and GCI let institutions upload many items to a single site and then create products out of them. It is so easy to do that museums have no reason not to jazz up their digital presence with informative online exhibits.

As Sheila Brennan says in her article, “Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory,” “history museums in the US, generally do not share much online, an when they do share little of it is discoverable, open, or extractable.” But why is that? Especially when accessible and affordable sites like Omeka exist for their use.

Brennan continues,

If we want to connect more visitors to collections, open those up for greater use and interpretation, why not use the capacity of an online environment to share more objects and demonstrate the ways to answer historical questions using a variety of sources?

The advent of Omeka and Google Cultural Institute mean that institutions can digitize all of their holdings and then if they want, they can create an exhibit out of the ones they don’t display.

Tim Sherratt explains that,

It’s about taking cultural heritage collections and changing them. Changing what we can do with them. Changing how we see them. Changing how we think about them., even the ones they don’t intend to display.”

Thus, museums invite viewers to see a different side of the museum and they create these resources that don’t detract from their original holdings or exhibits, but supplement them in innovative ways. As I say in another post, these digital technologies won’t hurt museums, they’ll probably make them better.

Video Didn’t Kill the Radio Star and Digitized Collections Won’t Kill the Physical Museum Either

When people first watched a movie in the theater, many feared that the train on the screen would fly out and hit them. When the VCR was invented, film companies worried that it would mean the end of their business. Of course, neither of these things happened and in fact, now many years after both of these inventions, films and home recordings are still hugely desired commodities.

We live in a world of constantly updating technology. We always look for the next big thing and maybe that’s detrimental in the long run, but it doesn’t mean we should overlook all the good that has come from it. And digitized collections can, and should, be the newest rising star.

@MuseumBot tweets this image of 16th century thigh defenses.

@MuseumBot tweets this image of 16th century thigh defenses, one of the many items in the Met’s collection.

How incredible is it that you can search through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online collections from the comfort of your own home? That if you don’t know where to begin @MuseumBot tweets out a handful of objects everyday for you to view? Some that are not even on display in the museum. Whether people seek out an institution’s holdings for educational purposes or for their own entertainment, this incredible opportunity allows people the chance to explore a museum in a new way.

However, in his piece, “Conversations with Collections,” Tim Sherratt brings up the notion that “in the realm of cultural heritage, digitisation is frequently assumed to be a process of loss. We create surrogates, or derivatives — useful, but somehow inferior representations of ‘the real thing.'” But is that really the problem?

I don’t think so.

In my own experience in the museum profession, I have heard tales of museums wary that digitizing their collection might reduce their number of visitors. I can understand this concern. In days when donors and stakeholders demand high visitorship, institutions that rely on outsider funding may be very apprehensive.

I understand it, but that doesn’t mean I believe it.


Ford’s Theatre’s presence on Google Cultural Institute lets viewers examine some of their objects in incredible high resolution.

As great and convenient as online viewing is, it lacks the transcendental experience of seeing some historic object in person. Yes, when I go to Ford’s Theatre’s Google Cultural Institute website and click on John Wilkes Booth’s deringer, I can see the smallest of details in a way that I would never be able to in the museum.

However, it is not nearly as powerful. When you actually stand next to the gun, you can imagine Booth’s hand clasped around it. You can look down the barrel and wonder how one bullet changed the course of history.

Now sure you can think all of those things from your computer chair as well, but it’s not the same and we are undermining audiences’ intelligence and sense of history if we assume they cannot understand this.

Maybe 50 years in the future when all fly on hovercrafts and everything in our lives is digital, it will be a different story. For now, though, I think museums are safe.  

So if digitizing a collection does not threaten visitorship and if the institution possesses the funding and resources to accomplish such a task, why haven’t more places jumped on this bandwagon?

Sheila A Brennan’s article “Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory,” asks,

With many students and scholars beginning their research with online search and discovery tools, if cultural heritage collections are not visible online, in some form, what are the implications of these absences?

For a general viewer, a museum’s lack of an online, searchable collection is likely a bit annoying at most. For a potential visitor unable to see what is on display and whether it is worth their time, it is frustrating. For students and teachers doing research who now need to find another source, one less reputable or perhaps even a competing museum, this is unforgivable.

Aren’t museums supposed to be institutions of learning just as much as they are institutions of collections?

As one tweeter commented, and Brennan quoted, “Collections are useless unless they are used.”

If a place has these incredible objects in its possession, it should share them with the world. After all, that is the foundational purpose of museums.

The digital realm offers such potential for millions of viewers, all around the globe, to access a distant museum’s collection, and aren’t online viewers just as important to visitorship numbers as those who actually walk through the institution?

You can even virtually walk through Ford's Theatre's <a href= Museums can use their own websites to upload images of their collections, both on display and in storage, or they can rely on unaffiliated sites like Omeka or Google Cultural Institute. The latter of which even allows people to virtually tour a museum’s space.

So no, digitized collections and online museums won’t kill the physical ones, in fact, they just make the originals better.

Creating an Omeka Collection

Screenshot of my Omeka site

For class, we all had to create a small collection on Omeka. The site’s clear layout and simple uploading process made this project very easy. In fact, choosing a topic and a handful of representative images was the hardest part. Next week, we will build on this assignment and make an exhibit using these photos, but that is a post for another day. In picking a subject, I searched through some preliminary Library of Congress images and tried to find something that caught my eye.

Ultimately, I decided to stick with something close to my interests, and within my realm of experience: FDR and his time at his home in Hyde Park, NY. Having grown up near FDR’s home and having spent some time working there, I know this particular place and story well. However, I never spent much time looking through historic photos, so that part of this assignment was very fun. The fact that the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library posted many digitized images on the Digital Public Library of America website made this project that much easier.

Even though it is online, I believe that this collection counts as an archive. Kate Theimer’s article suggests that archives, even digital ones, should adhere to the respect des fonds organizational method. Since all of these images come from the same provenance, this Omeka site should be considered a proper archive.

Now, I found this assignment particularly easy because I already had a fair amount of experience with Omeka. During my internship at Ford’s Theatre, I managed the Remembering Lincoln collection of digitized responses to the Lincoln assassination and initially it lived on Omeka before moving to its own permanent website. So while uploading and contextualizing images on this site was not a new skill for me, I now have a new understanding of these collections.Unlike what I created, the Remembering Lincoln collection consisted of items from many different places, so this would not be considered an archivist’s archive.

Instead, it is more along the vein of the September 11th or Shelley-Goodwin archive, which, as Trevor Owens explains, represent an effort “to bring collect or bring together related materials” even if it is not from a single provenance. As he says, it may not be the standard definition of an archive, but is “another tradition in which systematically collected materials have been called archives within cultural heritage organizations.”

Omeka’s collaborative nature makes it a great place to house collections. People can upload items, make an exhibit, or a showcase, like this one about exhibitions in New York City’s Gilded Age. So while this was a good introduction to the site, more than anything, I look forward to the next assignment when I can transform these twelve items into a well-designed and formatted exhibit.

What’s the Deal with Archives? Does Anyone Really Know?

Disclaimer: I am not an archivist and I have minimal experience with archives. However, I thought that I at least knew what an archive was. Boy was I wrong.

This is an archive right?

This is an archive right? The Library of Congress thinks so at least.

I assumed there was a single definition of an archive. Now it is clear that this topic is so hotly debated that the difference between a digital historian’s “archive” and an archivist’s one could potentially bring people to fisticuffs. Is an archive based on the collection’s subject, its purpose, provenance, its collector, something else entirely? Really shame on me for thinking it would be that simple. After all, my mom did teach me the saying about assumptions.

I thought an archive was a collection of documents, either online or physical, with a related subject, purpose, or provenance.

Apparently not. It would seem that the provenance is the most significant category. But why?

Kate Theimer’s article “Archives in Context and as Context” examines how differently archivists and digital humanists understand archives. She quotes the Society of American Archivists’ definition of an archive as

Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control.

According to Theiman, digital humanists “describe the collections they have created as archives, seemingly in all sincerity that their usage is appropriate and not in contradiction to the practice of archivists.” Yet she believes that  “the archivists’ definition is more specific, and therefore […] conveys greater meaning.”

Evidently, this disconnect, which she tries to explain and resolve, causes many problems, particularly when it comes to a single, unified method of sorting collections.

Archives adhere to the “respect des fonds” organizational system, in which a records’ originating source dictates its placement and filing. Theimer sums it up as,

In other words, records originating from different sources are never to be intermingled or combined. It is important to note in this regard that the “source” of a record is not necessarily the same as its author.

Jefferson Bailey’s article “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives” traces the origins of this organizational method to the French Revolution, but shows that it hasn’t always been an ideal system. He says that,

Respect des fonds, then, was never a perfectly realized theory. Its formation was a contingency of a unique historical moment; its conception depended upon practical necessities and its implementation was inconsistent and disputed. What today seems near dogma—that archives be arranged by fonds—was at the time novel and simplistic, more the product of utility and political manipulation than a grand inspiration regarding the functional authenticity of fonds or evidential purity towards their arrangement.

Further, he mentions that “as early as the 1930s, some archivists were taking issue with the methodology of arranging collections according to original order.” For example, he states that when it comes to personal papers “original order is seen as particularly problematic, since a chronological arrangement seemingly provides the greatest meaning and value to the records of an individual, but is unlikely to be the order of records upon accession.”

Jeremy Schidt and Jacquelyn Ardam’s article, “On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive” reemphasizes this point, saying that “in archival theory, [original order] generally signifies the state of the collection at the moment of donation, but that state itself is often open to interpretation.”

What about this one? It has archive in the title, but it's not necessarily respect des fonds.

What about this one? It has archive in the title, but it’s not necessarily respect des fonds.

It seems to me that if respect des fonds has its issues in physical archives, then it must surely be even trickier for the digital world. In a physical archive, people look through one box from one provenance at a time. Online, however, people can search with keywords, which gives them materials from related subjects, but not necessarily from a single source.  And that’s not even getting started on “born-digital” documents, which are those that “began their lives electronically and in most cases exist only in digital form” to quote Schidt and Ardam. So as valid as the points Kate Theimer raise are, maybe we really do need to look at digital and physical archives as completely different entities with their own definition and methods.

Organizing a collection by its provenance makes sense in some respects,but so does organization by subject or author. It almost seems like a case-by-case basis would be practical. Except that of course it wouldn’t be. It would be pandemonium without some standardization.

So, I have no solutions for this problem. To some extent, I still stand on shaky ground when it comes to defining an archive. I just hope that the experts can collaborate and find a mutually-beneficial way to organize their records, so that we the people can access this abundance of information.