Does your institution have an online presence?

One apparent theme for this week was the benefits of digitization for an institution’s collections. As I perused the readings with regards to this theme, a series of questions came to my mind: why do some institutions not have an online presence in an increasingly digital world? Could it be because many institutions lack funding and manpower to digitize their collections?Or is it because digitizing is too difficult? And does the lack of an online presence hurt the institution?

While these questions were not explicitly answered in our readings for the week, I think a quick look at some of our readings may provide some answers to my questions.

In Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory, Sheila Brennan discusses how she conducted a survey of 115 museums across the country to explore how digitized history museums have become since 2004. She found that while some museums, such as the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum and the National Underground Railroad Museum, have made great leaps and bounds to digitize their collections for public access, most museums have yet to create an online presence for themselves. In fact, Brennan says that

  • Nearly 70 percent of history museums provide only a summary or list of exhibitions.
  • Only 2 museums offered a means for closely examining an object.
  • Searchable collections databases were available in 17 percent of museums… while 37 percent offer no collections information (not even a summary or finding aide).
  • Nearly 70% of history museum sites offer no online teaching & learning materials. Most list programs offered on-site with contact information, only.

Now let’s contemplate this data with regards to my previous questions.  If you notice, many of the institutions that Brennan cites as having an online footprint are large institutions.

Since, I am an intern at the National Postal Museum, I am capable of saying that the museum has resources dedicated to maintaining the Arago Online Collections Database. With that being said, would a smaller institution have the same amount of resources available to create and maintain an online presence?

My guess is probably not.

In this respect, it may not be the institution’s fault that they are not making meaningful connections with visitors or making their collections accessible to the public via the World Wide Web.

With this being said, I agree with Brennan’s introductory quote that states

“Most of the tools we need already exist, and are free.”

There are plenty of digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Omeka, etc. that provide free services to their users. These platforms could provide smaller institutions with tools to begin their movement toward an online footprint. It is even possible that it would allow them to reach broader audiences and may even aid them in gaining more resources to further their digital adventures.

It is important to note that these platforms are fairly easy to use as well.  In most cases, the use just has to fill out a form to register for an account and then the site provides prompts on how to use the platform.  Even if the one responsible for maintaining the site were unsure on how to use it, there are plenty of free tutorials available online.  All that is required to find them is a simple Google search.  Even Steven Lubar, in his article Museumbots: An Appreciation describes a quick and easy way for museums to use Twitter to post collections online.

Now, this provides clarity for my first three questions, so let’s turn our attention to my last question: does the lack of an online presence hurt the institution?

My answer here is yes.

While, the lack of resources to maintain an digital footprint may not cause the institution to be at fault for their lack of online information, they are at fault for not taking advantage of the above mentioned, free platforms.

Looking back to Brennan’s digital dialogue, she is found quoting a user saying

“Collections are useless unless they are used.”

When I first read this, I was surprised that I had not thought of this before since I work with collections at the National Postal Museum.

Think about it, if a collection is not on exhibit and is just sitting on a shelf in collections storage, then how is it useful in furthering the institution’s mission statement or teaching the public something new?

Guess what, it isn’t. At least not until the institution decides to use it.

A great way to remedy this issue is to digitize the collection and make it accessible to the public online.  Not only would this reach the institution’s regular following, but also audiences across the globe who can make meaningful connections to the collection, this new media, and social memory. A topic that is described in Jon Ippolito and Richard Rhinehart’s book Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory.

In the end, I do agree with many of our authors this week who argue that the lack of an online presence hurts institutions.  Not only does it limit how useful a collection is, but it also limits how broad of an audience the institution can reach.  With this being said, smaller institutions may not have the resources to maintain a large online component, but there are platforms that are free, easy, and efficient to use that could help expand a smaller institution’s scope.  Without an online footprint, an institution is wasting the value of its collections (particularly those not on exhibit), missing an opportunity to expand its audience, and, ultimately, losing a chance to expand their institution and revolutionize how their fulfill their mission.

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Innovating Public History: Crafting an Omeka Collection

Omeka Collection

This weeks assignment for History and New Media entailed that each class member create an Omeka account and add craft an online collection.  My classmates and myself were required to come up with a topic and theme for our respective Omeka sites and either digitize a series of images for the collection or pull from already digitized images and collections available to the public.  My Omeka site shares its name with this site, Innovating Public History, and can be found here.

The Omeka site enabled me to complete this assignment quickly and easily. All that was required for me to create my own site was to sign up for an account on the Omeka homepage.  This simply required my name and email address.  I was well on my way to creating my first online collection!

Once I created my site, I played around with different navigational tools within my site which taught me how set a theme, appearance, and how to add new items and collections to my page.  Next, I set my theme and began crafting a collection and adding items.

For this particular assignment, I created one collection entitled Come on, boys! Do your duty!: World War I Propaganda. One great thing about Omeka is that when you add a new item, you can specify which collection (if any and if you have multiple) to which you want to add that item. As a result of this feature, I added ten items to my collection.  These items were a series of World War I propaganda posters dating from between 1914 and 1920 which I retrieved these from the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division.

I really enjoyed my introduction to Omeka.  The platform has a number of tools to customize the user’s website including plugins, themes, and users.  Fortunately, these tools are simple and easily navigable.  Omeka provides museum professionals with an online platform to create not only online collections, but also exhibits.  So, check back next Tuesday to see my Omeka exhibit!

What is a Digital Archive?

The topic of this week’s History and New Media class is archives. By exploring works by professionals such as Trevor Owens, Jerome McGann, Kate Theimer, Jefferson Baily, Jacquelyn Ardam and Jeremy Schmidt, and Butch Lazorchak, our class sought to discover what digital archives are and what they have to do with the public.  

With this being said, I wish to focus on the first question — “what are digital archives?”

Unfortunately, our readings for this week revealed that there are many different definitions for the term “archive.”   According to Trevor Owens:

Public historians and other humanists have been exuberant about the possibility of providing broad public access to primary source documents and the contents of archives. In this context, the use of the term “digital archive” has become a bit fraught. This week we figure out what different folks mean by the term in different situations and explore some exemplars of different notions of digital archives and their potential as modes of public history work.

Since different professionals refer to the term in different situations, it is first important to note and understand what the traditional definition entails. Let’s take a brief stroll through the readings in an attempt to understand the traditional definition and how a digital archive differs.

In her article Archives in Context and As Context, Kate Theimer describes 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.

So, how does this differ from a digital archive?

Trevor Owens wrote on the dichotomy in his article entitled What Do you Mean by Archive? Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers. In an attempt to open a dialogue between various professionals on the uses of the word “archive,” the author described seven uses for the term including archives as in records management, a collection of papers, an electronic archive feature on programs such as email, tape archives, web archives, digital archives, and archive theory.  In each of these descriptions, the term “archive” is used differently. However, the important one to remember in answering our original question (what is a digital archive?) is Owens’ description of a digital archive:

At this point, there are a lot of digital collections that are using the term archive that don’t necessarily square with how archivists have been using the term. For instance, the September 11th Digital Archive, the Bracero Archive the The Shelley-Godwin Archive are good exemplars of some of the diversity of this usage. In each case, an effort was undertaken to bring collect or bring together related materials…The origin of this usage is anchored in Jerome McGann’s work on the Rossetti Archive, which McGann had developed grounded in a theoretical perspective of the potential that hypermedia brought to allow for the creation of new kinds of archives. Alongside this usage, “digital archive” has also been used as a term to refer to born digital materials processed as part of a more traditional notion of an archive… [Thus,] digital archives hang together as “a conscious weaving together of different representational media.”

To sum this up, Owens explained that a digital archives blends different representational media together. This differs from the traditional definition of an archive because it focuses on the process or activity of the archivist/digital humanist rather than on the type of materials themselves.

Kate Theimer, again, weighs in on the debate in her article My talk from #AHA14: A Distinction worth Exploring: “Archives” and “Digital Historical Representations” by describing a digital archive as

digitized analog historical materials… These may be topically based—assembled from holdings of many repositories… Or they may be all from one repository…These collections may be created by archivists, librarians, historians, passionate amateurs, nonprofit organizations or for-profit companies.  Because these digital historical representations are created by such a wide range of sources, it’s critical to know about the context of these collections—including who assembled them, what their purpose was, and what criteria they used.

Unfortunately, in addition to the dichotomy between the traditional archive and the digital archive, there is also a difference between a digital archive and a born-digital archive. Whereas the definition of a digital archive is as described above, a born-digital archive, according to Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam in their article On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive, “is composed of documents that began their lives electronically and in most cases exist only in digital form.” In other words, not all materials within a digital archive originated as digital materials.  Some materials undergo a transformation into digital formats in order to be made available and accessible for viewers online.

With all of this being said, let’s recap.

The question we are trying to answer is “What is a digital archive?” While this may seem like a simple question to answer, it actually requires a discussion on the definition of the term “archive.” Unfortunately, the use of the term is fraught.  As you saw above, different professionals use the term differently. Whereas traditional use of the term refers to mostly paper-based materials coming together in a repository, a digital archive refers to materials coming together through different representation media.

The dichotomy even goes a step further. Not only is there a digital archive, but there is also a born-digital archive. While closely related, this type of archive contains materials that originated in digital forms rather than undergoing a transformation into a digital format for accessing online.

In the end, if ever my classmates and myself are asked to explain what a digital archive is, we can rest assured that our answer will be grounded in the work of Owens, Theimer, Schmidt, and Ardam and we will be versed in the professional debate surrounding the use of the term “archive.”

Cyber-Enthusiasts vs. Techno-Skeptics: Two Historians’ Assessment of the Digital Revolution

For those of us who have lived most of our lives in the Digital Age, it may be easier to see the benefits to historical practice that stem from computers, global computer networks, new digital media, and other advances in technology. However, for those who were introduced to these technologies during their advent in the early 1990s it may not be so easy to jump on the “plugged-in” bandwagon.

For nearly fifteen years, historians debated the advantages and disadvantages that the Digital Age contributes to modern historical learning and scholarship.  As in any good debate, historians Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig in their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web  explain that there were two major stakeholders in the conversations on how useful the Digital Age was and continues to be to the age-old discipline of history — the cyber enthusiasts and the techno-skeptics.  As many of you probably deduced from these cleverly crafted titles, the cyber-enthusiasts supported the use of modern technology to bring historical learning and scholarship out of the stale classroom and the techno-skeptics who believed that “new media… pose[s] a threat to the search for “wisdom” and “depth” —the struggle for which has for millennia been central to the very idea of culture (Cohen and Rosenzweig, Introduction).” Now, exceeding ten years since the invention of the World Wide Web, this debate has largely disappeared, but the changes that occurred in historical practice are undeniable.

Rather than falling on one side or the other, Cohen and Rosenzweig used their book to briefly explore the debate surrounding the use of technology in historical practice then responded to the changes that occurred as a result of the Digital Revolution. A position that they refer to as “techno-realism.” Ultimately, the authors argue that historians mostly benefit from using modern technology while simultaneously acknowledging that there are some areas within the discipline where these technologies may not be as advantageous.

In their assessment of where computers, networks, and digital media are and are not useful to historical practice, learning, and scholarship, Cohen and Rosenzweig determined seven pros and sevens cons of the new media in history. For those of us who were born into a digital world, the pros may seem obvious. They include storage capacity, accessibility (an important concern particularly to public historians),flexibility, diversity, manipulability, interactivity (another important concern for public historians), and hypertextuality. To the authors, these pros given historians freedom to accomplish more, store more of their scholarship, reach a broader audiences, use varied sources, expand access to historical documents and materials, and include more voices and perspectives in history.

On the other hand, those who were not born into the digital world and were instead pressured to acclimate themselves to the new technologies may be more inclined to agree with the authors’ discussion of cons of new media in history. The cons of new media on history include quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility. Cohen and Rosenzweig argue that they present dangers to historical accuracy and authenticity, the durability of historical records, author’s intent, passive activity (the antitheses of interactivity), and inaccessibility. Despite these cons, the authors genuinely believe that the benefits outweigh the costs with regards to the new media influence on historical scholarship.

Cohen and Rosenzweig do an excellent job exploring the new media and history debate. They gave a brief overview of the history of the Digital Revolution, explained the different views of each stakeholder involved in the debate, and followed with a discussion of how historians can use new media successfully. The take away from this reading is that the authors offered a compromise to the debate between the cyber-enthusiasts and the techno-skeptics and gave prescriptions on how to use new media in ways that aid historical learning and scholarship.

This last point regarding tactics to use when applying new media to history goes hand-in-hand with a blog post that our class also read this week — Lisa Spiro’s “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities.”

With this being said, the authors completely neglected to discuss how the Digital Revolution affects historical authority. Luckily for my classmates and myself, this reading was supplemented by Rebecca Onion’s blog post discussing historical authority and the Digital Revolution with regards to the @HistoryInPics Twitter account. This post provided an intriguing discussion on who has historical authority on the internet, how that authority should be used, and if traditional practices and values within the field apply to history on the internet.

In the end, Cohen and Rosenzweig offered a wonderful introduction to and historical context for the beginnings of history and new media.

Hello world!

Hello public history professionals and enthusiasts! My name is Anna and I am a graduate student in the Public History program at American University.  This semester (Summer, 2015), I am taking a course titled “History and New Media” where I hope to learn how to use modern technology to help interpret history in a way that is accessible for non-academic audiences. Since technology and media platforms (i.e. smartphones, tablets, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) play a crucial role in our everyday, twenty-first century lives, I hope to not only become familiar with these new technologies through this course, but also to master them. These new technologies provide public historians with an opportunity to innovate practices in the field and to reach broader audiences more efficiently. In creating this blog, I have learned first-hand just how quickly and easily modern technology is to use and how accessible it is to audiences of all sorts.