Last Sunday night, I was very excited when I posted my first revised chapter for my new digital and book project site, Stamping American Memory. I planned to blog about my process and reiterate my commitment to open access publishing. In the mean time, I got busy with my job and didn’t blog, and then most historians were floored, or thrilled, with the American Historical Association’s statement this week asking for universities to stop requiring that PhDs file dissertations in electronic formats and allowing graduate students to choose to embargo their dissertations for up to 6 years to protect the potential publishing viability of derivatives of that scholarly work. (The History@Work blog has linked many of these responses, although they are still coming in here and here).
With other academics sharing their stories publishing dissertations, one with a Creative Commons license, Adeline Koh, and another through an open access repository,Jen Guiliano, I want to share my story of how and why I’ve made my dissertation (from defense date forward) available. And, that this did not prevent me from being offered a book contract.
What I Did:
- Action: Before my defense, I posted my dissertation, PDFs of chapters, because I thought that it should be made widely available and having one hard copy at the library didn’t seem sufficient when I had additional methods available for distribution.
Result: Many attendees at my defense had skimmed parts of it well enough to ask me some good questions.
- Action: When filing my dissertation, I chose the open access option. It is available in PDQOpen for anyone to download.
Result: I received a number of unsolicited requests to publish my dissertation from small commercial presses, as many other folks surely do.
- Action: Linked my dissertation to my CV and to my personal website.
Result: Not much of anything
- Action: Queried a few academic publishers about my book project and linked to the full open access version of my dissertation.
Result 1: Received some interest, no one mentioned that publishing an open access dissertation hindered their interest in my material. The hindrance was that it needed revising…of course it did!
Results 2: I won the HASTAC-University of Michigan Press Digital Humanities Publishing Award, and will be producing an open access digital version of Stamping American Memory, together with a printed book with UMichigan Press.
My commitment to open access and to making history scholarship more successful stems from my background as a public historian and my training as a historian at GMU and my work at RRCNHM. I firmly believe it is our responsibility as historians to make our research and scholarship as accessible as possible, including: making the products of the research open and accessible for reading/consuming/participating; writing in “plain style” that is jargon-free; incorporating diverse kinds of evidence that incorporates multiple voices; and making our processes more visible and replicable.
I am indebted to those who tested the waters before me, and I am grateful for their leadership in this area. First of all, I must thank Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig for pushing their publisher Penn Press in 2005 to allow for the reproduction of a free, online version of their Digital History book. And, Penn Press made that happen when almost no academic presses were considering such layered publishing strategies. Seeing that as a viable publishing option, together with other examples of scholars publishing open access volumes–including but not limited to: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nowratotzi, Mark Sample, Mills Kelly–made me want to only seek out publishing contracts that allowed for open access versions.
All of those scholars also worked with progressive editors and publishers who are experimenting with different formats and are willing to push the definitions of academic publishing. Thanks especially to University of Michigan Press, and also to others doing cutting edge work, such as University of Minnesota and NYU.
As an alternative academic, I am not bound by the system of T&P. This means that while I do not have job security, I can afford to take a stand based on my beliefs because I am not invested in that system–and am doing so in conference panels, including during at the Society for History in the Federal Government panel in April. While individuals must make these decisions for themselves, we need to ensure that junior scholars understand that there are viable publishing paths beyond embargoing, siloing, silencing, and hoarding research. We should let our research become part of the “commons,” and should not allow that act of openness, alone, to punish anyone in their professional life.
Yesterday, I participated in the Lift Every Voice Forum, organized by the University of South Carolina College of Education and South Caroliniana Library , funded by IMLS, to address the challenges of collecting, archiving, presenting, and teaching the history of the civil rights movement by planning for a new project focused on South Carolina.
The struggle for African American Civil Rights in South Carolina is not well known within the current historical narrative of the movement. This history is also not well known to the past two generations, because these stories have been absent from the state’s public school curricula and veterans of the movement have been reluctant to share. While at the forum, I first heard of the many grassroots activities that occurred in Columbia and other cities across the state beginning in the 1940s. Much of this activity was never reported in any media. Specifically some newspapers deliberately did not publish photographs of and stories about rallies and protests at the Capitol and around the state. As such, these sources were not discoverable by historians. Oral histories, personal stories, and objects saved in shoe boxes, then, take on a greater meaning as historical evidence that needs to be saved.
I hope that the Lift Every Voice Project will be able to build the project they are planning, so that they can create a digital repository filled with different types of evidence and resources useful for teachers, students, researchers, and historians alike.
Below are the slides from my presentation on digital memory banking and online collecting practices:
(Post was selected as an Editor’s Choice by Digital Humanities Now, May 9, 2013)
As I watched the news on April 15 and thought about another April tragedy, at Virginia Tech, I wondered if it made sense to create an online collecting site. I have some experience building and managing online collecting sites/digital memory banks, now referred to as crowdsourced collections, at RRCHNM including the April 16 Archive. A few days after the shootings at Virginia Tech, I worked together with former RRCHNM programmer Kris Kelly to help VA Tech launch that site a few days after that tragedy to help them to respond, collect, and make public all of the memories and materials surrounding that dark time.
And then someone asked @CHNM on Twitter, if we were archiving the coverage of the Boston shootings.
As I considered the prospect of starting another unfunded collecting project in response to current events (see: Occupy Archive), I began to question if Internet users would still come to digital memory banks, as we know them. (Since the time I started drafting this post, we’ve learned that Northeastern is working on something.)
In 2013, sharing personal stories, photographs, generating memes, posting videos, is commonplace for many Americans. According to the Pew Internet and American Life survey, sixty-seven percent of Internet users use some type of social networking site.1 People are sharing quite a bit within their own networks, and within networks that have specific terms of service. Will they want to share again in another web space?
Don’t get me wrong, I still see value in the practice of collecting online and in building non-commercial, open resources that are filled with first-person accounts and reactions, and memories to tragic and celebratory events that individual contributors still own and maintain control over use. As Internet users access many different platforms and use the Web in more ways, people are much more comfortable sharing online with their own social networks. There are many places to react and emote immediately, as a result, there is much more noise on the Web. Finding a digital collecting site seems much more challenging. The question remains, how can we best save those reactions for historians and other researchers to access in the future? Conversely, should we try to save all of those reactions?
Brief Background on Digital Memory Banks as I Know Them
In the late 1990s, digital memory banking started as an outgrowth of oral history practices, and as a way to identify potential subjects to interview. The Blackout History Project was RRCHNM’s first online collecting project (http://blackout.gmu.edu) that invited visitors to complete an on-line survey and asked contributors to provide a phone number so that a longer oral history interview could be conducted on the Northeastern blackouts in 1965 and 1977. RRCHNM pushed forward to experiment with digital collecting models including the Exploring and Collecting History Online (ECHO) project in 2001 (http://echo.gmu.edu ), followed by the much larger, September 11th Digital Archive (http://911digitalarchive.org), and the more regional Hurricane Digital Memory Bank (HDMB http://hurricanearchive.org). Other entities were trying this as well, such as the BBC’s WW2 People’s War project beginning in 2003 that collected over 47,000 through the web. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar2 Using a simple web form that asked individuals to tell their story in a large open text box, we collected different types of reflections and reactions together with a small amount of user metadata. Locating these digital items was important as well. For the 9/11 project we asked for zip codes, saved in a field in the database. By HDMB, we asked contributors to plot their submissions on a Google map, making place a primary organizing principle.
These projects influenced the development of Omeka and its Contribution plugin that lets any institution or individual quickly launch an online collecting site to respond to tragedy or to commemorate an event, and to do many other types of crowdsourcing of content by asking for contributions from a community of users.
Sharing and Re-Sharing
If viewed as a completely digital pursuit, “digital memory banking,” is a very difficult one. We found in building HDMB, and others since that any digital collecting project exists in an in-between place that Mills Kelly and I termed, “Web 1.5.” because, “for all the potentialities of online collecting and democratizing the past, remember that any project still requires a great deal of analog hands-on history work.”3.
In 2005, we planned to save the born-digital responses soon after an event using some web scraping tools. We cobbled together a Flickr uploader that allowed us to search through and pull in photos that with CC licenses. Without a feed importer for blog posts, I contacted bloggers to get permission to copy their posts, and copy and pasted their text as items into the backend.
To collect stories, reflections, and media files from those directly effected, we needed a simple web contribution process, and then active, on-the-ground outreach team members pointing people to the site’s URL, ensuring the trustworthiness of the site, and offering a personal connection to an impersonal web space.
When volunteers at RRCHNM built the Occupy Archive, http://occupyarchive.org, in October 2011, for example, we wanted to save what seemed to be a very digital movement, and hoped occupiers would help us to build this archive. We knew that wifi was common in the encampments and that communication among Occupy members occurred on Facebook sites, WordPress blogs, and Twitter. Our friends at Emory collected tweets to save for a time when we might be able to republish them. Twitter’s TOS had changed that fall preventing us from republishing tweets without obtaining permissions from each user. TOS has changed again since then so it is a little easier to do so now. Patrick Murray-John whipped up a Flickr feed importer that grabbed CC’d images and their metadata tagged with “ows” and “occupy” and imported those into the Omeka-drive site. Others snapshotted Facebook pages and webpages of Occupy groups using Zotero and we imported that material into the digital archive.
We even attracted attention of the national media who were interested in learning more about our efforts, and we talked about our work very soon after launching the site. Many people viewed the site, but only a few contributed. Our biggest challenge was not having someone to devote 30 hours a week to outreach to all of these groups, asking for their stories.
For such a widely-distributed, international, movement, creating a digital memory bank was the best method to collect and save the history of the occupiers. The time we spent was still worth our efforts, and there is still an opportunity for this to grow in a different way.
What is Next?
In 2013, there are many more tools that can scrape web content for us and better developed APIs, from some services, that allow for querying and accessing content. To save and/or republish in a digital memory bank, however, we still must pay close attention to obtaining proper permissions from users and services when and if necessary. And how do we best capture the context of social media conversations, so that when those conversations are mined later, the researcher understands how those were generated? Our discussion groups at the Archiving Social Media unconference exemplify some of the challenges we still face in collecting, preserving, and honoring users’ rights related to social media content.4
Or, what if we don’t worry about trying to pull in some materials and focus on making it easier for users to push materials themselves? Perhaps something like PressIt or Evernote-like bookmarklets that send what the user chooses to be shared with a digital collecting site. Having better means to push our own content out of commercial networks helps in this pursuit and for individuals to archive their own materials (which works in opposition to how most SNS want you behave).
To collect stories directly from contributors in 2013, we draw upon similar method, but need to make it easier to share from our mobiles. Responsive web design helps these sites to be easily viewed and simple web forms to be used on mobile devices. If file uploads are included, this can be accomplished with an mobile app, like how you would use History Pin, Flickr, Instagram, et al. The challenge is how to allow users to “send to” or “share” a photo, video, or voice memo using native functionality on a mobile with a digital collections site that itself is not the app.
To increase the visibility of these user-generated collections and to increase participation, I look to successful examples of distributed collecting events. University of Texas-El Paso arranged for collecting days and scanned sources from Braceros and their families and interviewed former Braceros for the Bracero History Archive, (http://braceroarchive.org). These events also taught participants how to add additional materials and stories from home through the web form. The History Harvest project http://historyharvest.unl.edu/) is engaging in a similar method to save local history from small towns in the Midwest, by traveling to towns and photographing and recording objects and stories collected. (The only missing piece is that they do not have a public contribution form.)
In the end, digital memory banks remain an in-between digital space. In the early 00′s asking individuals to contribute a personal story via a web form was not comfortable or easy. Now, that process is naturalized as we share, discuss, make, and save own thoughts and products in many different digital spaces. To save this activity and content in an open and accessible archive still requires some old-fashioned face-to-face connections. We have known at RRCHNM for years that you need a good outreach plan for any digital project, especially so for an online collecting project. That fact hasn’t changed, even if the ways that we interact on the Web and in our daily lives has.
Where do you think digital memory banks are heading next?
- Maeve Duggan, Joanna Brenner, “The Demographics of Social Media Users–2012,” Pew Internet and American Life Project, Feb 14, 2013, http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Social-media-users/The-State-of-Social-Media-Users.aspx. For more detailed information about who is online see the Pew’s Internet Use Demographics tables, http://www.pewinternet.org/Trend-Data-%28Adults%29/Whos-Online.aspx. [↩]
- See the very good history of online collecting in Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/collecting/. [↩]
- See, Why Collecting Online is Web 1.5, http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=47 [↩]
- Archiving Social Media Unconference, October 1, 2010, George Mason University: http://archivingsocialmedia.org. [↩]
Below are notes and slides from a presentation I gave at the Society for History in the Federal Government and Mid-Atlantic Oral History Association joint conference, April 4, 2013 held at National Archives II, College Park, MD.
For someone like me, a former federal history museum educator and trained by Roy Rosenzweig in public and digital history, I see how the “digital” in digital history provides new ways to communicate with audiences, allows for multiple perspectives, and engages audiences with a variety of skills and expertise in doing history as a collaborative practice. This was vision of Roy’s that new media could help to “democratize history.”
Specifically, when talking about public history scholarship, I believe it is our responsibility to make our research and scholarship as accessible as possible, including: writing in “plain style” that is jargon-free; incorporating diverse kinds of evidence that incorporates multiple voices; making our processes more visible and replicable; and lastly, making the products of the research open and accessible for reading/consuming/participating.
[Not surprisingly, I found that my colleague Sharon Leon argues very similarly about openness of public history work in the newly-published roundtable in the Public Historian, Imagining the Digital Future of the Public Historian (PDF).]
These reasons motivated me to create an open access edition of the next stages of my dissertation, Stamping American Memory, Stamp Collecting in the US, 1880s-1930.
It is very important to me that I create a digital edition that I owned to ensure there would always be an open access version. I also wanted to take advantage of dialogic and collaborative aspects of digital platforms I was working with in my digital public history work at the Center for History and New Media.
Public history scholarship is created and shared in many formats, and as a result not all public history work is captured in publications. For this presentation, I want to focus on the long-form scholarship that is meant to be published. My office, and perhaps yours, is filled with public history-related books and subscription-based journals. I want to see how we can free some of that research and scholarship.
To get a sense of how open public history scholarship is now, I did a quick survey of the availability of early-stage scholarship in the form of dissertations & theses.
Looking at the Proquest Open Digital Dissertation Database, with a keyword search of “public history,” I found 6 dissertations. A Full text search revealed: 77.
But, when I looked at the gated Proquest dissertation database, there 973 tagged with “public history”, 1662 results for the full text search.
Knowing that federal historians publish works meant to be freely distributed from the beginning (or a majority of that work), I also searched the Government Printing Office for online publications with the subject “history.” That search revealed 1789 reports and publications on a wide variety of topics.
I recognize that these aren’t the only indicators of the openness of public history research and scholarship. But, this suggests to me that public historians working in academia could take a queue from federal historians in the ways that they make their research accessible and open.
What follows are some suggestions for all public historians, based on the steps I intentionally took to share the research that led to my dissertation, and what I’ve done since in the process of creating a free and open digital edition that I will own, that will accompany a physical publication.
How Can You Start Making Research More Public
- One of the easiest ways to share the building blocks of your research is to create Public Zotero Libraries.
For those of you unfamiliar, Zotero is a free, open-source bibliographic and note-taking management system that can run inside your browser or as a stand-alone tool. It allows you to import sources with all of their bibliographic data from hundreds of databases and digital collection sites, such as Library of Congress, ProQuest.
You can also use Zotero to then automatically create citations and bibliographies in Word in whatever style of your choosing.
These are my libraries. And you’re welcome to browse through them. As you can see I make all of my resources, on a variety of topics freely available in case they are useful for anyone.
- Post a dissertation/thesis/article publicly: Made a copy available on a blog or in your personal web space. This is what I created before my defense, because I thought that it should be made widely available and having one hard copy at the library didn’t seem sufficient when I had additional methods available for distribution. I included a link to this URL in the announcement.
- Create a pre-print or all digital edition: This is the phase I am in right now.
I’m creating a pre-print digital edition of my post-dissertation project, Stamping American Memory.
To give you some background on my project, it uncovers some of the unexplored complexity and influence of the US Post Office Department as a central institution for circulating and distributing historical narratives and for shaping visual meaning and public memory in the United States through the commemorative stamp program starting in the late 19th Century.
I discovered how the Post Office was involved in history making and interpreting before the NPS interpreted historic sites. Importantly, one of main the drivers of getting the Post Office Department into the commemorative stamp business was the interest and activity of stamp collectors, or philatelists, who were independently collecting and interested in the USPOD and other Postal Authority products.
To me, scholarship that explores a historical dialog between a federal agency and its citizens, communicated through visual culture, seemed best served in a way that facilitates public participation and discussion around those objects—and that can happen in these web-based dialogic platforms.
By publishing in an open digital platform, I want to connect scholars, collectors, and enthusiasts in two major components: a primary source archive and long-form narrative.
For the long form, I’m revising the manuscript and publishing it using the blogging platform, WordPress together with the CommentPress plugins that enables commenting and discussions at the paragraph level and around images that are immersed in the text.
This can create a way for open peer review of a text, and for more eyes to view and review a piece of scholarship.
There are some other very successful CommentPress digital editions, including Planned Obsolecense by Kathleen FitzPatrick and Writing History in the Digital Age edited by Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty.
Writing for a blogging platform makes me think differently about the ways that I craft my paragraphs. The format and way that I’m reading it online is actually encouraging me to revise in a better way for readability—and I think it helping me to lose some of the dissertation and make it more into a publication for general readers.
For the primary source collection, I’m using the Omeka platform, to publish primary sources that are already in the public domain and from my very small private collection, and I will invite others to contribute their own to create a shared online collection.
Each source added, will have standardized Dublin Core metadata. And I can include multiple files, which is important for some of these series. I’m hoping that by publishing my sources, collecting others, and by seeking input from scholars, collectors, enthusiasts, I can start seeing some things that I haven’t before in the source materials.
With these sources and with my narrative, I can also ensure that this public history topic that uses many public domain sources can remain open by using Creative Commons licensing.
You can assign licenses to your own work as well. You want to be clear about how the researcher, reader has rights and that you invite them into your work.
In providing a digital edition that combines narrative, and sources, I am committing to provide this as an open access edition. Open-access shouldn’t be a new idea for many of those who already produce federal histories and working with public domain sources.
For those of you unfamiliar with Open Access, this is a great resource by the nation’s expert on Open Access, Peter Suber: According to Suber, “Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” “OA is compatible with copyright, peer review, revenue (even profit), print, preservation, prestige, quality, career-advancement, indexing, and other features and supportive services associated with conventional scholarly literature.”
Many OA initiatives focus on publicly-funded research—and ensuring that those products are open and accessible.
Taking the lead from OA advocates, I want to see historians and other researchers using publicly-held and managed primary sources from public institutions for their research, sharing back with the public by making an open access edition of their scholarship available for all.
This is an area where public historians can lead by example—and have a responsibility to do so.
While there are a handful of historians doing digital history work, some are offering their research and complementary sources and analysis to their printed works, such as Will Thomas’s Railroads and the Making of Modern America project. Scholars and students are using the data. This type of sharing is still relatively new.
It is very important for historians to take control of our scholarship. And you can do this!
There are some subscription services for creating digital publications that will let you sign up for an account and start building something:
These services let you build something simple, or something complex. Then you can create an open version or a completely new digital version to engage with others. They have expertise and knowledge, and sometimes sources, and we all benefit from opening the conversation.
I hope that my experiences in creating Stamping American Memory will encourage other public historians to consider sharing and discussing their work in open and accessible ways. And I will share more once I have progressed further on this project.
Notes from my talk with museum studies graduate students in Amelia Wong’s Digital Technologies in Museums course at George Washington University, March 21, 2013.
What is DH and Why Does it Matter to Museums?
Debates in Digital Humanities, (open access version): http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/
Check out Father Busa work, Index Thomisticus.
Day of DH 2013– follow on Twitter #dayofDH, read blog, see how different folks define DH. I fall in-line with what
@nowviskie says: You say potato, I say potato. Let’s call the whole thing off. (Or, more seriously: I “define” DH with some reluctance. We’re an interdisciplinary, inter-professional community of practice; we develop and test an evolving set of methods; we undertake fresh work in the humanities and explore ways of making that work visible.)
In 1994, Roy Rosenzweig started the Center for History and New Media because he saw that digital media and computer technology could help democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.
Different flavors of DH work
- Text and Data Mining: Downton Abbey topic modeling; Data Mining with Criminal Intent.
Easy tools you can use: Bookworm, Voyant tools.
- Spatial History, Visualizations: different ways of representing data to answer questions and make visible stories that aren’t always noticeable through text alone: Geographies of the Holocaust; Visualizing Emancipation/; City Nature, Handsome Atlas.
Tools to use: Zotero + Paper Machines; ViewShare; Google Maps and Fusion tables.
- Creating and Using Digital Collections: Ways of managing sources, creating intentional collections of works, sometimes collaboratively to increase access to source and put forth a thesis through web project building. See Object of History, Bracero Archive, Modernist Journals Project.
Easy to use tools: WordPress.com; Omeka.net, Scalar, Drupal Gardens, WikiSpaces.
- Crowdsourcing: Asking for community participation and sharing in knowledge creation, personal experiences, and expertise. September 11 Digital Archive, href=”http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/tag_game/start.php”>Tag, You’re It, NYPL Menus, Papers of the War Department. AgHeritage, NMAH
Tools to use: Scripto, From the Page, Blogging software, Simple web forms,
- Scholarly Communication“, ways of reshaping narratives, that strive to be open access, open peer review, non-linear narratives, using visualizations to tell stories.
See Whale Hunt, MediaCommons, WordPress + CommentPress plugins.
State of the History Museum Web
My Survey of History Museum Web, 2011 (links to 2004 study); and link to our working document History Museums are Not Art Museums, Discuss!
- History museums in 2004 offered more narratives and stories related to exhibitions than in 2011.
- 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, up from 9 percent in 2004, 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.
MCN 2011 Roundtable
DH and Museum Work
New ways of Curating, Seeking Input from Outside of the Museum
Read this newly-published article for Museums and the Web 2013 Conference, Susan Cairns and Danny Birchall: http://mw2013.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/curating-the-digital-world-past-preconceptions-present-problems-possible-futures/ This paper looks at the history of museum curation as a profession in order to understand the emergence of ‘curation’ as an activity that happens outside museums in relation to a growing and hyperconnected world of digital information.
QRator project to respond and influence labels if in museum or not.
American Enterprise, at NMAA, started planning “out loud.”
History Pin: Not from a museum, but collaborative across many institutions, crowdsourced, place-based
How Can I Learn More?
I have proposed that if museums make their collections more visible then researchers of all stripes are more likely to discover them and incorporate them into their research. Without a digital presence online, collections absences from discovery-level searching will further push those sources into obscurity. (here and here) Even with that presence, would scholars, historians specifically, incorporate those collections into their own research?
I drafted a short survey a few weeks ago that I thought might help to address these issues. I never publicly released it (other than at my Digital Dialogue talk), because who has time for another survey?
- Do you currently use, or have you used, museum objects and collections, in your research?
- How do you identify appropriate or possible museum collections to use in your research? Personal knowledge of a collection, inquire at a local museum, Google or J-Stor, or I don’t know where to begin
- Do you use, or have you used, web auction sites (eBay, for example) to identify historical objects for analysis?
- Would you be more likely to use museum collections as primary sources for your research if you could find them easily online?
- Are you interested in gaining access to museum collections data for your own analysis, such as for text or data mining, topic modeling, visualizations? If yes, for what?
- Would you be interested in sharing your research with a museum whose objects you analyzed in your research project.
Luckily, experienced and trained researchers at Ithaka S+R surveyed historians and research practices in the 21st century and published their findings this week, Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians. This survey did not directly address museum collections, however, the responses indicate that historians do not use museum collections, at all, despite expressing needs to discover and use non-textual sources.
The report prompted a Twitter discussion about the availability of museum collections online and whether historians even know how to use them:
The report offers insight into research practices and offers recommendations for a variety of stakeholders, including archives, libraries, historians, and digital resource providers. History museums also serve as unique destinations for historical research, particularly for non-textual sources.
Based on the recommendations given to Archives in the report (see, page 42 of the PDF), I modified them slightly for history museums and historical societies.
- Museum collections present great challenges for researchers, because of unfamiliarity and inaccessibility. Efforts to improve access by including online finding aids are critically important to today’s researchers. Even if a museum cannot offer a searchable catalog, offering basic discovery mechanisms may open access to otherwise hidden collections.
- Museums should continue to make every effort to make collections as accessible as possible through digitization. There may be opportunities for
museums to partner with other institutions, such as archives or libraries that are digitizing related collections of their own. Smaller museums would benefit from collaborative opportunities that could make such efforts more feasible. A great example of such collaboration can be found in the work at the Balboa Park Online Collaborative.
- Museums of all sizes partner with local school systems to reach K-12 students and teachers through object-based learning programs, but give much less attention to reaching undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty to use their collections. Partnering with universities to offer summer institutes, can help to teach students and instructors about interpreting material culture and get them invested in using your collections. One good example is this Bard Graduate Center’s NEH Summer Institute for 2013, American Material Culture, Nineteenth Century New York.
- Museums need some incentive and financial assistance to achieve some of these ambitious goals. A program similar to Chronicling America could make smaller historical collections more visible and usable, as Chronicling America has done for small, local newspapers.
In the end, the question still stands: will scholars use museum collections even if they are discoverable and accessible online? Let’s discuss.