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I Want to Use Your Collections!

2012 April 18
by Sheila

This was originally posted to Visualizing the Past, NCPH conference working group blog. Go to the original post for comments from the group.

I love Joan’s post, because it gets at many issues I have been working through both professionally with the Omeka project and also through my own research that relies on access to cultural heritage collections for analysis.

During the WebWise unconference, “WiseCamp,” I led a session called, “What Do You Want Me to do with your Collections?” I proposed this from the perspectives of both a historian and material culturist researcher and as a digital historian who helps cultural heritage institutions build and publish collections online. Although the tables were overflowing with participants, very few of the had experience tracking visitor use or asking visitors how they would use those digital collections. This was primarily the case, because so few of them had digital collections. The Balboa Park Online Collaborative and the Walker Art Center were the two organizations in our session that very carefully consider their users’ needs and usage of their digital content. Many other participants wanted to hear from me, and I wanted to get them to talk about engaging in different audiences through their collections in an online environment.

This was a relatively small sampling, mostly from IMLS grant-funded projects. But, from my experience and research on how history museums use the web, I would say it is not atypical.

As Joan mentioned, I have proposed that making more material culture collections available in online formats may help to better integrate those types of sources and approaches to interpreting the past into history and humanities scholarship. And that the longer museum collections are missing from the digital world, their collections and these approaches could be marginalized again.

When I look to test out new digital tools, some that can help to visualize large collections of data, I find it hard to use it with many of my sources about stamp collecting processes, collecting cultures, and the stamps themselves.

So, for the working group, I thought I would tackle the task and test a new-to-me tool for creating a visualization of US commemorative stamps (1892-1940) using the Image Plot software created by Lev Manovich and the Software Studies Initiative at San Diego State University. They have created one of the few pieces of software for working with images to investigate entire collections together. I had some stamp images already and a list of commemoratives, so I thought it wouldn’t take too much time to complete. I’m still not done although there is a chance that I might finish.

As I’ve mentioned before, getting the data in a useable format is often the hardest part. Still, I pushed forward and installed the software, which runs on PCs and Macs. I started to make a CSV file that listed the name, issue, year, and file name of each commemorative stamp from 1892-1940 thinking I had all of that information. I did, sort of, in a table in a Word doc, so the data needed some cleaning and some additions. Then, I found that I needed many more stamp images than I had in my own files. I ended up grabbing low-res images from a philatelic site, because it was more accessible for copying than the Postal Museum’s Arago site, which prevents users from downloading their beautifully-photographed stamp images because of copyright restrictions. (I’m still lost on this one since those are federally-printed publications.) The next step entails processing the images through the software.

We all want our research to be easier in a variety of ways. This is one area, where I would like more access to cultural heritage collections so I can play around with it, and then I’d like to share that newly-created thing back with the institution(s) whose objects I’m incorporating. Europeana, DigitalNZ, Digital Library of Australia, and the Library of Congress’s Chronicling Americaproject are standing as good models for openness and sharing of cultural heritage data. In the case of the Digital Library of Australia and the LC, these collections remain mostly documents and text–still privileging those types of sources.

I look forward to discussing these challenges and opportunities to enrich and enhance uses of digital heritage collections from both the institutional side and from the perspective of different researchers who want to use those collections for their own purposes.

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