Our historical information is stuck in the past. For the most part, cultural heritage organizations are failing to connect the modern online population with our historical resources. I believe that the public needs to interact with evidence and stories from our past in order to build a thoughtful, informed society. And in order to interact with it, they need access to it – digital access. It’s not our technology – or lack thereof – that is relegating our meaningful evidence of the past to a small pool of elite researchers who are charged with finding and interpreting its meaning once they have located it in a remote physical archive, or even in a digital archive. At the root, the persisting problem is a cultural one or, perhaps more accurately put, a behavioral one. Our cultural heritage organizations are still utilizing analog practices, even within the digital world.

Delivering a talk, titled Analog Practices in a Digital World on October 31, 2015, at the Impakt Festival in Utrecht, The Netherlands

Let’s look to a history lesson to illustrate this point. In the mid-1990s, companies began to understand that they needed to have a presence on the Internet. The problem was that nobody had a clue what to put on their sites or how to use the Web to their advantage. So, what did they do? They did what they had always done, but changed the venue. Many organizations created web sites containing organizational charts and annual reports. They saw the Internet as another way of communicating what they always had, rather than as a brand new tool that could serve a much wider range of purposes.

Pfizer’s 1996 home page (below) shows that they created a great place to go if you wanted to read their financial reports online. It’s not shocking to learn that these sorts of web sites did not draw in new audiences or expand a company’s customer base. In contrast, today company web sites use the Internet as a place to tell stories, to distribute content related to their industry in order to draw in a wider audience, inform visitors, and thereby build their company brand. In short, companies are now thinking about how online users behave, how their sites can be a resource, rather than only being a place for a limited number of people to go get materials as they always had.

Pfizer 1996

Pfizer web site homepage, December 20, 1996. courtesy of the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine.

Corporate leaders did not simply wake up one day in the late 1990s and envision a whole new way for their Web sites to serve them. An entire industry emerged that studied end-user experience, analytics, and new opportunities. This industry transformed how companies used the Web and how people interacted with the information placed there. We must do the same with our shared cultural resources.

Most organizations that house historical information are making use of the Web in the same way that corporations were in 1996. They are putting some things online. Their process, however, simply involves replicating their analog practices in a digital framework, rather than harnessing the power and potential of the digital world to expand their reach. My next few blogs will present examples of analog behavior that must be replaced with digital methodologies in order for cultural heritage organizations to remain relevant in the digital age, as well as harness the opportunities presented by broader and more meaningful interaction with our history.

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Kristen Gwinn-Becker, PhD is an accomplished scholar, published author, and thought leader in the field of digital heritage collections and content. She currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer of HistoryIT, a technology company that supports institutions as they embrace innovative digital approaches in order to secure meaningful access to our history for generations to come.

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