This blog series on Analog Practices in a Digital World is an extension of a talk I delivered at the Impakt Festival 2015 “The Future of The Past.” It explores the ways in which our history, even when made digital, remains inaccessible.

There are numerous analog practices and assumptions that plague the world of digital archives and consequently make those digital resources inaccessible to the majority of online searchers. Perhaps the most important practice to transform is the utilization of catalog management systems as the portal for online searching of collections. Many cultural heritage organizations that have created digital archives or online collections have taken the systems and methodologies that they have used to manage their physical historical collections and assumed those practices would be directly transferable when accessing the information online. However, the management practices used to organize and administer physical collections do not translate directly to the digital. Most importantly, the average online user does not understand how to navigate a professional management system and so even though the materials may be digitally available, they cannot be easily searched and retrieved. Three traits of using management systems as the public-facing online digital search that restricts the usability of any digital collection are:

  1. Online catalogs without digital assets
  2. Archive management fields as search selections
  3. Information organization in a way that is inconsistent with online searching

Absence of Digital Assets

Putting catalogs online that describe what is available in the physical collections is a wonderful resource to researchers, as it allows them to decide which institutions to visit in order to explore materials. But let’s be clear. Online catalogs that do not have digital assets (images, PDFs, etc.) associated with them reflect an institution’s priority for catering to the inquiry of researchers. It is not a digital collection that draws in a wider audience to explore digital primary sources.

Search Fields

Traditional catalog management systems were designed to manage collections (except those that were created after the advent of the Internet), not to share them with an online public. Using the framework of these systems to share collections online is problematic in multiple ways. The New York Public Library, for example, which is a leader in digital collection development, has an online catalog search that reveals some analog practices. Check out their options for searching. Notice that the user has the option to search by keyword OR subject. Searching the same term in either area produces different results. There are legitimate reasons to distinguish between a keyword and a subject, but the distinctions are all to do with the standardized management of the materials. To the vast majority of online users, this interface is confusing. The reality is that average online searchers select either subject or keyword and accept whatever results are given. The analog expectation is that users will either know the difference or else will search one and then the other. This is rarely the practice in the digital search world and therefore the institution loses out on actually delivering information that relates to a particular search.

Information Organization

Another analog practice that is revealed on this site relates to how an online searcher would seek information about a particular topic or, in this case, a person. Say that a visitor to the New York Public Library website is curious about Andrew Carnegie, the steel industrialist and philanthropist. A quick search (seen below) turns up nothing. Why is that?

It’s because the visitor typed Andrew Carnegie.

Now, if the online visitor thinks like a researcher, or perhaps more appropriately thinks back to the analog practice of opening a card catalog, then perhaps they recall that when searching for information relating to an individual we should type last name first. So, a search for “Carnegie, Andrew” reveals twenty individual subject categories. Digital library management systems are still based on card catalog mentality.

There are new technologies and methodologies that we can implement to transform how historical information is made available online in ways that are meaningful and useful to members of the general public. But the greatest danger currently facing cultural heritage organizations and the important histories that they protect is the belief (conscious or not) that analog practices in the digital world will suffice, that people will think like researchers. They will keep digging if the system doesn’t produce what they need. This belief is erroneous and it creates a very real danger for the future of 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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