I read the April 2nd Washington Post article about the discovery of the missing patent documents for the Wright brothers’ “flying machine” with mixed emotions. As an historian, I am thrilled that determined archivists were able to track down what is universally regarded as a national treasure, missing – likely due to being misfiled – for more than thirty years. As a digital innovator, I see another example of celebrating “history saved” obfuscating the serious reality that our history is in danger, and I am frustrated.
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.
At HistoryIT, we build, support, and enhance digital archives. We are committed to developing creative approaches, through which archives become powerful, engaging tools, accessible and meaningful to diverse audiences beyond the traditional researcher. Why do we do this? And why is it so critical to get this work done NOW? What’s the rush? I answer these questions in my TEDx Dirigo Talk about The Future of History.
Powerful digital archives reach and influence new audiences and are the key to needed funding
The way we access information has fundamentally changed and this change demands a re-calibration on the part of those who house primary source historical materials. In the past ten years, Google has reshaped the public’s expectations around being able to find information and form conclusions based upon what they discover through simple online searches. The difficulty is, of course, that most of our primary source historical materials are not yet accessible online and those that are digitized often lack the robust, item-level tagging that would make them meaningfully searchable in this environment. This problem is exacerbated by a fixed mindset that would suggest that primary source materials in physical or digital form are still mainly for the scholarly researcher. Researchers have been the core focus of dedicated archivists and the institutions in which they work for lifetimes. But questioning who other than the researcher might be interested in accessing these materials opens a world of new possibilities.
At HistoryIT we believe that the information in archives is of great interest to broad groups of the public, not just professional researchers.
Yes, scholars know how to navigate archives in various states. They understand how to read finding aids that provide cursory high level or container information. They have the time and training necessary to use the finding aid to navigate a sea of material. The public has no patience for this, or much familiarity with how to do so. But they have much to learn and understand from engaging with these historical materials, and they want to engage.
At HistoryIT, we meet with a wide variety of organizations and institutions that are charged, either as their core mission or as one division of their entity, with caring for the historical records that tell the story of who they are, what they’ve accomplished, and what meaning is provided by their existence. We talk with them about how important these materials are and how, when they exist in a robust digital state, they will bring the parent organizations much greater value. We work with top-notch institutions and forward thinking organizations to build digital archives that are truly meaningful (by meaningful, we mean that are designed in such a way as to be easily searchable and sharable). In the course of this work, we daily encounter questions like:
Why is digitization so expensive?
Why can’t we just use our one or two scanners in the corner and a few interns or volunteers?
What’s wrong with the groups that will “digitize” our materials for ten cents a page?
On any given week, I talk with 20-25 organizations or institutions about their efforts to build digital archives. Projects to preserve our history and make it accessible in a meaningful way are almost always placed on the back burner for “future consideration.” Some of these projects will never be considered again. Many more will get diluted year after year until an organization settles for a digitization plan that involves selecting a limited number of items for an exhibit, or focusing on a single collection out of the many in their care.
There is a pervasive and chronic misconception that documents, images and artifacts that have been around for decades or even centuries won’t be affected if we wait a few more years to digitize them. They’ve survived this long, right? Why the urgency? This is dangerous thinking. And, from an institutional perspective, this approach is irresponsible and shortsighted. What’s the rush to make them digitally available? My response in three words: Preservation. Information. Value.
People have been asking me to blog for a couple of years now. Like many of us, I’ve found the concept both intriguing and daunting. Yes, I have a lot to say, particularly about the world of technology and history. No, I don’t think I have the time to cram one more thing into my already overcrowded day. What is it that finally unearths the realization that I must begin blogging and I must do so today? There are just too many exciting – and critical – issues to address that relate to our ability to access and make sense of our history.
Sure, it seems like history is pretty much a staid thing. It’s been around since, well, something historical occurred, and it isn’t going anywhere. Yet, few of us have seen behind the curtain into the world of historical records and understand that what exists back there is fundamental to our greater understanding of who we are.