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.
Several comments on my recent blog calling for archivists to kill their finding aids declared that creating item-level metadata (descriptive information that makes each particular item in an archive findable online) is impossible for collections of significant size due to the lack of funding available for such efforts. They are absolutely right that the sorts of funding traditionally obtained for archival purposes are not adequate to support the work necessary to make our collective history easily searchable. There are, however, a variety of funding options available when we think bigger.
I posit that the funding problem is a direct result of many archives insisting that their audience is the world of researchers – those with the time, training and inclination to hunt for materials, assisted by contextual and summary information provided in finding aids. It is indeed very difficult to compete for the limited funds available for purely scholarly undertakings. I am an historian, first and foremost. I know the value of the materials in these archives. I know how to navigate them and how to form interpretations based on my discoveries in the collections. We at HistoryIT work to bring that experience to the broader public. When we look at our clients’ collections, we see the broader appeal. Specifically, we make connections between the materials in those collections and new sources of funding.
One comment on my previous blog expressed disdain for the idea that we would want our historical collections made searchable by sixth graders, while another defended that very need. A score of others demanded to know where the funding is. Our approach is this: if you look at how your materials might be of interest to sixth graders, or high school students, or undergraduate students, or amateur history buffs, you have new opportunities for funding. We connect organizations with new funding by rethinking our fundamental assumptions about who is interested in the materials in the collections. When we broaden our perspective on that question, we have greater success obtaining the funding available to provide the public with what they are already looking for.