Friday, August 29, 2008

The More the Merrier

Often online exhibits from a library’s special collections emphasize discrete “gems” or “treasures” and recreate a display-case culture of spectatorship for those who visit websites that display historical materials rather than the nitty-gritty discovery activities known to those who open actual Hollinger boxes full of files to answer complicated research questions in archival detective work.

A different approach was emphasized in today’s panel on “digitizing entire collections” at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists. Presenters emphasized case studies in which entire collections were put online, although doing this cost-effectively often meant making sacrifices by only providing minimal metadata to keep costs at around the dollar-a-page mark to which many institutions aspire. “EAD” or “encoded archival description” was one of the most commonly used acronyms at the panel and at the conference in general. The other big acronym bandied about at the table was for the funding agency NHPRC or National Historical Publication and Records Commission.

Unfortunately, with Google searches that may land Internet users into the center of an archive with no context or navigation back to content descriptions or finding aids, such minimal metadata strategies also risk reinforcing the fragmentation already experienced by those haphazardly searching for documents in a web search. Furthermore, all three collections that were showcased on the panel consisted largely of hand-written materials that had not been transcribed and were therefore not extensively searchable.

Civil War documents from the Archives of Michigan posed a number of challenges to digitizers, particularly since they vary in size. Although the process of digitization is often depicted as an “automagical” transubstantiation, Mark E. Harvey’s in absentia presentation, “Thank God for Michigan” acknowledged a number of complications in the process from worker equipment to protect against possible environmental hazards to vendors complaining about set contracts when projects become over budget. Luckily, the Civil War project has benefited from an active user community, which included the Ann Arbor Civil War Roundtable, and expressed a willingness to solicit constructive criticism from the archivists present, who pointed out that “civil war” didn’t specific the country and that other metadata samples didn’t specify the state. As part of the “Seeking Michigan” website redesign, which Harvey had jocularly renamed “Desperately Seeking Michigan,” the project is hoping to eventually expand to include private records, such as diaries and letters from individuals who were engaged in combat. The Archives of Michigan also maintains a Flickr page, although it has less than a thousand documents.

Blogs have become a tool for recording progress and publicizing lessons learned in many of these cases. Michigan has its blog at "Thank God for Michigan." However, the subsequent presenter, Kaye L. Minchew, who was also author of specialized state electronic encyclopedia pages, such as "Franklin D. Roosevelt in Georgia," complained that her own contributions to "Troup County Court Record Scanning Project" too often felt like a failed diary entry.

Final presenter David Null explained how ownership of the physical papers of an early environmentalist at the Aldo Leopold Archives and ownership of the intellectual property rights by the separate Aldo Leopold Foundation could create possible conflicts of interest. In addition, since visitors could enter the archive from either portal, those who land in the middle of it after a Google search might not have a clear way out to a definitive home page.

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