Sustainability and Digital Archives: 5 Tips

The survey report “Searching for Sustainability” examines how libraries and cultural organizations address issues of digital sustainability. After reviewing the eight case studies, here are 5 tips that I found to be the most essential to a successful sustainability plan:

  • develop a user-friendly backend system
    • Cornell’s HEARTH archive of home economics literature relies on this key sustainability tactic. Easy backend management is essential for evolving digital projects to ensure that new employees and volunteers can easily add new materials without needing to learn a complicated new skill set
  • market your collection as culturally indispensable
    • Relying on federal grant funds, the Florida Memory project employs a targeted social media and community outreach program to demonstrate that its multimedia folklore and ethnographic collection is an essential element of “the Florida cultural landscape”
  • built support from your target audience
    • most digital collections are subject-specific and some can draw upon their niche target audience for financial support. The Grateful Dead Archive is one example of a digital project that both brings devoted Dead fans together and relies on them to sustain their collect and for financial donations
  • rely on partners who rely on you
    • The Maine Memory Network partners with 270 cultural institutions across the state. These institutions all rely on the platform to scan and host their own digital collections materials, and the Network relies on them for financial support
  • ABOVE ALL: seek out multiple sources of support
    • most if not all digital projects are sustained through numerous channels of financial and labor support. The Vanderbilt Television News Archive, for example, is supported by federal grants, individual subscriptions, and partnerships with other major organizations like the Library of Congress. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is supported through a combination of membership fees, and in-kind and direct support from the larger Smithsonian network. To successfully sustain a digital project, one needs to be flexible and creative when seeking out support.

 

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Integrating Video in Digital Exhibits

Im my cursory Google research, I found there are very few digital exhibits that use video technology at all, let alone use it successfully. The following comparison between two websites on the history of film demonstrates the challenge of integrating video in an online exhibit.

The first site I found was a digital exhibit titled Women in Film hosted by the National Women’s History Museum. I assumed because of the subject matter that this exhibit would rely heavily on video clips. Instead, the exhibit is composed entirely of text and images of movie posters, film stills, and actress headshots. Women in Film attempts to integrate video in their narrative a few times, but it did not work on my computer.

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When I clicked the “Missing Plug-In” link, I was taken to a site that tried to charge me $9.99 to play WMV files.

This “Missing Plug-In” notification exposes a central problem with using video in digital exhibits. Images and text will display the same on just about any interface (phone, tablet, computer) or through any web browser (Chrome, FireFox, Safari). Yet the same cannot be said for video technology. Videos require plug-ins; plug-ins can require updates.

Digital exhibits are much more successful when they present videos hosted on outside sources like Vimeo and YouTube. The 3-D Film Archive, for example, uploads vintage movie trailers and film clips to their YouTube channel and embeds these videos on their website. This tactic gets around the problem of plug-in requirements. YouTube videos are also more familiar to users and therefore more user-friendly. Lastly, and this may just be personal preference, but YouTube videos just look better and more streamlined when embedded in webpages:

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Digital Storytelling on Mobile Devices

In Chapter 9 of The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media, Bryan Alexander argues that mobile devices “may become the ultimate digital storytelling devices” (139). One reason for this is that people throughout the world are consuming digital content at an ever-accelerated rate due to the accessibility of smartphones. While many Americans may not have reliable access to a personal laptop or desktop, they are increasingly likely to carry a mobile device. Alexander explains that this has been one of Web 2.0’s greatest challenges because Web pages for digital storytelling need to be restructured to conform to small, narrow screens; menu options need to be condensed to serve a mobile platform. Yet mobile devices have played an essential role in making traditional forms of storytelling digital. The most successful examples of this include E-Book apps like Kindle and Podcast apps like This American Life, which offer access to written and oral forms of storytelling on any smartphone.

In addition to increased access, Alexander argues that mobile devices have the power to create new forms of digital storytelling. The medium of a mobile, handheld device lets amateur and professional digital humanists write stories in unique contexts. One does not need to sit at home with their laptop to tell a digital story anymore; one can write and instantly share stories on the train, walking down the street, or waiting in line at a coffee shop. An example of mobile storytelling is the Japanese cellphone novel, called keitai shosetsu, which is written entirely on a mobile phone. The cellphone novels is divided into short chapters of usually around 100 words and is written in fragmented, informal prose. Some are structured in stanzas similar to poetry, others read like text messages. Thus this storytelling genre is shaped entirely by the medium of a mobile device. The following is a chapter from the cellphone novel “Rays of Sun,” which won the 2015 Editor’s Choice Award on textnovel.com:

“That concludes today’s lecture. Please remember that the
exam is a week from now. Study guides will be posted online.”

The gentle shaking of my shoulder woke me from my half daze.
“Did you pay attention at all Mitsue?” Shiori scolded.

I couldn’t help but smile. “I know the test is soon.”
She shook her head. “That’s not enough!” 

It has been two months since we started dating. That
winter we spent together seemed unreal, like a dream.

The routine had set back in, a collage of classes, and
work. Shiori had brought colour into the otherwise dull days.

“I need to go see the professor about my past assignment.
I’ll meet you at your place when you get off from work?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, see you then.”

According to the journalist and poet Dana Goodyear, keitai shosetsu is “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age.” As smartphones become more prevalent and take on more diverse roles in our daily lives, other forms of mobile digital storytelling are bound to emerge.

Metadata and Digital Collections

Metadata, or “data about data,” is an essential component to any digital collection (and physical ones, too!). The essential goal of online metadata should be to aid researchers. An online finding aid for example allows researchers to find the exact physical location of material like series, box, and folder numbers. Metadata offers researchers with information on individual photographs or documents exhibited online as well, such as collection information on an author, date of production, provenance, or copyright status. In the digital world, metadata can serve as a useful tool for researchers to access information on material that is under copyright restriction. While a specific book or image may be inaccessible online, metadata is always copyright-free! Thus providing clear metadata offers researchers with at least bare-bones information on a physical archival source. Lastly, a successful use of metadata on an online collection can help promote an archival organization by showing researchers where materials are physically located.

While all digital collections need metadata, not all digital collections use metadata to the best of their abilities.

My group is using Omeka to host our final online exhibit, so I decided to explore how different digital collections use metadata on the Omeka platform. In general, I found that most online collections successfully use metadata thanks to Omeka’s detailed options for gathering and presenting collection information. One digital collection I looked at, for example, was Heroes and Villains: Silver Age Comics. This site hosts an expansive collection of Silver Age Comics published by DC and Marvel comics that are housed at the J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections. The metadata for digital collection items on this site are incredibly detailed and clearly assembled with the needs of researchers in mind. For each comic, the site provides the following information: title; subjects covered in the comic; description; creator; source; publisher; date; detailed copyright information; format; language; a high-resolution image of the comic cover; searchable tags; and a full citation. Most other digital collections that are hosted on Omeka provide this level of detailed collection information due to the platform’s backend metadata options.

History Web Review: The HathiTrust Digital Library

The HathiTrust Digital Library is an example of History Web that is both open access and gated. This digital library is run by the HathiTrust Research Center, a center launched by Indiana University and the University of Illinois to address the needs of archival researchers in the digital age. The center’s digital library is essentially a collaborative repository of digital material culled from over 100 research libraries as well as the expansive digitized content of Google Books and Internet Archive.

Unlike “gated” History Web sites like ProQuest, which limits access to academic institutions and select members, HathiTrust expresses a commitment to open access. This is without a doubt its greatest strength as a History Web site. As of last year, HathiTrust comprised more than 13.7 million volumes, 5.3 million of which are public domain. In spite of the large amount of material under copyright restrictions, HathiTrust has full-text search across the entire collection. Thus researchers are able to locate and gather provenance information from all volumes even if they cannot read everything in its entirety. For example, if I search the digital library for information on the vocational education movement (the broad subject of my group’s digital exhibit project), I find that HathiTrust has 1,122,314 volumes pertaining to the subject, 265,840 of which are public domain. Importantly, HathiTrust still provides catelog information for material that I do not have permission to view online. Thus if I found something that would be useful for my research that is not accessible through the online repository, I can see what institution owns and digitized the material and visit their physical collections if needed. In this way, even the gated material on HathiTrust Digital Library is open access thanks to the site’s full-text search technology.

According the Cohen and Rosenzweig, authenticity and accurate provenance are two important elements that digital libraries most often lack. The HathiTrust Digital Library demonstrates both, making it a model example of this type of History Web site.

 

 

 

 

Digitizing “Flower Tech”

During a visit to the Chicago History Museum a few weeks ago, I made digital images of material from the Lucy Flower Technical High School Photo Collection.  From its founding in 1911 until its dismantling in the late-1950s, “Flower Tech” was the only female vocational school in Chicago and the city’s only racially-integrated school for girls. The following are a few images of Flower Tech students, or “Flower Girls,” from the 1940s:

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Sewing students

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Dressmaking students in hand-made outfits

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Flower Tech athletes, the “Flower Foxes”

The coloring of these images could be improved in Photoshop, particularly the first image that is slightly yellow. That image also shows signs of age; if you look closely, you can see white specks in front and to the left of the desk. These imperfections would be easily removed through Photoshop. In general, however, these photos are in good condition and would not benefit from excessive editing.

Other material that I’ve collected through my research on Flower Tech and that my group plans to use for our final digital exhibit could be improved with Photoshop’s many editing tools. This includes the following photocopies from the Chicago Defender that featured Flower Tech students of color in the 1930s:

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These images and their accompanying text provide important insight into how Flower Tech was promoted as a prestigious institution for high-achieving female students in the black community. Unfortunately, they are in rough condition. First, newspaper text that was printed on the opposite side of the page can be seen to the right of each student’s face. Second, the images are over-exposed as a result of the scanning process. And third, both images are grainy from the low-quality of the original scan. I have yet to explore all the wonders of Photoshop, but am excited to learn if and how these images might be improved through its editing software.

Social Media Behind Bars: A Case Study of Writeaprisoner.com

Social media sites provide a platform for distant friends to stay in touch, moms to exchange parenting advice, and Twilight fans to share fan fiction. Food-lovers can offer recipes, former classmates can reminisce, and couch surfers can connect with couch owners. There is a social media site for everyone; even prisoners.

Writeaprisoner.com connects federal prison inmates with pen-pals on the outside in the hopes that this social and emotional connection may reduce recidivism. The site was founded in 2000 by Adam Lovell, an advocate for the rights of prisoners and their families. Since its founding, Writeaprisoner.com has received significant media attention for hosting profiles of controversial prisoners. In 2003, for example, a mother convicted of murdering her children created a profile requesting pen-pals and received over 6,000 letters of hate mail. Three years later, the profile of another convicted killer of an eight year old boy was taken down amid public outcry. There has been particular media interest in women falling in love with dangerous criminals through the site, a topic which was featured on an episode of 20/20 titled, “Why Are Women Marrying Murderers?” Other examples of inmates misleading the public through the site have occurred, such as inmates who misrepresent the nature of their crimes to trusting letter-writers. Some states including Florida and Missouri have banned inmate social media sites like Writeaprisoner.com in response to these events.

The history of Writeaprisoner.com has attracted public interest due to stories of deceit and romance. The site should interest public historians for these reasons and more. While Writeaprisoner.com hosts a successful online network, one that currently connects roughly 12,000 inmates with 41,000 pen-pals, the site operates contrary to many of our expectations about social media and Web 2.0. First, users are not able to actually communicate through the social network that the site provides. The site only allows users to connect with an inmate and retrieve their contact information so they can send a physical letter. This is not the fast, digital, user-friendly process that Web 2.0 promises. Second, the status of many users (federal prisoners) necessitates that the site can never be fully user-generated. The Writeaprisoner.com team often creates profiles on behalf of inmates currently behind bars, updates their information, and deletes their accounts as they see fit. Actual inmates cannot regularly access the site at all because they are incarcerated. Thus Writeaprisoner.com offers an unusual Web 2.0 case study: is this truly an example of “social media” if it limits mobility, access, and user-generated content?

Steps to a Successful Digital Project

Creating an online exhibit or digital collection takes time, money, and thoughtful planning. Before even establishing an online database or digital archive, the most taxing phase is deciding what and how to digitize. Here are some essential steps towards successful digitization gleaned from this weeks readings:

  • Establish project goals. Ask yourself if the primary purpose of this project is to preserve, provide access, or both. Answering this question helps determine what shape a digital project will take. For example, digitizing material for the primary purpose of preservation my call for high-resolution imaging technology to capture all visual information from a deteriorating document. Such equipment may not be necessary to provide general access to archival material.
  • Decide what to digitize. Considering the scope of a digitization project is contingent on the project goals of preservation, access, or both. If preservation is the primary goal, then perhaps portions of a collection in the worst physical condition should be digitized first. If access is the primary goal, then there may be a more pressing need to digitize frequently used material. A preliminary collection survey is a helpful first step to determine what should be included in the project.
  • Determine copyright status. This step may be irrelevant for institutions that digitize their own collections. Yet independent researchers engaged in a digital project will need to confirm they have the authority to reproduce material and provide access to digitized images before the project goes live.
  • Outline a budget. Digitization is expensive. Thus understanding your financial limitations is the next step after establishing the goal, scope, and necessary permissions for a digital project. How much will it cost to bring this project into fruition? What equipment is necessary for the digitization process? How many employees need to be paid for their labor? Be practical about what can and cannot get done.
  • Create a (working) timeline. Have a plan for what needs to get done, when it needs to get done, and who needs to do it. While you may not stick to this initial timeline, creating a realistic work schedule before beginning a digitization project will help ensure that project goals are met under budget.
  • Choose your equipment. The appropriate equipment will depend on project goals and potential budgetary restrictions. Equipment is contingent on project goals. If providing general access to archival photographs is the primary purpose of a digital project, you may not need an expensive scanner capable of the highest resolution imaging. If access to written material is a a project goal, a high resolution scanner may be ideal to view small or unclear handwritten text. Equipment is also, of course, contingent on budget. It may not be feasible for some institutions to invest limited finances in the latest digitization technology. Go back to the budget and the project goals and work from there.
  • Create your platform. Form should follow function when deciding the best format for digitally exhibiting, searching, organizing, or preserving online material. What platform is best for achieving your specific project goals? What are the costs (financial and otherwise) versus benefits of each platform?

Public History on Twitter

In my 48 hours as a Twitter-user, I’ve found that public history institutions use Twitter in two ways. The first is to redirect followers to Twitter accounts run by other organizations with similar missions. The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF), for example, devotes most of its tweets to content that is not their own. The nonprofit  links to outside articles related to architecture and design or provides news blurbs about a design exhibition held by another Chicago institution. This sharing of general design news and miscellaneous images of architectural wonders falls under CAF’s broad mission statement to inspire people “to discover why design matters.” While most of their tweets are Chicago-related, there is no geographic limitation to the organization’s account or mission statement. A retweet about a design exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, a link to an Architectural Digest article about a London skyscraper, and an image of a new stadium in Los Angeles are all recent posts by the nonprofit.

The cross-sharing of information between cultural organizations with similar missions is a strength of the Twitter platform. CAF can alert its followers about an upcoming event at the Graham Foundation, the Graham Foundation then shares a link to an online lecture series presented by the Chicago Humanities Festival, and so on and so forth into Twitt-ernity. Public history institutions like CAF successfully use Twitter to build digital networks of likeminded individuals and organizations and keep their followers abreast of the latest events, exhibits, and online resources.

The second way that public history institutions use Twitter is to promote their own collections, programs, and exhibitions. The Newberry Library is an example of an institution successfully showcasing objects in their collection through the Twitter platform. In the past few weeks, the Newberry has shared views of their stacks and pages from rare manuscripts with a brief blurb promoting the expansive research collection. This supports the library’s commitment to “free inquiry” and the wide “dissemination of knowledge” as stated in their official mission statement. I am surprised that many other collection-based institutions do not use Twitter in this way. The Chicago History Museum (CHM), for example, successfully promotes events and exhibitions on Twitter but rarely showcases their actual collection. The museum could make better use of its Twitter account by having a regular post of an object or portion of the collection that is rarely exhibited. This could offer an opportunity for interactivity between the museum and its followers. For example, a collection-based institution like CHM could share an image of an obscure object and have followers guess what it is. Followers could retweet and have their followers offer ideas as well. This specific example would certainly not apply to every museum or archive, which each has their own institutional mission and resources. Yet all public history institutions should consider more creative ways to promote themselves and their collections through Twitter.

Laura Burd Schiavo’s “Old” Media Case Study of the Stereoscope

In “From Phantom Image to Perfect Vision: Physiological Optics, Commercial Photography, and the Popularization of the Stereoscope,” Laura Burd Schiavo argues that the stereoscope evolved from a scientific instrument to a commercial amusement over the second half of the nineteenth century. The stereoscope was invented in 1838 by Charles Wheatstone, an English scientist who hoped the technology would enhance his understanding of how the human eye perceives depth. The technology was simple:  two slides displaying the same image from slightly different angles are placed in front of a two-lens viewer. When the side-by-side slides reach a critical distance from the viewer, the stereoscope creates an optical effect where the two flat images merge into a three-dimensional tableau.

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Wheatstone’s invention was groundbreaking in the field of physiological optics. Stereoscopy demonstrated, for the first time, that the body and its positionality played a productive role in determining what we see and how we see it. This rejected the longstanding theory established during the Renaissance that vision was always objective, linear, and could be understood through geometry. The medium of stereoscopy suggested that vision was in fact subjective and could be easily manipulated based on where the eye and an object meet.

Schiavo argues that this initial, scientific function of stereoscopy was challenged by the 1860s as commercial photographers began selling personal stereoscopes as the latest parlor attraction. With the addition of photographic images rather than Wheatstone’s rudimentary drawings, consumers could admire three-dimensional views of Niagara Falls, Yosemite, the Eiffel Tower, and a Civil War battle field all in the convenience of their parlor rooms. “Stereo cards” became mass-produced souvenirs at tourist attractions that were shipped to friends and families or kept as mementos of personal explorations.

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Through serving a new commercial function, Schiavo asserts that the stereoscope took on a new significance. Stereoscopes were praised for their realism and marketed to consumers as presenting a scene exactly as the human eye would view it in nature. Thus the ideology behind the commercial success of the stereoscope was at odds with the ideology behind its scientific success. Rather than reveal the subjectivity of vision, as originally intended, the commercial stereoscope was believed to present an objective reality.

While a contemporary concern of investing in new technology is that it will too quickly become obsolete, Schiavo presents a case study where the opposite occurs. The technology of the stereoscope remained consistent throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, yet its utility as a scientific instrument became obsolete. When it transitioned into a consumer good, the stereoscope became an international sensation that inspired an alternative popular understanding of vision. Other media may follow a similar path: the ultimate cultural significance of a medium may diverge from its intended function. Furthermore, a technologically stable medium may be ideologically unstable if used in only one context. The study of “old” media like the photographic stereoscope offers insight into how we use and assign significance to “new” media in the future.

Laura Burd Schiavo, “From Phantom Image to Perfect Vision: Physiological Optics, Commercial Photography, and the Popularization of the Stereoscope,” pg. 113-135, in New Media, 1740-1915 (MIT Press, 2004).