Digital History / Digital Collecting

So many ideas are going on in this weeks readings! On the one hand there are readings about digital forensics and the infrastructure necessary to collect digital materials, on the other hand with the Cohen and Rosenzweig Collecting History Online chapter there is a more straight forward discussion on the possibilities of creating an online collection that revolves around a specific topic or event. For this post I want to focus on the latter by looking at two born digital collections / aggregate sites that are ongoing, active collections. The two examples I want to look at both focus on oral history, social justice, and taking action in non-digital ways, but they both have digital components that play an important role in documenting experiences, collecting and organizing information, and providing outreach.

The first project is one that I have had some hands on experience with. The Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) project is a collaborative history preservation project with the express intent of creating a catalog of collections from multiple institutions across Virginia that focus on the desegregation of Virginia schools, as well as to connect individuals to an appropriate place to donate materials, and to collect oral histories. It is a project that lends itself to digital history in a couple different ways: mainly through an interactive catalog, and a “Tell Your Story” online form.

The first is the presentation of the catalog. By using the freely available Viewshare platform the project is utilizing a tool to create different ways of exploring the catalog. Users can look at the collected information in a list, a map, a timeline, or a table. There is also a tag cloud and lists on the left hand side of the catalog that facilitate browsing by repository, location,  and creator.

Screenshot of map view showing locations of collections featured in the DOVE catalog.
Screenshot of map view showing locations of collections featured in the DOVE catalog.

The website for the DOVE project also includes a form participants can complete in order to tell their story. In a recent email exchange with project manager Sonia Yaco at Old  Dominion University, she wrote that the online form has yielded only two submissions. She offered the following reason for its lack of use: “Filling out a form online is not as gratifying, satisfying or enjoyable as being interviewed in person. In contrast, we had a DOVE exhibit this summer and handed out paper forms. We got 18 responses.” A way to encourage participation might be to expand the “Tell Your Story” section online to include examples of some of the stories they have received. As it is now there are examples included in the Blog section. But this raises a very valid concern with digital collections. How do you encourage contributions and participation?

Cohen and Rosenzweig offer suggestions in the section titled “Encouraging Contributions and Building Trust.” They advise that “first and foremost you should have clear invitations to ‘Contribute,’ ‘Tell your story,’ ‘Read the stories of others,’ or ‘View donated images.'” Other suggestions include keeping the online form short, offer a clear policy statement that states exactly how the information will be used, and include a private option that assures participants their story will be anonymized or restricted if they wish. The ultimate goal is to facilitate contributions and build trust. A big step in building trust is having institutional support. Cohen and Rosenzweig advise, “You should play up any affiliations because they give a website a feeling of being connected to the real world and provide a sense of where the contributions are going.” The DOVE project is an exemplary case of a collaborative project. The main office is at Old Dominion University but there are regional higher education affiliates throughout Virginia. In addition to higher ed, social justice groups such as the AARP, NAACP and Urban League have also collaborated on the project.

The second project I want to look at is The Women Who Rock Digital Oral History Archive at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. This digital collection includes oral histories, photographs, films, and biographies about those who are instrumental in the Women Who Rock community.

Screenshot of the Women Who Rock archive at the University of Washington.
Screenshot of the Women Who Rock archive at the University of Washington.

The collection has a clear scope and limits itself to a small part of what the Women Who Rock community entails. It is in some ways very interesting to look at the institutional, “official,” collection of materials and then move away from the UW site and explore the self-created community websites that are active on WordPress and Facebook. The WordPress site provides a lot of information about the Women Who Rock Community Research Project and includes a blog, videos, up to date developments, and classes at UW that “offers students the skills  to generate multimedia forms of scholarship in critical, feminist decolonizing theoretical frameworks.” This is a multi-faceted project that has a collaboration with an archival repository. The archival component is small compared to all of the activities and materials the group produces, but adds legitimacy and a seriousness to the project. They understand the importance of documenting their work as it is happening instead of having to gather stories and information in the future.

The 9/11 archive was a similar exercise in documenting events as they happened, except on a much larger scale. But I think this is the major advantage to working in a digital environment. Born digital materials from the present day, if it they aren’t all destroyed in a digital apocalypse,  will be a much fuller record with more voices for future researchers. We need more projects like the DOVE project to preserve and highlight historic events of the past, and we also need more collaborations between active community groups and archives like the Women Who Rock project.


One thought on “Digital History / Digital Collecting

  1. I think the idea involved with the Women Who Rock project is important–get the collaboration and input from the community while they’re still around. Obviously many people are still around from the DOVE project as well, but they’re quickly aging. If we can get communities to provide their stories as they are happening (or in the recent past), so that they can remember the events clearly.

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