Teaching history

One of the things that stood out to me while reading Dr. Kelly’s book Teaching History in the Digital Age was the problem of disintermediation in the digital realm brought up in chapter 2 and defined as the removal of hierarchical controls over information in the digital realm. As an archivist this is an issue I’ve encountered with trying to unite the traditional hierarchical structure of the finding aid with digital presentations at the item level. Trends in archiving such as MPLP (More Product Less Process) value the collection level description of archival collections over the more detailed folder or item level of description. In complete opposition to this is the digitizing of materials often scanned and described at the item level. Because of the differences in format – findings aids being text based and items being presented as images – it is difficult to combine the two seamlessly. They are often presented online in different places, making the viewer jump between the two.

In Sam Wineburg’s essay “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts” in  Phi Delta Kappan 92/4 (December 2010): 81-94, he describes the problem of viewing primary sources outside of their historical context. On page 490 Wineburg states, “…in viewing the past as usable, as something that speaks to us without intermediary or translation, we end turning it into yet another commodity for our instant consumption. […] the past retains a certain fascination. But it is the fascination of the flea market, with its endless array of gaudy trinkets and antique baubles. […] We contort the past to fit the predetermined meaning we have already assigned to it.” Presenting items from archival collections removed from their hierarchical finding aid context runs the risk of this “flea market” type of viewing and consumption.

As students, researchers, and anyone on the internet move from being consumers to creators, how can archivists present materials to be used in new digital ways that keep a hierarchical context? One of the things that archivists are working on is making metadata more easily accessible and interoperable. Encoded Archival Description (EAD) is a standard used with XML for creating finding aids. At GMU each finding aid is its own webpage. Items on the other hand are presented in a content management system (cms) that uses a modified Dublin Core set of metadata fields. We create a csv file for each collection of digitized items and then upload it to the cms and map the metadata to the images. This does seem to be of interest to historians. Kelly states in chapter 3 of his book that, “being able to use machine methods for making sense of this massive database of historical text is no longer a luxury—it is an imperative.” What this indicates to me is that understanding how users want to use data created by archives may be surprising to archivists. It may not be XML markup at the item level, but there is a huge wealth of data that can be used by historians that may be helpful in understanding historical documents and collections.

Overall these readings indicated to me that archivists and historians are looking at archival collections from two different directions, but ultimately with the same goal – to present a historical context.


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