Writing Digital History

by Teresa Iacobelli on July 13, 2011

As of December 2010, I have been engaged in a digital history project for the Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC) in New York. The project is a web history being created to coincide with the centennial of the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) in 2013. The goal of the project is to create what essentially amounts to an online documentary that describes the history of the RF through both text and images, including digitized archival documents, photographs and film clips.

The potential and the challenges of this project are immense. The RF has been a philanthropic organization involved in almost every aspect of 20th century history, including (but not limited to), urbanization, public health, university development, arts and humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. The daunting task is to create an over-arching narrative that tells this story, in all its facets, and to do so through the immense holdings of documentation and visual materials held at the RAC.

As the digital humanities continue to evolve, a project such as this confronts many interesting questions that are to be solved among historians, archivists, and web designers. To me, one of the most interesting issues is that of the “curated experience”. While on one hand, a web exhibition offers opportunities for creating new content and making large amounts of archival material available, the fact remains that a web audience is still subject to an experience that has been curated by historians, archivists and any other individuals involved in the creation of the site.

In choosing the documents and images for digitization, historians are essentially acting as curators, creating an experience in much the same way they would for a physical museum exhibition in which a story is told through particular objects that have been chosen from a wider collection. For a research institution such as the RAC, this is a challenging responsibility. Online audiences, including researchers, do not see full document collections that are comparable to the ones that they might request with an on-site visit. A key question becomes how to choose the best documents for digitization, knowing that not every document will be digitized and not every story can be told. How best to serve the research community, while also providing an entertaining and informative website for a more general online audience?

Archivists also play an integral part in curating the digital humanities. In tagging each digital image of a document or photograph, archivists are shaping the experience of the online researcher. Tagging determines the essential keywords to locating materials, thus determining what a researcher might find online, and the ways in which they might find it. In some cases, tagging may also determine what subjects a researcher might continue to pursue. No archivist will ever be able to fully determine what a researcher may want from a document, so in that sense, tagging is always incomplete; however, it is not for the archivist to interpret documents for researchers.

As more institutions move towards creating digital libraries and exhibitions for online access, there are many questions to be considered by those creating the product. With digitization, the humanities are in a period of reinvention. The field is evolving, still learning how to present information and dealing with issues of accessibility and design. The digital humanities is challenging the role of the scholar, affecting how we write, teach and think about material. The challenge is for the scholar to communicate with a larger, more diversified audience than they may have reached in traditional academic writings or university classrooms. An online presence forces creators to think visually as well as critically. This may mean utilizing tools such as GIS mapping or creating timelines as a tool for understanding.

While digitization undoubtedly offers access to archival material to a wider audience, there will always remain a need for on-site facilities for serious researchers to comb through entire collections in search of particular documents, as well as the surprises found along the way. Going through archival collections provides a narrative that targeted digital research cannot, and it also allows for the visceral experience of interacting with documents. Furthermore, talking with archivists who know their collections well presents research opportunities that simply cannot be replicated by online access. In talking with researchers, archivists see the immediate connections between researcher topics and queries and the collections that they maintain, and they are then able to pass this information on immediately.

While digital resources will never replicate the give and take involved in these scenarios, it remains in the interest of historians to involve more people in the humanities by utilizing digital tools. We may not look to entirely replicate the archival or museum experience, but we may be able provide new experiences, ones that can only be had through digitization, and that’s an exciting possibility.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sean Kheraj July 13, 2011 at 11:24 am

“We may not look to entirely replicate the archival or museum experience, but we may be able provide new experiences, ones that can only be had through digitization, and that’s an exciting possibility.”

I think this is a very good way to think about the relationship between digital public history projects and archives and museums. Digital technologies cannot be perfect replacements for ‘analog’ research experiences. We often get caught up in this question about substitution and neglect the ways in which digital humanities projects add to scholarship or offer something new.

Teresa Iacobelli July 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Agreed, Sean. I think that any of us who have used archives would not wish to abandon that experience and rely entirely on digital research. Same goes for seeing a great museum exhibition in person.

Thanks for the comment!

PS. I like your reference to old-fashioned research as “analog” – I’ll refer to it that way from now on.

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