Crossing the Line: Facilitating Digital Access to Primary Sources


Kate Johnson, Loyola University Chicago
Marie Pellissier, Loyola University Chicago


Jim Ambuske, University of Virginia School of Law, Arthur J. Morris Law Library
Rosalind Beiler, University of Central Florida
Michelle Bickert, Digital Public Library of America
Keith Erekson, LDS Church History Library
Adina Langer, Museum of History and Holocaust Education
Sara Martin, Massachusetts Historical Society
Ellen Noonan, New York University
Leighton Quarles, American West Center, University of Utah
Kelly Schmidt, Loyola University Chicago
James Wyatt, Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education

About this working group:

Public history institutions, archives, universities, and libraries are increasingly making archival materials available online. However, as Sheila Brennan reminds us, research and resources made available online are not necessarily “public” projects. She contends that a truly “public” digital humanities project intentionally places the public’s needs and participation at the center of all stages of the project. This working group will engage with Brennan’s premise and critically explore the ways in which public digital archival projects have tried to fulfill the call to put the audience at the center of the discussion. Collaboratively, we will produce a website that serves as both a best-practices resource and an index of public-facing digital archival projects.

This working group will bring together a diverse group of public historians and digital humanists to discuss the challenges and benefits of public-centered digital archives projects, using a case study-based approach. Questions for discussion might include:

• Is putting the public’s needs and participation at the center of the project practical and achievable? Are there alternate visions for how a “public digital humanities” archival project might appear or engage with the public?
• What are the criteria for success? What metrics are we using to measure or assess audience engagement? How do those metrics limit or expand our view of “the public”?
• How does a project’s scale affect its success in engaging with the public?
• How does the goal of incorporating the public at every stage of the project change based on the level of institutional support? Type of collection? Life cycle of the project?
• Are there digital projects that are not suitable for public engagement? Are there other considerations that recommend limiting public engagement on some projects or some aspects of projects?
• When we say “public”, who are we talking about? What kind of audiences should digital archives projects be engaging with?


  1. Marie Pellissier says:

    1. Rosalind Beiler and Keith Erekson both draw out a common theme amongst these case statements: that digital projects, rather than working for a single “public,” work for multiple publics—or a user and an audience. An audience, Beiler suggests, are passive consumers, while a user is engaged and interacting with the project. How do we think about prioritizing our users, audiences, and publics? Where do they overlap?
    2. Wyatt proposes that “any new public digital project should meet a few benchmarks.” Among these, he includes: responsiveness across multiple platforms, ease of location, the use of metrics to measure success, and an engagement program that “encourage[s] public participation.” Do we all agree that there are universal benchmarks for digital projects, when often the nature of the projects, the available resources, etc. can vary widely? What other benchmarks does a digital project need to meet to be considered “best practice?”
    3. Schmidt and Pellissier point out that digital projects can be “implicitly exclusionary based on their content” and argue that “a digital humanities project can recognize…absence or marginal presence in other ways.” Do digital projects have a responsibility to highlight and explain the silences which are implicit in their source material? In what ways are digital projects uniquely suited to highlight and explain those silences?

  2. To respond to discussion question number 2, I recently attended a conference on digital accessibility, hosted by the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities at Loyola. The conference exposed me to benchmarks any digital project should meet that might not be immediately visible to all users. What was daunting to me was knowing how to ensure that a public digital project is as accessible as possible to all people, encompassing a wide range of backgrounds, disabilities, and learning needs. Not necessarily knowing how else to make our digital project more accessible, my project team did our best to make font sizes large and readable, language clear, and to carefully define colors we used on the site. We added a printable PDF of the site’s content in case we had overlooked obstacles that made the site less navigable. However, at this conference, I learned much more about how to modify the internal structure of the site to make it more user-friendly to screen readers and the like. This often can be as simple as labeling pictures with a description, or making sure headline tags use an appropriately hierarchical structure. Even PDFs are not as accessible as one might expect. The most valuable tool I gained from the conference is a plugin that scans each page of your site and evaluates it according to accessibility standards. It flags problem areas and recommends solutions. One can simply drag and drop HTML Codesniffer ( into a browser’s bookmarks, and click on it for a site evaluation. Compliance with Section 508 is required for most NEH grants, and CodeSniffer allows users to select between such accessibility standards to determine to what degree the site meets them.

  3. I am intrigued by the differences between the passive engagement implied by the term “audience” and the more active engagement implied by the term “user.” I think these alternate visions for visitor engagement can best be addressed by packaging and re-packing the same content in multiple ways. I am grateful to Michelle Bickert for bringing my attention to the Digital Public Library of America. I believe this site accomplishes this task beautifully through its inclusion of traditional search portals along with “exhibits” and “primary source set.” “Users” and “Audiences” are not a binary division. I believe they are more like a spectrum, and the same person can find themself acting in these different roles at different stages in a project. At the moment, I have students working on creating a digital exhibit comparing experiences of slavery in the U.S. and Morocco. As they work on refining their project, these students will benefit by starting with curated digital exhibits such as the NYPL’s Abolition exhibit, then looking at organized primary source sets, such as the DPL’s Cotton Gin set and then progressing to more targeted search through databases such as the Library of Congress’s holdings on slavery and freedom: I know that packaging and re-packaging take time and effort. Ellen Noonan is correct in her assessment that grant money is more readily available for new endeavors, not for re-visiting old endeavors. Is this something we should be lobbying for? Perhaps this can be added to a best practices document that might come out of our discussions.

    Another element for us to consider is search engine optimization. There should be a way for those of us creating public digital archival websites to move our great content up in the rankings above repeats of wikimedia and pinterest for example…

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