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. Adina Langer says:

    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…

    1. Michelle Bickert says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the Primary Source Sets! You make an excellent point about SEO – my colleagues have paid close attention to this in writing the sets, and have seen some exciting successes in search. One issue I worry about – and this could happen with all digital projects, including the site I work on – is when a user lands on a specific item page but receives no other contextual information. We create digital projects with our expertise, but users may be seeing only one item and leaving. We need to learn more about SEO and UX to design pages that make the user want to keep clicking and learn more. Users don’t need to meet us at the “front door”, but we would like them to stay and explore the house.

    2. Sara Martin says:

      I really appreciate the idea of a spectrum that spans the spectator audience and the participatory user. It is also important to acknowledge that while we can and should anticipate, actively court, and design for both a target and general audience, we cannot lose of the question posed by Wyatt about which audiences are most likely to benefit, engage, and contribute to the archive. Thus in designing these public humanities projects, it must also be acceptable to prioritize the publics, as Quarles has done in satisfying the cultural needs of the tribal community while still providing limited access to the archive for a broader public.

    3. Leighton Quarles says:

      Your last point is excellent. I really do think we need to lobby for more accessible grant money for projects that need revisiting. Most projects funded by smaller grants wind up with a great deal of incomplete material, and with anything digital there’s the incredibly important concerns of hosting and ongoing compatibility with changing web standards etc.

  4. It has been enlightening to read the essays posted so far and I look forward to our discussion in Las Vegas. I was struck by Ellen Noonan’s observation that it is time to abandon the notion of “if you build it they will come” so that we might design concrete marketing strategies. Leighton Quarles teases out what this might mean for state and tribal audiences, with the interesting insight that some projects don’t want wide public access. How do we insure that the right audiences/users learn about the project?

  5. Michelle Bickert says:

    While reading the responses, I found myself wondering about stakeholders who, when consulted, expressed a desire *not* to make materials or information available to the general public. In response to question 3 – projects can be implicitly exclusionary, but the underlying motive could be explicit. Wyatt, Erekson, and Quarles each highlight examples of when information might be limited to a controlled, specific audience for political, religious, or cultural reasons. Digital projects do have a responsibility to provide context, and that context should address silences (of any kind). If the digital project has interpretive text, it would be useful to explain any gaps, silences, or the cultural significance of why materials are not available online. Not all projects may not be designed in a way that makes this smooth; an online book collection may not have item-level interpretation; an about page may have to suffice. The benefit of a digital project – if its designers have taken the advice offered by Noonan, Wyatt, and others to plan for its continued and evolving use – is that it can be updated. As new information becomes available, collections are digitized, and embargoes expire, the digital resource can continue to grow. I’m eager to learn more from my fellow panelists about how they communicate history and culture to a general audience, while respecting stakeholder requests.

  6. Jay Wyatt says:

    I too found the case statements engaging and thought-provoking. I’m excited to carry these conversations into our session in Las Vegas. I agree with Adina’s assessment that users and audiences are better represented as part of a spectrum, wherein their engagement can vary, and I very much agree with Ellen’s assessment that a movement away from the “build it and they will come” model is long past due. I see these two issues as intimately related. If we can better, anticipate, identify, and prioritize the multiplicity of ways in which users engage our projects, then we can better develop robust, multifaceted, and effective outreach initiatives. Outreach, I think, is the key, not just in terms of conducting strategic outreach to stakeholders during a project’s planning and development, but also as an important instrument for ensuring continuing success long after the roll-out buzz recedes. In the same way that we need to think broadly about how users engage our projects, we also need to think broadly about how we conduct outreach to established and new users. At the Byrd Center, we often utlize a three-pronged approach to outreach. We try to coordinate our digital and print marketing for programs, events, and new initiatives with in-person events, including teacher training institutes, workshops for students, and lifelong learning classes, among others. We often work with our partners to bring potential new users to the Byrd Center for these kinds of events, but in a state like West Virginia, where financial resources can be scarce, we also spend a good bit of time taking our show on the road. We just wrapped up a two-year traveling exhibit that criss-crossed the state and provided us with numerous opportunities to host opening receptions, co-sponsored with strategic partners, that significantly helped raise our profile and generate new users for our digital content. This summer we’ll conduct four one-day teacher training institutes at locations around the state in which we recruit new users and promote the center as a whole. It almost seems paradoxical to promote digital initiatives in such an old-school manner, but it has been successful. The in-person events have provided us with well-thought-out and informed feedback, and we’ve successfully leveraged the broader support we’ve garnered in successfully securing grant funds for related and/or new projects. It seems that planning outreach and marketing often lags behind other parts of a project’s development, but my experiences over the past few years have led me to consider it among the most important planning considerations. After all, you can put out a fantastic spread, but if no one can find your party, you’ll be dining alone. And who wants to do that?

    1. Sara Martin says:

      I would agree that outreach is a critical component for any digital initiative, and it is fantastic that the Byrd Center recognized that scarce resources among your target audiences meant providing funding to allow you to take the show on the road. As a project director, I must think strategically about outreach in order to make the greatest impact without draining resources. I can fund some direct outreach activities, but increasingly I (and my host institution) look to collaborations or partnerships with various stakeholders to help spread the word. But what are smaller institutions or one-off projects with limited resources to do? Are there strategies out there for maximizing reach? I look forward to discussing ideas!

  7. Leighton Quarles says:

    There’s nothing paradoxical about it. Particularly when you’re trying to encourage an audience to actually become users–there’s an active component there I think that means you’re consuming the material rather than just having it pushed at you–the most effective ways to engage people certainly don’t have to be digital. Facebook ads are all very well, but particularly when you’re working to reach folks whose digital presence may be limited, you can’t beat the radio, newspaper and face-to-face “stumping.” I think it’s great that you guys are actually out connecting with people personally.

  8. Rose Beiler says:

    I have found the both the case statements and the conversations in this discussion fascinating and am looking forward to our discussions in person. I like the idea of thinking about our audiences and users on a spectrum but I also think it is important to consider a variety of audiences/users even as we need to make choices that prioritize different kinds of users. I’m intrigued by the strategies and choices for meeting the needs of different stakeholders that Quarles discusses in the Utetube project. I think this is the kind of careful attention to different kinds of users/”publics” public digital humanities projects should model. I also like Adina’s suggestion for “packaging” content in different ways for different kinds of users.

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