“Crossing the Line: Facilitating Digital Access to Primary Sources.” Case Statement
January 15, 2018 Adina Langer, Curator
Museum of History and Holocaust Education at Kennesaw State University
Since 2009, when I undertook a graduate capstone project at NYU to analyze the relationship between museums, archives, digital history sites, and K-12 teachers, I have followed developments in the digital humanities and have endeavored to engage best practices in my own work as a curator and educator. I am excited to join this working group because I would like to tease out the nuances of audience and access points when it comes to digital history projects with a strong archival element.
I am particularly interested in hybrid digital history projects where narratives, visual/geographical elements, and digital artifacts, including images, oral histories, and manuscripts, interact with one another hyper-textually. In such hybrid sites, visitors can access the same content in a variety of ways leading to self-directed interpretive outcomes through juxtaposition and comparison.
In my own recent work, I have created an award-winning CurateScape-based Web application, Georgia Journeys,1 which locates excerpts from oral histories with WWII veterans, home front workers, and Holocaust survivors, in space and time. Those same oral histories can be viewed in excerpted form on my museum’s Legacy Series2 Vimeo channel, organized by person, category, and theme. In addition, we have recently uploaded all of the interviews to the Kennesaw State University Archives3 SOAR portal. There, visitors can view the entirety of the oral history video footage, read complete transcripts, and make connections via Library of Congress subject headings and other metadata.
I am left with burning questions: how are the audiences for these different access points similar to and different from one another? Do they overlap? How can we best facilitate overlaps that yield the richest experiences for our visitors? Are the connections we make among these access points obvious or hidden? I am looking forward to discussing ways to evaluate digital history projects tailored to specific audiences and to best facilitate cross-pollination among related content-rich digital history sites.
I will begin to delve into these topics by posing answers based on my own experience to the questions raised by Kate Johnson and Marie Pelissier in their working group proposal.
1) Is putting the public 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?
My answer to this question hinges on a fundamental characteristic of archives. Archives preserve people’s histories for other people. An archive cannot exist without a community to generate historical records, and it cannot be sustained without a community to care about its contents into the future. Georgia Journeys lives at the nexus of three very important communities: 1) the people who lived through World War II and the Holocaust, 2) K-12 students and teachers whose social studies curriculum guides them toward this subject-matter, and 3) Georgia residents and other researchers who sustain a robust archives program at Kennesaw State University. We created Georgia Journeys to extend the work we had already undertaken with the Legacy Series to preserve the testimony of Georgia veterans, home front workers, and Holocaust survivors with whom we had a strong relationship through our existing educational programs. This rapidly-aging community has been our top priority as we have built digital archives of testimony. At the same time, our student community is the raison d’etre for preserving this material and providing multiple access points. With fewer and fewer opportunities for students to hear witness testimony live, we feel that it is imperative to consider the cognitive processes that are lost and gained as we package archival testimony in different formats. So, yes, putting the public needs and participation of our communities at the center of our project work has been practical, and achievable, because the project wouldn’t exist at all without them.
2) 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?
To balance the needs of our different constituent communities we have endeavored to listen every step of the way. We have met with veterans and survivors in their homes, invited them to exhibit openings, and demonstrated the ways in which their testimony is delivered digitally. For this group, digitally-based evaluation tools are not practical or effective. With such a small but important group of people at the center of our public work, we have found that direct engagement and gathering of feedback has been essential and effective.
To engage students and teachers, we have relied on focus groups and post-visit evaluations. We also rely on Google Analytics to track Website visitation both within our exhibit spaces and out in the field. However, we find this tool to be limited in that it does not effectively track an individual’s movement through our online material. Instead, it track’s primarily start-page and bounce-page.
I am especially interested to hear from other discussants in this working group about effective measures of success. Beyond knowing what someone is viewing and how long they are viewing it, I want to know what they are linking it to in their educational or research journeys.
3) 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?
Every digital project has a primary intended audience and an array of possible secondary audiences. As stated above, good public history projects also have collaborators who “share authority” and remain essential constituents, even if the end result of the collaboration is not intended for them alone or even for them primarily.
As a public historian, I have trouble imagining a project that should avoid public engagement entirely. However, I understand that the success and speed of certain components of archival projects can be affected positively by limiting the number of “cooks in the kitchen,” as it were. As much as we advocate “pulling back the curtain,”4 sometimes the proverbial “sausage” is tastier than its component parts. Stepping away from these mixed metaphors, I can imagine situations in which scholarly breakthroughs can be made most effectively when the people involved in a project share a great deal of prior knowledge. Sometimes it is too much to ask every digital project to scaffold every possible audience that might stumble upon it. Yet, the internet, at its best, is a hypertext universe that facilitates learning through providing access to the means of meeting new intellectual challenges, wherever they may be.
On the subject of institutional support, I am eternally grateful for the willingness of Kennesaw State University to dedicate a server to the various digital projects of the department of Museums, Archives, and Rare Books (MARB), a situation that I know does not exist in many peer institutions. I am also grateful for the robust partnership between my museum and the KSU Archives encouraged by the university’s unique departmental structure. I believe that public historians and archivists should partner as frequently as possible within universities (and without). Together we are stronger.
4) When we say “public”, who are we talking about? What kind of audiences should digital archives projects be engaging with?
The beauty of digital projects lies in their capacity to foster multiple access points. The same content can be packaged and re-packaged, delivered through narrative or discovered through search. I appreciate the possibility of publics on the internet to form organically through linkages and word-of-mouth (or keyboard) via social media.
At the same time, I think it behooves curators and archivists to be proactive in seeking out both collaborators and potential audiences for their work. No audience need be interested in every aspect of a project. Tagging and coding can help to facilitate intersectional interest in archives projects. In addition, alternative or targeted finding aids can also be especially helpful in expanding audiences. For example, there is work being done on 18th-century archival collections to make it easier for scholars to uncover the previously silenced or belittled voices of women. See:
mens-history/b5 Existing challenges on this front were also carefully articulated by Jill Lepore in her introduction to The Book of Ages6.
So there is work that can be done to make older archives more accessible to new audiences of researchers, students, and family historians in addition to work that can be done to create new archives that reflect diverse communities of practice, experience, and co-location. This work is exciting in its seemingly infinite capacity.
1 “Georgia Journeys.” Georgia Journeys. Accessed January 4, 2018. http://georgiajourneys.kennesaw.edu/.
2 “MHHE | Legacy Series.” Accessed January 12, 2018. http://historymuseum.kennesaw.edu/educators/legacy_series.php.
3 “Legacy Series Oral History Program.” Accessed January 12, 2018. https://soar.kennesaw.edu/handle/11360/2173.
4 Weyeneth, Robert R. “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey.” The Public Historian 36, no. 2 (2014): 9–25. https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2014.36.2.9.
5 “Brown Brothers Harriman Collection: Walker Evans Portfolio.” New-York Historical Society (blog), December 3, 2010. http://blog.nyhistory.org/brown-brothers-harriman-collection-walker-evans-portfolio/.
6 Lepore, Jill. Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. Vintage, 2014.