During last week’s class we had the opportunity to critique the functionality of a public history institution’s digital resources. I found it quite easy to find fault with many of the Newberry Library’s online collections. Like Tori (over at GoldenHistory), I was frustrated when resources I wanted to view were only accessible through a subscription database on-site at the Newberry. Wasn’t the whole point of digital resources to make collections more accessible? What good did it do to put something online if you could still only view it at the physical library?
As I began to think about the prompt for this blog post, however, I was struck by the number of challenges and instances of things going horribly wrong that I could imagine. The creation of digital resources is an enormous undertaking, with a number of challenges and moving parts that public historians must consider at every step of the way.
One of the biggest initial questions is what collections get put online? Who decides what resources to create? Should public historians think about the which collections get the most use? Which would benefit the most from the preservation benefits of digitization? Should digital projects be a chance for institutions to highlight under-used, or little known objects or collections? Public historians must consider all of these factors when working to create new digital resources.
It is important to remember that all digital resources are ultimately the work of people, and that the individual who decides what is available wields a lot of power – essentially whose history gets told, shared, made accessible. A lot can be at stake when creating digital resources!
Besides these fundamental questions of what to even put online, public historians, many of whom are not familiar with or trained to work with technology, must select platforms for their digital resources. There are a variety of options out there, but their costs, maintenance, and functionality are all vastly different. For example Past Perfect is the most commonly used collections management software, notably because it is the most affordable option. While Past Perfect has an online publishing function, it does not allow for customization, and the virtual exhibit format is quite boring and not appropriate for any kind of interactive project.
However, platforms that allow for more interactivity and collaboration often require a much higher level of technological knowledge and skill. In order to create exciting digital resources, public historians must constantly be looking for new ways to utilize technology, and have backup plans for when that technology inevitable encounters a bug.
It can be frustrating for researchers to encounter digital resources with limited or broken functionality or restricted access, and it is quite easy to criticize institutions for not providing better digital resources. However, even a short and cursory examination of the challenges and steps involved with creating digital resources shows it is a complex process, and the existence of any kind of digital resource is close to a miracle. As digital resources become more and more fundamental to museums, libraries, archives, and galleries, it is up to public historians to work with those inside and outside the field to ensure they are creating and providing the best digital content possible.