Digital Projects are Challenging

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.


Public historians should work to avoid situations like this

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.


3 thoughts on “Digital Projects are Challenging

  1. goldenhistorymedia says:

    I meant to mention my frustration with Past Perfect, the only software I’ve used. I kept thinking to myself, “Is this really what museums are using these days? Can we not find any computer engineers to fix this horrible system?” Of course, I wasn’t thinking of the big picture. There are other platforms that could be used, but Past Perfect is the cheapest and that is what it comes down to most of the time. Your comment about the individual who decides whose history gets told really resonated with me, this could be very problematic if certain areas of history are being left out. How much equality is in the world of exhibits and resources, especially those online?


  2. Kelly Schmidt says:

    As I worked on critiquing the Newberry digital collections with you and Tori@Goldenhistorymedia, I shared in your frustrations about lack of access! But as I worked on my own blog post and thought about yours, I began to think about why limiting access to a database to on-site use might be beneficial to an institution. Could it be that because the Newberry pays a subscription to offer the database, or has to follow certain copyright restrictions, it has to limit access? I’m sure there are several advantages and other reasons for limiting access to materials, and while I certainly wouldn’t want to see an institution close because it cannot sustain income, interest in, or visitation to its physical site, I generally advocate that the more accessibility, the better, since more knowledge can be shared.

    I suppose some institutions feel that if they make a majority of their most sought-after collections available online, there will be less reason for people to visit the archive or museum in person. While this is valid, I have also read in several places that museums and institutions that have digitized their most famous documents and works of art have actually experienced an increase in visitation, because people are more aware of the presence of the prized piece and its location at that museum. They desire to see the item in person, and explore what else the venue may contain.


  3. mbordewyk says:

    I really enjoyed your thoughts on what collections get digitized. I think this area needs a lot more attention. It makes sense that a museum or archive would digitize popular collections. This is such an easy way to advertise the interesting things in an institution’s holdings. However, this harps back to discussions in several different history classes about who is writing history. These discussions exist because many areas and people were left out of the history books. In the case of digitization, it is about who has the power to choose what is put online and what has to wait. These are never easy things to deal with and there are pros and cons with every decision when it comes to digital projects and online exhibits.


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