Medium 9781538101391

Collections Vol 12 N4

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This focus issue of the journal draws attention to “Collections in a Digital Age” with nine contributions from participants in a working group held in April 2015 as part of the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in Nashville. In “A Case for Digital Collections,” Sheila Brennan highlights a challenge. How do we represent disagreement and difference in the interpretations of object? Zooming in on the process of digitization, Lauren Tilton writes about the politics of film digitization arguing that we should reconsider archival and preservation “best practices” that require film restoration. William Walker shows how using public history to engage in conversations about contemporary social issues enhances and shapes how one collects and exhibits oral history. Brent Rogers explores the relationship between print and digital documentary editions of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Brian Failing looks closely at the role of postcards in teaching local, public history. Chris Cantwell’s case study demonstrates the possibility digital public history has to complicate and improve historiography. Kyle Roberts uses the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project (JLPP) to show how developing digitized library collections offers an opportunity to learn and teach about digital projects, shared authority, and collaboration. Susan Knowles examines a litany of challenges and successes for digitization, preservation, and collaboration within the context of her work at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation. Finally, Mark Tebeau argues digital tools can augment rather than obscure the materiality of collections. The essays are, like digital public history itself, multi-faceted showing a variety of possibilities, opportunities, challenges, and even best-practices at a range of institutions or dealing with an assortment of historical materials. While each offers much to consider individually, readers will see some interesting and important themes develop across them collectively.

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Introduction to Focus Issue: Collections in a Digital Age

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Introduction to Focus Issue

Collections in a Digital Age
Lauren TiltonVisiting Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA, LTilton@richmond.edu
Brent M. Rogers
Historian and Documentary Editor, The Joseph Smith Papers, brentrogers2121@gmail.comIn Spring 2015, a working group engaged in questions at the intersection of digital and public history at the annual National Council on Public History (NCPH) meeting held in Nashville, Tennessee. The vibrant discussion focused on the exciting and important ways by which public historians make digital, public history. Because a significant amount of work has centered on digitizing and augmenting historical archives, this special issue explores digital approaches to physical collections. Inflected by the contributors’ positioning in public history, the issue highlights how digital approaches are shaped by questions of access, audience, collaboration, interpretation, and materiality. From that discussion in Nashville arose another conversation to convey some of the practical challenges, decisions, applications, and opportunities as experienced by working group discussants. It seemed then, and with the collection of articles in this issue it is even more apparent that the lessons learned by working group discussants are widely applicable to practitioners of public history and digital history, and public, digital history.

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A Case for Digital Collections

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A Case for Digital Collections
Sheila A. BrennanDirector of Strategic Initiatives and Research Associate Professor, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, sbrennan@gmu.eduVisitors to a “modern museum” in the late 19th and early 20th century found large glass cases filled with objects that encouraged them to look. According to Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, museums were considered educational places, because objects held inherent meaning and spoke through the art of curation. Curators carefully selected objects and appropriate cases to communicate meaning through arrangement, order, and appearance.1 Objects came from a museum’s eclectic collections that were the products of wealthy collectors’ personal tastes or evidence of empire building and conquest of nature, peoples, and places.Learning from things and making emotional connections with objects continues today inside museums and throughout popular culture. David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig found in The Presence of the Past that many Americans trust the history they encounter in museums, and especially enjoy the opportunity to interpret objects on their own terms—even when many history museums mediate those experiences through exhibitions.2 On American reality television shows, such as American Pickers, Pawn Stars, and Antiques Roadshow, objects found in barns, closets, and attics outshine the costars. Each object means one thing to its owner, and something different to its prospective buyer. Even antique shop owners, who rely on the consumer capitalist side of object collecting, talk openly about emotional connections to objects as a means for attracting customers, claiming, “You can feel the history in most items in the shop.”3 This intensely personal experience can also overshadow the power of these everyday objects to communicate multiple meanings.

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Preservation First? Re-Viewing Film Digitization

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Preservation First?

Re-Viewing Film Digitization
Lauren TiltonVisiting Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA, LTilton@richmond.eduAbstractThis article addresses the politics of film digitization by arguing that we should reconsider archival and preservation “best practices” that require film restoration. Instead, it advocates for digitizing films “as is,” which, in turn, captures the film’s current materiality (i.e., fading, scratches, and other facets that reveal age, wear, and use). Using the work of Luis Vale, one of the youth filmmakers from New York City’s Lower East Side’s Young Filmmaker Foundation’s Film Club, as a case study, the article points to the importance of archiving and saving these youth films as part of a growing movement to look beyond Hollywood cultural production and preserving national moving image heritage. More broadly, this article highlights how archiving practices determine which histories are remembered and how.

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Sparking Rural Community Dialogues with Digital Oral Histories

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Sparking Rural Community Dialogues with Digital Oral Histories

William S. Walker

Cooperstown Graduate Program, SUNY Oneonta, Cooperstown, NY, william.walker@oneonta.edu

AbstractIn the past, oral history recordings often lay inert and ignored on archival or library shelves. The digital revolution has transformed accessibility to oral histories, primarily by opening digital archives to a variety of users. Nevertheless, many audiences, particularly in rural areas, still do not engage with these digital archives. By incorporating digital oral history content into public programs, however, public historians can involve their audiences in community dialogues that connect past and present and open new avenues for engaging with challenging contemporary issues. This approach employs the dialogue methodology of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and has been successfully implemented in rural central New York State. Collecting with the intention of incorporating oral histories into community dialogue programs shifts the focus from static preservation and exhibition to a dynamic model of sharing authority, which directly engages one’s local community.

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A Digital Voice from the Dust: The Joseph Smith Papers at the Intersection of Public and Digital History

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A Digital Voice from the Dust

The Joseph Smith Papers at the Intersection of Public and Digital History 1

Brent M. Rogers

Historian and Documentary Editor, The Joseph Smith Papers, brentrogers2121@gmail.com

AbstractLike other documentary editing projects, the Joseph Smith Papers—an effort to produce a comprehensive edition of the papers of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons—seeks to provide reliable access to “the authentic voice” of its eponymous historical figure in innovative ways. As a digital voice from the dust, the project makes Smith’s words, character, and context accessible in the online representation of his papers in ways that forcefully illustrate the convergence of public and digital history. This article uses the Joseph Smith Papers Project (JSPP) as a case study to look at documentary collections at the intersection of digital and public history while exploring issues of scholarship, access, and transparency. The trends described here promise to have implications for the larger fields of digitally presented public history and documentary collections.

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Examining Local History Through Postcards: A Model for Interactive, Inquiry-Based Pedagogy

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Examining Local History Through Postcards

A Model for Interactive, Inquiry-Based Pedagogy

Brian J. Failing

Executive Director, Aurora Regional Fire Museum, Aurora, IL, brian.failing92@gmail.com

AbstractPostcards offer a wealth of information for researchers, teachers and students, and the public. This article documents how postcards can serve as an important form of historical evidence. Further, the article argues that digitizing postcards and making them accessible to wider audiences may yield an opportunity for community engagement with local history and local institutions that may, in turn, help to make local history relevant to teachers’ needs in the 21st-century classroom. In addition to discussing broad information about postcards and their use, the article introduces a digital project, Using Postcards as Historical Evidence, that seeks to highlight the importance and viability of postcards as documentary evidence and appropriate sources for interactive, inquiry-based pedagogy.

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From Bookshelves to the City Streets: Church Histories and the Mapping of Chicago’s Religious Diversity

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From Bookshelves to the City Streets

Church Histories and the Mapping of Chicago’s Religious Diversity

Christopher D. Cantwell

Assistant Professor of Public History and Religious Studies, University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kansas City, MO, cantwellcd@umkc.edu

AbstractIn 2013 the Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago undertook an initiative to expand the use of its collection of church and synagogue records through a new digital project titled Faith in the City: Chicago’s Religious Diversity in the Era of the World’s Fair. Though recent scholarship in the study of religion has highlighted the importance of such documents in understanding the contours of American religious life, the collection’s origins as a genealogical resource have long shaped its use. By locating curated portions of the library’s church histories on a digital map of the city alongside nearly two dozen essays on Chicago’s religious history, Faith in the City aims to publicize the collection to new communities of users while also enhancing how local and family historians engage with the material. The following case study provides an overview of Faith in the City’s development, the interventions it hopes to make, as well as challenges the platform faced. It concludes by briefly considering the potential of map-based presentations of cultural heritage collections.

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Rediscovering Physical Collections Through the Digital Archive: The Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project

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Rediscovering Physical Collections Through the Digital Archive

The Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project

Kyle B. Roberts

Assistant Professor of Public History and New Media and Director, Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities, Loyola University Chicago, Chicago, IL, kroberts2@luc.edu

AbstractHistoric library collections offer a rich and underexplored resource for teaching undergraduate and graduate students about new digital approaches, methodologies, and platforms. Their scope and scale can make them difficult to analyze in their physical form, but remediated onto a digital platform, they offer valuable insights into the process of archive creation and the importance of making their content available to audiences that cannot normally access it. The Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project (JLPP) was launched by students, faculty, and library professionals in 2014 to create an online archive of marks of ownership—bookplates, stamps, inscriptions—contained within books from the original library collection of St. Ignatius College, precursor to Loyola University Chicago. The project grew out of student work for a university museum exhibition commemorating the bi-centennial of the restoration of the Society of Jesus (more commonly known as the Jesuits). Utilizing the popular social media image-sharing site Flickr, the JLPP seeks to foster a participatory community of students, scholars, collectors, and the broader public interested in the history of early and modern Catholic print and the intellectual framework and approach of 19th-century Jesuit education. Initially intended to provide students with the chance to learn how to conceptualize, plan, and build a digital archive, the JLPP has proven equally effective for teaching about digital scholarship, shared authority, and, rather unexpectedly, about the materiality of collections in the digital age

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Crossroads and Intersections in the Post-Physical Archival Landscape: A Case Study at Middle Tennessee State University

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Crossroads and Intersections in the Post-Physical Archival Landscape

A Case Study at Middle Tennessee State University

Susan W. Knowles

Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) Center for Historic Preservation, Murfreesboro, TN, susan.knowles@mtsu.edu

AbstractThis article traces the development of Southern Places, an online digital collection developed by Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Historic Preservation (CHP) and the James E. Walker Library for the purpose of creating a digital presence for the Center’s work over the past thirty years. After outlining previous digitization projects undertaken by the CHP in partnership with the Walker Library and other institutions, attention is paid to the technical decisions made in terms of the selection of a content management system and Web hosting, metadata protocols, and the place of shared authority in the contemporary, post-physical archival landscape. The article also describes recent digitization and access efforts at Middle Tennessee State University and partnerships with other universities, libraries, and archives across the state.

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Engaging the Materiality of the Archive in the Digital Age

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Engaging the Materiality of the Archive in the Digital Age

Mark Tebeau

Associate Professor, School of History, Philosophy, & Religious Studies, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, Mark.Tebeau@asu.edu

AbstractThis article asks how public audiences are negotiating the material world of archives and artifacts in the digital age. The digital age would seem to have diminished the physical experience of the archive and artifact, creating a world of pure information. However, the binary of virtual and physical obscures more than it explains. In recent years, digital tools have begun to reconnect public audiences to the physical world in sometimes surprising ways. This article draws examples from interpretive projects using mobile devices, crowdsourcing in museum environments, and explorations of digital audio to show how physical experiences of cities, museums, and sound have taken on greater interpretive weight and salience as a result of digital interventions. Finally, it considers the implications of such digital interventions for curatorial practice, asking how digital tools can accentuate the ways that history is both contained in and expressed through material archives and artifacts.

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