Considerations for Digital Archives

Digitization and online archiving of collections offers several practical and educational opportunities for institutions, especially those with low budgets. Physical archives must pay pages to bring collection items to visitors, and this overhead often limits the hours these spaces are open. Additionally, physical archives require patrons to travel to the collection, usually limiting potential guests to residents of the few counties surrounding the institution. The physical condition of items is also important to consider, as constant use wears down many historic materials. Once digitized, an item may be inspected by virtually limitless researchers without downgrading its condition. However, all of these upsides to digital collections will fail to benefit site visitors without the proper internet archive structure, which will only materialize through careful consideration of the needs and aptitudes of potential visitors.

High School and Undergraduate College Students

Students researching class papers are looking for examples of a particular period or person under study, but often lack even basic background understanding of the context or historical forces at work. Digital archives, therefore, should include with images and documents basic information on the subject including periodization (especially important for APUSH students). A good example of this is the art collection at the Chicago History Museum. Note how the “Curatorial Statement” given with this piece, while admitting little is known of the artist, informs the reader of the setting of the painting, the exhibitions the artist featured at, who his colleagues were, and that the painting in question was part of a WPA project. All of these details would aid a secondary education student in writing a paper and give them ideas for developing their project further. If the student had been forced to search outside the immediate page for these details, they may have become discouraged because of their lack of research skills (or, let’s face it, boredom).

Graduate Student and Seasoned Researchers

When I use an online collection for research, I really appreciate when the digital archive infrastructure includes correct citations I can copy and past from the website. Collections often have multiple structures of institution, collection, item number, etc. that problematize citations, and inclusion in a website adds yet another layer to this. By including the citation in multiple formats (as is seen in the New York Public Library’s online art collections: ) institutions save researches across many disciplines hours of headache and rote formatting that could be spent in more productive research.

General Visitors and Families

General visitors, including tourists and families looking to get their kids a little extracurricular education time may look at institutional websites to get an idea of what the physical location offers. Thus digital archives and collections should reference physical exhibits at the institution with similar materials and upcoming events relevant to the collection. Additionally, recent technological advances in 3-D and 360 image capturing make it possible for institutions to allow their website’s visitors to rotate the object, getting a sense of walking around it as they will in the physical space. Museums and libraries could also input social media widgets so online guests could share to Facebook or Twitter what they are interested in. A great example of an institution engaging families with their physical collections through an online collection is the Art Institute of Chicago, which allows visitors to create an account where they curate their own virtual exhibit using AIC’s artwork.




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