Words & Music: A Comparative Review of Two Omeka Sites

 

The Lomax Kentucky Recording and Stark & Subtle Division: A Collaborative History of Segregation in Boston are two websites built on Omeka platforms and featured on omeka.net’s Showcase page. Both sites make good use of some of Omeka’s core offerings including the ability to access the sites from different devices (desktop/laptop, smart phone, tablet), search functions, the ability to browse exhibits and collections from different subject groups (such as viewing content by collection or by items), and the invitation to contribute content. Both also illustrate an important function that digital history can provide – the ability to present and display objects (whether they be documents, images, audio or film) to a broad audience who may never have the chance to view or experience them. Unlike exhibits displayed in bricks and mortar sites, these collections have the potential of being permanently (and perpetually) on display and continuously expanded.

Lomax Kentucky Recording provides an excellent demonstration of how digital history platforms and technologies can be utilized to create collaborations between institutions and archives to create exhibits. Created by the Berea College Special Collections & Archives, University of Kentucky Libraries Special Collections Research Center, the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, and the Association for Cultural Equity, it showcases the folk song recordings made during the 1930’s by John A. Lomax, his son Alan and his wife Elizabeth Lyttleton Harold and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, a collaborator of John Lomax. The ability to offer digitized recordings over the internet makes collections such as these available to international audiences. The advancement of digital technology has fulfilled Alan Lomax’s desire that “folksongs should not be buried in libraries as they are in Washington and in universities over the country.” [1]

The Lomax Kentucky Recording site could offer several things to make the user experience more rewarding. More links embedded within the site would allow the collection visitor more flexibility and ease to following a particular line of interest. For example, links from the biographical page on Aunt Molly Jackson to references about her in the site’s Annotated Bibliography would be a good cross reference.

Secondly, the lack of transcriptions of lyrics limits the experience of the listener. A combination of poor sound quality and diction and the local dialect and accents of the artists renders prevents a true appreciation of the poetry and significance of many of these recordings. The myriad of stories which this site is capable of making available is lost without the ability to know and comprehend the words.

Stark & Subtle Divisions: A Collaborative History of Segregation in Boston provides the visitor with collections based on written essays with selected images and primary documents about the history of segregation in Boston. It provides embedded links that let the end user travel with ease to other reference points within the site. It is an example of how digital platforms can be used to present the collaborative work of a team of individuals (in this case, the students of a “Transforming Archives in a Digital Age” class at UMass Boston).

There are a couple of technical points that prevent a richer and more satisfying view of the exhibits. The relatively small font display for the exhibit essays may deter some visitors (although this problem is not present when viewing on a smart phone where the font is made larger). Another problem is presenting multi-page documents as individual, high resolution Joint Photographic Experts Group (jpeg) files. A sampling of images was slow to download which can cause frustration for the viewer and possibly lead to them exiting the site. Forcing the reader to go back and forth to load individual pages can also be frustrating.  Formatting that allows the user to read the documents in toto (such as creating a Portable Document Format file) can improve the site’s user experience thereby encouraging more items to be viewed (and read) and most likely resulting in a longer visitor stay on the site.

Sources:

[1] http://lomaxky.omeka.net/about accessed February 12 2018

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Digital Collections, Copyright, and Intellectual Property

Reflections on the week’s materials. In particular consider the question raised by Roy Rosenzweig about whether scholarship should be free.

Our readings for this week provided a good primer on copyright, public domain and fair use. It was fun to learn that Connecticut passed the first copyright law in 1783 – thank you, Daniel Webster, for another Connecticut first. And how opportune that the lyrics of the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” was just placed into the public domain.

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/581343567/581343568

Cohen & Rosenzweig’s straight forward chart provides a useful reference for researchers. For historians worried about violating copyright laws, the authors read this week seem to advise that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than permission – and to boldly go where other historians have not to broaden the realm of fair use.

Roy Rosenzweig, in his Perspectives on History article “Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?” advocates for a non-commercial “Creative Commons” of knowledge. This same position is also forwarded in his Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (with co-author Daniel J. Cohen), and Paul S. Piper’s “The Library’s Future Is Digital.”

Piper obliquely touches on the concern for sustainability when introducing his description and discussion of the HathiTrust and the Digital Public Library of America. The non-profit and private institutions that would be the logical partners for creating freely accessible open libraries operate on finite monetary resources. Foundation grants are relatively easy to obtain for start-up costs for increasing capacity and beginning new programs. These same sources of support are usually less inclined to support on-going operational costs. Given that these institutions will always have a finite amount of funds at their disposal, the addition of another program to operate might necessitate a reduction in programs or services in other areas or the scaling back of the original project.

Rosenzweig in “Should Historical Scholarship Be Free?” poses the argument that students and avocational historians “pick up ‘junk’ on the Internet but they don’t adequately consider that the best online scholarship is often only available to paying subscribers.” To use this argument to justify developing new, universally accessible libraries requires further study on at least several points. Firstly, do a sufficient number of students and/or amateur historians lack access to scholarly resources to justify the expense of creating new open libraries? And who would quantify ‘sufficient’? In Connecticut, for example, students and anyone in possession of a library card issued from a Connecticut library has access to researchIT CT, an online gateway to a myriad of databases and resources. If such a service already exists and students and the public are still deferring to the “dreaded” Wikipedia, how will a different online resource become known and used?

Secondly, can or will the search capabilities of an alternative, public commons be engineered to take into account the skill set of the user? Will the typical student preparing a History Day project – one of the potential users highlighted by Rosenzweig as a reason for such a new library – be able to sift through all the results of a search to find scholarly articles and books that not only directly apply to their topic but are understandable and digestible at a primary, middle and high school level? Or will the search results so overwhelm the user that they retreat back to “junk?”

Researching and Writing in the Digital Age

Discuss how the Web impacts the way you do historical research. How does it change the way you think about sources? Are there qualitative differences between using digital archives and more traditional analog sources? Why or why not?

. . . the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entré before.1

Cohen & Rosenzweig, Digital History

I count myself as being one of those “people.”

The accessibility – and abundance –  of digital collections has had a profound impact on my amateur historical research.  In chronicling the stories of Hartford’s Civil War Veterans , I have been able to access digital archives and collections that, due to time and monetary constraints, I would most likely would never have been able to search through in their analog state.  For example, access into Ancentry.com’s Fold3 database of military records allows me entry into the National Archives Civil War “Widows’ Pensions” record group. The time and cost of travel to Washington, DC to physically access these records has, to date, prevented me from doing so.  With internet access and a nominal subscription fee,  I can search through those records that have been digitized without leaving home. Online access to digitized archives, both near and far, frees me the constraints of when the bricks-and-mortars institution where the analog collection resides is open.

From a qualitative perspective, there can be issues with the usability of digital collections most specifically with their Search platforms. A good example of this is the digitized collection of The Hartford Courant located in the ProQuest Historical Newspapers collection. Its search function is dependent on Optical Character Recognition (OCR) programming that scans the collection and returns back instances (“hits”) of the keyword(s) that the user has input into the Search fields. The ability of current OCR technology to return back to the user the information requested directly correlates to the quality of the document scan it is searching through. Digital documents whose text imaging is distorted and/or blurred will result in a fewer number of hits or returns from the keyword search. For this reason, researchers need to develop skills to insure they are accessing all the data that is relevant to them.

For example, searching for an obituary by only using the subject’s name may not return that article in the search results. Requesting all obituaries on or after the date of death of the subject will return a more complete list and the researcher can then go through each article to locate the one they are searching for. The quality of the results of this second search is, of course, dependent on the quality of the metadata used to tag articles as obituaries. And, depending on the scope of the researcher’s project, s/he may do well to consult an analog index, if one exists.

Just because an analog archive has been digitized does not mean that the entire archive is now accessible via the internet. Curators of the analog or “original” collection may consciously (or unconsciously) decide to exclude items or information from the digital format. One example of this is the online collection of the burial records for Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, CT located at https://www.cemeteryfind.com/ .

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By accessing this archive, users can find the date of death of a particular decedent and, using the “Map It” function, find the location of his or her’s burial on the digitized map of the cemetery. An additional feature allows the user to see who else is interred in the same burial lot. This data is taken from Cedar Hill’s hardcopy catalog of individual deaths, lot interments and section maps. What the digitized archive version does not include is other information located in the analog archive that may be of interest to the researcher including place of death, names of parents, and cause of death. Researchers need to investigate the totality or completeness of a digital archive relied upon for their evidence.

Realizing that digital collections do not always present all the items that reside in their analog version has made me rethink assumptions held on the analog collections themselves. More specifically, when using a particular archive, are there other items that the archive’s owners possess that have been excluded? And if so, how does that impact the interpretation of the evidence that is accessible?

Historians and researchers investing their time and energy in using digital archives and collections would do well to make a comparison between the source information residing in the analog collection and the data in its digitized format.

SOURCES:

Cohen, Daniel I. and Rosenzweig, Roy. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/introduction/

Defining Digital History

How does the medium of the World Wide Web change the practice of doing history? Is Digital History qualitatively different from History? Explain.

The “nuts and bolts” of the practice of history – the research, the verification of source material, the interpretation and drawing of conclusions – has not changed with emergence of the World Wide Web. What has changed is the dramatic increase in the availability and accessibility of primary and secondary sources due to their digitization. Historians have more material to work with. And they can use a good number of these sources at relatively little cost versus -the pre-internet expenses of including travel to source locations and the cost and time needed to make notes or get physical copies of materials.

That being said, the proliferation of digitized material has resulted in historians facing the challenge of having to find these digital sources. The internet can be viewed as an enormous library and the search engines (i.e. Google) are the equivalent of its card catalog. Historians must not only become skilled in finding the Ethernet locations of the sources they seek but must then be adroit at finding what they are searching for within the parameters of each locations website.

The quality of Digital History, at this place in time, is not by the very nature of its being digital different from History. Unverified, distorted and incorrect history is available in both forms. The qualitative issue with Digital History is more a problem of volume. The vast quantity of Digital History available – from the curated, professional site to the amateur blog – has resulted in more incorrect or non-factual data and interpretations being disseminated. Whether the actual proportion of “good” versus “bad” history is higher with Digital History would be an interesting statistic to learn.

What is of concern is the quality and availability of historical data many years from now. With so much of our current age’s artifacts existing only in digital format – our correspondence, our photographs and videos, the writings of our cultures – will historians at a future date have the raw data needed? And is it or should it be part of the work of contemporary historians to figure out how such material will be available to our successors?