As digital tools move on, standards change, and interoperability fails, we lose access to older information. As our history becomes harder to access, only the newest information rises to the top, leaving us with a collective digital memory that is foggy on anything but the most recent past.
To correct this problem, the Library of Congress is debuting Recollection, a free platform developed by the LoC's digital preservation program, with help from information architecture company Zepheira, to preserve and present digital history.
The idea behind Recollection is simple: it allows the LoC and its cultural heritage partner institutions to easily pool and visualize their collections. What was a giant, unwieldy database can be easily transformed into an interactive timeline, map, tag cloud, or a range of other highly readable interfaces. Then you can embed the tool back into your own organization's site. Think of it as a kind of YouTube for museums (or amateur historians).
Like YouTube making all videos viewable on one platform, Recollection solves a similar problem: Museums capture data in a huge range of incompatible formats. Not only are the core media being stored differently (text, numbers, photos, video, etc.), but so are the metadata and database structures themselves.
Each style of organizing data might make sense for each institution's process and the specifics of particular collections. But as a consequence, for the past decade, every museum has essentially had to come up with their own internal management and web presentation schools from scratch. They've also had a difficult time sharing information, which would enhance their individual collections by putting them in a broader context. Archivists were capturing, describing, and preserving huge amounts of data, but the archives were "dark": inaccessible to almost everyone except those doing the archiving.
In 2003, NYU's Clay Shirky served as technical advisor for an LoC project investigating institutions' ability to manage these archives. "Ten years after the Web turned every institution into an accidental publisher," he wrote in 2005, "the simple difficulties of long-term storage are turning them into accidental archivists as well." Each one of those accidental archivists had different ideas about what was important in their collections:
There is not now, and will never be, a single markup standard for digital content, because metadata reflects a worldview. Metadata is not merely data about an object. It is data about an object in a particular context, created by a particular individual or organization. Since organizations differ in outlook, capabilities, and audiences served, the metadata produced by those organizations will necessarily reflect those different contexts...
Recollection helps create what Shirky called an "overlapping grammar," while still allowing for institution-specific expressions. What's more, because the semantic data tools are open-source, when each archive creates a custom skin, interface, or visualization to solve a particular problem for their collection, it's easy for them to share their solution with other archivists with similar needs.
Recollection in action, for students and patrons
The University of Louisville has a large, well-tagged, digital archive of photographs taken by Jean Thomas, "The Traipsin' Woman," a popular early 20th century author and early promoter of Appalachian folk music who helped create the American Folk Song Festival.
Currently, from the Thomas archive's front page, "browse this collection" spits you out into a gigantic database. It's searchable, but it's impossible to take in the collection as a whole, or do much with the data stored there other than use it to find individual photos.
At Recollection's pilot page for the Thomas archive, on the other hand, you can view the database as a map, allowing you to make connections between the data points. The visualization also roots each photograph and each event in its particular place—a particularly useful tool when studying local folk music traditions.
Open digital tools like Recollection also make it easier for students and researchers to create their own digital projects and micro-archives. Trevor Owens, Recollection Project Lead at the LoC, recently wrote about his own experience teaching digital history at American University. Students, Owens observed, were much more likely to get excited about creating and using digital projects with a visual component, overwhelmingly choosing maps, timelines, or experimental interfaces over text (with the exception of traditional term papers).
The power of digital data isn't just storing information at a distance from the vagaries of the physical world—it's that it allows so much information to be instantly available, and lets us see that information in new ways and share it with others. That is, so long as we have the tools we need to make that happen.
[Photo : Flickr user rommy ghaly]