I love historical interpretation. To me, being able to take information and create narratives with diverse and complicated actors is one of the coolest things about studying history. I know not everyone agrees with me, but I almost view interpretation as the point of studying history. Without it, history can become a malformed mass of dates and places and names, and I’m not interested in that.
Digital history presents an incredible opportunity for widespread historical interpretation. Using site-building tools like Omeka, historians can upload primary sources and use them to convey complex ideas to the public. The combination of visual aids, digital copies of documents or photographs, and the words of a historian can help some people connect the dots, or even present new ideas or perspectives.
I bring this up because there are some sites that have embraced this idea, while others still function largely as an archive. I don’t mean to suggest that archives are of no use, or that providing interpretation should be mandatory. Digital archives can be excellent tools for historians, and sometimes another person’s interpretation of that source may get in the way. But it still feels like a squandered opportunity to not even attempt some interpretation.
For example, let’s look at the Southern Appalachian Archives Mars Hill University site. As an archive, it’s quite useful. The organization of the site is easy to follow, and they have five collections full of digital scans of documents. If you are searching for these sources to use for a research project, the site seems great. However, you may be disappointed if you’re hoping for the site’s authors to demonstrate how these documents played a role in Southern Appalachian society. I now know that an unpublished manuscript called “The Spirit of the Dance” exists, and I can look at every single page of it, but without reading it all the way through I couldn’t tell you what the greater significance of that manuscript is. Even then, I wouldn’t know if this author was particularly well-known at the time, or if his writings had any regional or national importance. It’s important to note that there is interpretation on the website, particularly under the “Exhibits” section. But other sites have shown that there can be brief interpretive sections with their primary source collections.
Let’s look at an example from the Civil War Era NC website. This entry does more than simply provide an object and the metadata. There are only a few sentences in the description, but they convey a sense of jubilation that the image on its own does not. This site likewise has an “Exhibits” section, but by not limiting the interpretation to that section, the site can provide deeper meaning to the objects shown in its archive.
These sites and others show that a well-organized and engaging website can be a great historical resource. But can they do more to provide context to the objects they display on their online archives? Or, should that be the responsibility of the public?