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Content Management & Exhibits

What’s the Point?

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 I now know that an unpublished manuscript called “The Spirit of the Dance” exists, and I can look at every single page of it, but without reading it all the way through I couldn’t tell you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?

4 replies on “What’s the Point?”

Thanks for highlighting how these digitals resources can offer more than just functioning as another archive! Omeka can truly serve as the digital tool for historical interpretation. One example that captured this for me was the “Making Modern America: Discovering the Great Depression and the New Deal.” Through this site, you can navigate a map with different markers for buildings or institutions that resulted from the New Deal program. So now, the school house around the corner in someone’s neighborhood now has historical significance. Sites like these make a strong point of how digital history should be more than a place to store resources online.

That’s a good observation! I definitely understand your point, and agree that interpretation of information is of vital importance to the process of doing history. Without it, history can’t be shared in a truly meaningful and impactful way. However, I don’t think that every person or group that compiles data must also interpret it.

For example, in my post I mention Tufts Archives. It’s a small town archives that does what it can to save the town’s history and make it accessible. Their interpretation of the data is limited to deciding how it should be labeled in the archives. They keep these documents, pictures, newspapers, and audio clips safe and relatively bias free, which allows journalists, authors, historians, data annalists, politicians, teachers, or who ever to later interpret the information.

I’m not sure that the best option, but I’m also not sure that it’s necessarily the archives responsibility to provide interpretation. Or maybe it depends on the archives? Are there different responsibilities between a town’s archives and the National Archives? Between the Cherokee National Archives and the Ford Motor Company Archives? Between the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Harvard University Archives? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Excellent points! I recognize that not all archives have the means to interpret their objects, or maybe they just have bigger priorities at the moment. I just think that digital history presents an opportunity to give at least a little bit of interpretation, and that archives would be wise to take advantage of that opportunity. Of course, a lot of factors can play into that decision, such the number of documents in the archives and the size of the staff. But even then, most online archives have their objects sorted by collections. Perhaps there is an opportunity to provide some background on the collection as a whole instead of each individual item. Regardless, I do think that archives (particularly online archives) have at least some responsibility to do interpretation, even if it obviously is not their main focus.

I really enjoyed your post actually! I wasn’t sure how to put some of the problems I had with the readings for this week into words, but you did it for me. I had a similar frustration with the lack of interpretation on the website about “The Spirit of the Dance.” I struggled to find out the importance of the information on the site and the documents without consulting outside sources about it. I felt that a better introduction could have been on the landing page in order to keep folks interested in the history of the documents. I also had the same issue with the cartoon website, but less so. I believe there was some interpretation on that site, but each cartoon did not have interpretation, which made it hard to understand the context of each cartoon fully, and then to really appreciate what they were saying. The ones about suffrage were easiest for me to grasp because of my background knowledge of women’s roles and sexism in the time period, and not because of any help from the website. The only interpretation I noticed with each cartoon was the fact that it had dates and had been categorized under a title like “Suffrage.” I sympathize with the fact that some archives may have limited resources for interpretation, but I do think at least some background information should be included with each document or at least each collection of documents!

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