Prioritizing: Digital Projects & Public History

While browsing through the websites of some museums, I found myself wondering why the museum chose to exhibit certain collections. For the most part, many of the online exhibits were interesting and very relevant to the institution displaying them. However, especially at institutions with numerous collections, I was left to contemplate the issues a museum or archive may have with selecting collections to put online. Public history institutions are faced with the challenge of prioritizing which records and collections to display online. Some museums may only have the resources to create a few online exhibits while others might be gradually adding all the collections online as time and money permits. Museums and archives should make decisions on the basis of the target audience and the goals of the project to determine what is digitized. Who will benefit from the project? In either scenario, museums have to select what collections get the digital treatment and what records are first in line.

Once an institution determines what is to be digitized, it is time to figure out who is going to do all of the work. Does the archive have volunteers or staff that can be redirected to the project? Digitization costs institutions both in the price of technology and manpower. Some of the technological aspects of digitizing may be simple to learn while other parts require special knowledge or skills. Not having employees with the necessary skills to handle complicated technology could limit what an institution can do online or it may require the help of a hired specialist. In addition to successfully creating an online exhibit or digital project, everything must be kept up to date. It always seems that as soon as you buy that new phone or tablet, a newer, better model is already in production or ready for sale. Maintenance on a website is no different. Platforms used for playing videos, displaying images, or listening to audio today, are quite likely to change in the coming years. Digital projects need to monitored to ensure links work and videos continue play even when platforms change.

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The Women and Leader Archives has several online collections but the staff also uses a weekly blog post to highlight a collection that may not be available online.

In the end or really the beginning, everything boils down to money. Digitizing collections is not cheap. Without a proper budget, digital projects are difficult to create and maintain. There are numerous challenges public history institutions face where technology is concerned. Scanners, cameras, and software all cost money. Professional websites cost money. The hours spent on digitizing costs money. Again, here is another place where public historians must prioritize. Small budgets will challenge institutions not only in what they digitize, but how. Proper equipment is imperative in taking a physical object and transforming it into the appropriate digital format.

What public history institutions need to keep in mind though, is that digitizing collections is already happening all over the world. Even with the aforementioned challenges and many more not included here, museums and archives, big and small, are finding ways to create online exhibits and digital projects. There is always room for improvement (and more money), but with the resources available, institutions are making collections more accessible to the public today than could have ever been imagined just a few years ago. This is in part to the open-mindedness and creativity that public historians bring to digital projects. I agree there are challenges in creating digital projects and have even experienced some of them firsthand, but there are many benefits in putting collections online to make them accessible to people around the world.

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One thought on “Prioritizing: Digital Projects & Public History

  1. Great job laying out the costs of digitization and balancing them with the benefits of expanded access. Your statement that “everything boils down to money” has a lot of truth — every project needs funding. In addition to thinking about the costs of digital projects, though, it’s also worth thinking about how they might help raise funds — not necessarily by selling images or something commercial, but simply by raising the organization’s online reputation and demonstrating its value to stakeholders who can more immediately access what the organization has to offer, who can network more easily with the institution and its fellow users online, and who may therefore be more willing to donate to support its efforts. For this to work, though, the institution needs to follow up with effective fundraising that reminds users and stakeholders of both the value provided by its digital projects and the costs involved.

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