Blog Post

Video: Digital Humanities for Museums and Archives

One of the advantages of being a HASTAC Scholar is that you can pull people from different departments together to have a conversation. This showed up in my last post, and it's showing up again in today's. 

On Wednesday, October 19, we talked with three professionals who provided us with critical insights into museums and archives. And we captured it on video to share. This 10-minute video features Greg Prickman, head of the University of Iowa Special Collections, Kathrine Moermond, education and outreach coordinator at the UI's Old Capitol Museum, and Nicki Saylor, head of Digital Library Services. They discuss what they've learned from their recent efforts in utilizing digital media to enhance their exhibitions and collections. 

Spoiler alert: Nicki Saylor describes how one woman transcribed 400 documents in their Civil War Diaries Transcription Project, and how that kind of public engagement with "citizen scholars" can revitalize collections. (You'll hear my shocked "WOW!" in the background there.) 

This moment completely changed my opinion about the role crowdsourcing plays in these type of projects. I've been thinking about it a bit pessimistically, thinking that's a way for commercial ventures to exploit unpaid labor (think Yelp! and food reviews being written by amateur journalists). The way it's talked about here inspires me to consider how this type of effort can enrich a person's life through meaningfully contributing to history's documentation. This is no crabby restaurant review. This is an experience that people will take with them, connecting with history through discovery and learning.

The video panel was inspired by the efforts of Neal Stimler, asscociate coordinator of images at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and his questions posed for the Musuem Computer Network's annual conference. This year's conference theme is Hacking the Museum and takes place November 16-19 in Atlanta, Georgia.



Thanks for sharing this video, Melody. Lots of interesting ideas inside here. I especially liked the point about archivists and librarians needing to not be afraid to play an interpretive role. There are always various levels of mediation at play in an archive . I think accepting that we play mediating and interpretive roles can lead to better interface design -- whether that interface is a GUI or a bricks & mortar reading room.

- Eric



That was one of my favorite points as well. There's definitely a line between interpretation to explore meaning and interpretation to influence meaning. Avoiding the latter gives us greater credibility through an attempt at objectivity, while avoiding the former is lazy scholarship. And isn't a core purpose of archives to preserve and share stories? Interpretation is a part of any good storytelling. 

Sorry it took so long to reply! This month has been crazy busy.


Thank you for the Insightful interview Melody! I share your reluctance to blindly valorize or endorse the motivations behind many crowdsourcing initiatives. The success story of the civil war diary transcriptions mentioned in the interview offers fresh perspectives on how engaging audiences in cultural and historical scholarship can be beneficial all around.

In best case scenarios the audience has the opportunity to work with materials first hand and make meaningful contributions, the general public gains through increased online availability of shared cultural resources, institutions can disseminate more works and raise awareness of their programs, and students, researchers and scholars are able to access corpora and multimedia collections for study.

I work on a project that is taking a comparable approach to the problem of orphan works. We adapt the fair dealing exceptions in Canadian copyright to user interfaces for capturing information about rights holders in composite cultural works. With these tools, users of the online archive can clearly view rights holder information and easily submit additions or amendments. I will post about these tools soon (we are currently wrapping up the last phase of development) but it was nice to see a connection here.



Thanks for sharing your project! I'm keeping this on the radar. I am a part of another project that could make great use of mediated crowdsourcing, one with the goal of collecting metadata about a literary movement. (It's not up and running yet as we're still exploring methods and laying big ideas out on the table.)

What inspires me so much about the CWD success is that the engagement is real. Contributors invest themselves in the material and care so much that the learning that happens is something that's going to stay with them. I had the opportunity to work with primary sources, researching a question on behalf of someone who couldn't come to the archives in person. The research was on railroad history and digging through the materials left me personally invested in the outcome or answer to the question. It was a very fulfilling (learning) experience. Seems like there are great pedagogical implications here.


I really enjoyed the interview; thanks for posting this, Melody! I'm sort of picking up on what David  and you both mention above regarding crowdsourcing and its motivations - today I noticed a post on CNet about the DARPA "Shredder Challenge," which proposes to discover new ways to "process and decode shredded documents confiscated in war zones, as well as test vulnerabilities in the shredding methods used by the U.S. national security community" through crowdsourcing (according to the CNet article). It struck me as an interesting intiative, given the ultimate motivation for the challenge (and its $50,000 prize). Anyway, it jumped out at me in the context of your post. Thanks again for the video; I hope to see/read more soon!


This is fascinating. It makes me wonder if my puzzle-loving grandmother were still alive, would she be an expert at putting these shreds in order? She would piece together puzzles of the hardest variety-- 2' x 3' images of popped popcorn, gumballs, you name it. The more redundant the better (or at least harder).

This is potentially another example of a non-traditional scholar--another stimulating question posed by Neal Stimler in his pitch for videos. In a traditional academic setting, I would never think to ask a retired grandma with no Ph.D. and nothing but time on her hands to make a meaningful contribution to a body of knowledge. But with a crowdsourced web-based project? Why not??


Thanks for sharing this, Melody. Your post inspired me to write about the NYPL's "What's On the Menu?" crowdsourcing project.


Thanks for cross-posting here! Giving it a read for sure.