Taking a Look at some Digital Archives

As historians, we are indebted to archives. These stores of documents are essential for our research, and archivists’ hard work organizing them helps make our job go much more smoothly. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in the past year, archives can be disrupted. When we can’t go to these places in person, our ability to research can be greatly hindered. Enter digital archives. The ability to go through years of documents from our own homes is a tremendous aid to historians. Today, we’ll be looking at two examples of digital archives, the September 11 Digital Archive and the Rosetti Archive, to see how we can best use these valuable resources.

September 11 Digital Archive

The September 11 Digital Archive has over 70,000 items in its collection. In 2003, it was accepted by the Library of Congress into its permanent collection. The archive runs off of Omeka, showing that platform’s powerful potential. It allows and is primarily based on user submissions, which can be text, images, audio, or video. You can browse the collection either through individual items or through certain collections, or by searching for a topic using the bar at the top.

3518 pages! That’s a lot of stuff to look through.

When you click on the “items” tab, it will let you look at all 70,000 publicly available items. You can sort by date added, title, or creator, out of which the date added will probably be most useful. Then, click on any item to view it in more detail.

For example, with this article, we can see a copy of the article, accessible by clicking on the image at the top. On the site itself, information about the object is available, like a description, date of creation, a source, any collections the item belongs to, and who submitted the item. Notably missing, however, is the date the item was submitted to the archive, which could be a useful thing to know.

However, some items on here are a little less useful, like this item titled “Home Depot.” To be honest, I have no idea what this “item” is supposed to be, or why it’s here. The submitter says that they were a police officer at the time of the attacks, and that they were referred to this site by TV, but there is almost no other information here. There are many other “items” like this, and I’m not sure whether they’ve been broken by some update to the site, or whether they have always been like this. There are also items that seem to have very little to do with the purpose of the archive, like this article about corruption in the Jamaica Tourism Board. Openness can be very useful for archives, but these examples show some of the potential risks of too much openness with submissions.

Overall, this is a very interesting archive. It is very publicly-oriented, for better or worse. On the upside, it allows a staggeringly large collection, collected from all walks of life. A scholar studying 9/11 would be able to find thousands of people’s feelings, images, and videos of the event and its consequences. The downside of this public focus is that there may be a lot of dubiously relevant material to search through. For a publicly-focused archive like this, there may be more moderation needed, to ensure that items are useful and relevant. That balance between relevance and openness is a tricky one to maintain.

Rossetti Archive

The Rossetti Archive is quite a bit different. It focuses on the work of one person, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a painter, designer, writer, and translator in 19th century England. This archive has been completed since 2009, after nine years of production. It is part of the NINES project, a collection of 19th century British and American literature and culture. You can browse the collection through certain indexes or through a search engine, and there is also a bibliographical list of scholarly sources connected to Rossetti, as well as related works that provide context for his time period.

Clicking on the “exhibits and objects” tab will show you the main indexes that the collection is organized by, such as books, pictures, manuscripts, and more. The related texts and other artists are also useful in providing context to Rossetti’s work, life, and time period.

Looking at the poem index as an example, there is text on the left that elaborates on Rossetti’s poetry, and on the right, the collection of his poems. By default, the poems are alphabetical, but you can sort them chronologically, too.

On this poem’s page, we see scholarly commentary on the left. This explains the poem and its context, including useful hyperlinks to related material in the archive. On the right side, we have more information on the poem, like its date of creation, a bibliography, and what type of poem it is.

Clicking on the image in the top left will take you to the text of the poem, located in a full text transcription of a book on Rossetti. The archive also contains images of each page, but unfortunately, it looks like the plugin they used to allow you to view those pages is no longer supported.

Overall, this archive is very well put together. The collection on its own is impressive, especially with the wealth of surrounding sources that are also available on the site. What puts it over the top for me is the scholarly commentary on most items in the archive, which helps explain the items even for those who know very little about the subject (like me, to be honest). The main flaw I found was the outdated plugin that makes it difficult to find images of some items. Even then, it appeared to only be limited to images of poems or manuscripts, and Rossetti’s artwork is still visible. It is still a reminder of the importance of maintenance to digital projects. One other consideration is whether the archive could have more of a public focus, like allowing comments on items.

These two archives are quite different from one another. The September 11 archive is very open and broad, while the Rossetti is tightly focused. What do you think about these? Is there a place for both? Should the September 11 Archive tighten up a bit, or should the Rossetti Archive involve the public more?

5 Replies to “Taking a Look at some Digital Archives”

  1. Hi Shaan, thank you for this wonderful introduction to these digital archives. Digital archives are not something I have much experience in but I am eager to learn about them and how I may be able to utilize them in my future research. Your questions about the September 11 Digital Archive and moderation reminded me of our conversations on Elissa Frankle’s article “More Crowdsourced Scholarship: Citizen History” in reference to the Children of the Lodz Ghetto Citizen History project. https://www.aam-us.org/2011/07/28/more-crowdsourced-scholarship-citizen-history/ I covered that article in this blog post. http://www.dighist.org/2021/02/the-web-collaborative-or-exploitive-readings-5-9-february-10th-readings/ In the article Frankle outlines the clear steps for moderation of the crowdsourced project, that allows people to partake but it to still meet industry standards. I am curious about what moderation standards the September 11 Digital Archive has, since you pointed out posts that seem to have little to no relevance. I think the idea of a crowdsourced digital archive has a wonderful amount of possibilities, but I do think that needs to be accompanied by a level of moderation to maintain standard. I’d be interested to hear from a researcher who has utilized this archive, if these seemingly ‘unmoderated’ posts were a hindrance to their research or if the site’s wealth of information made up for it. (P.S. sorry for the long links, my hyperlink wouldn’t work in the comments for some reason).

    1. Thanks for responding, Rosie. I definitely had the crowdsourcing material that we’ve covered in mind as I looked at these archives. I definitely agree with you on the need for moderation of these kinds of crowdsourced projects. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything on the September 11 Archive’s site about moderation.

      For the researcher’s point of view, I used the site’s search function to look up a few terms, as if I was doing research on those topics. Most searches did turn up a decent amount of irrelevant material, but also a good amount of relevant material. Mostly, it seems like it would just lengthen the amount of time research would take, as you have to go through and check each item. Then again, that isn’t all that different from looking through various potential books and having to put aside ones that aren’t a good fit for your research, either. The more things change, maybe?

    2. Rosie — I think you make some excellent points about crowdsourcing. I think that crowdsourcing can be a really powerful tool — but one that needs to be approached with caution. Like the 9/11 archive shows, moderation is necessary. However, I understanding that many online archives do not have the resources to moderate submissions. I wonder if there might be an automated process to moderate submissions, similar to how Twitch streamers can have automated moderators for the live chat? But then again, it would still be necessary for someone to check the automated moderator program’s work, which doesn’t entirely eliminate the need for a human moderator.

  2. Hi Shaan! Yes, Rosie, I was thinking the same thing. I find that very strange that so many items lacked enough information or it wasn’t necessarily clear that they belonged. I also wonder if there are any specific guidelines set up or potentially a direct lack of guidelines do to the impact and importance of this event. Potentially the creators did not want to limit people’s contributions in order to receive everything that everyone deemed to be of value. Though I don’t think that is the most effective way to collect historical records.

    1. I took a quick look at the contribution tab on the website. There really don’t appear to be any guidelines. You just choose the type of your submission, give it a title, and you can optionally answer how you heard about the site, but that’s about it. I definitely agree that having some kind of guidelines could go a long way to improving submissions.

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