Project Reflection: PixStori and Material Collections

My digital project tackled one possible solution to a larger question: how can historians incorporate community collaboration into the curation of material collections? In an effort to find a digital means to this end, I have been experimenting with PixStori to model how staff at the Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly, NC, can use short oral contributions from their visitors to enrich their knowledge of the museum’s artifact collections.

In the end, the idea behind this project seems to have more merit than its reality on this platform. While using PixStori I ran into one challenge after another that hindered its potential to be used for collections management. To be fair, this isn’t what the platform was designed to do – its concept is to caption and share photos with oral recordings. This unique pairing could only be found on PixStori, and because I felt it was integral to encouraging participation with my project (read why in my proposal post), PixStori initially seemed the right platform to use.

Because PixStori is not collections management software it did not have the capacity to perform that side of the co-curation that I envisioned. I was only able to add metadata to the item pages as a block description, rather than a list of characteristics as is standard practice. There is no framework for the organization of the collection as a whole – no tagging or categorization system that could link items together to organize or search. With these limitations, additional steps would be required to incorporate the contributed stories into existing software. This would require consistent, additional labor from someone familiar with both PixStori and whatever management software a museum uses, a commitment that likely isn’t realistic for the type of local or community museums that would benefit from this model.

Furthermore, PixStori is a developing platform, and needs to implement several of oral history’s standard best practices. Currently the site has no means of informed consent – its Terms of Service and Privacy Policy pages are blank, and those contributing photos or oral comments don’t have to agree to anything when uploading. For a project like this museum staff would need to develop a means for community members to give their consent when giving stories and implement that separate from the platform itself.

This is not to say that my project was completely unsuccessful. PixStori could still be utilized as a means of collecting stories about material objects – an easy way to record these stories linked directly to artifacts. Additional steps would just be needed to incorporate that knowledge with collections management and put those stories to work. This is perhaps a question for the PixStori creators to contemplate: what are the stories shared on their site meant to do? Simply be recorded and put out into the internet, or something more concrete?

Despite these limitations, the question of incorporating collaboration directly into the curation process is one that needs to be explored further. Not only does my approach open the door for museum staff to gain additional and more personalized information about the artifacts they work with, but placing that information directly alongside more technical metadata communicates that these contributions are just as important. This approach elevates community knowledge and input to the same level of importance as measurements, accession information, and more – and in a community museum that can be a necessary step towards a shared authority between staff and community members.

My project provides a window to think about this question, even if it was unable to achieve the full curation process that I envisioned. I feel confident that digital history tools and methods (maybe as PixStori develops further!) can be used to incorporate community voices into curation in a meaningful way.

Digital Project Draft: Using PixStori for Collections

The first draft of my digital project has mainly involved setting up a framework that I am in the process of filling in with simulated visitor contributions. As a refresher, my goal for this project is to experiment with how to bring community collaboration directly into the process of curating and interpreting material collections. I’m thinking about this in the context of a particular museum (read why in my proposal post). This project is built through PixStori Plus, the web version of an app that combines photos with captions in the form of audio recordings.

The landing page for my test collection is a gallery of all of the objects in the collection. This will be the first page that visitors see and they can chose an object based on its name and photo. After selecting an image, visitors are directed to that item’s page. Here, they can view the item’s full picture and metadata or a description written by the museum’s collections staff. The examples I’m using are drawn from both the museum’s Instagram and a partial digitization of its full holdings by East Carolina University. Luckily this collection was already available online and the museum’s collections specialist was able to direct me to it, since the museum is closed for to the ongoing quarantine. The description for this example is drawn from that digital collection; since I’m still tinkering with PixStori to figure out how to display metadata in an easy-to-read way, I used a paragraph-form description for this example.

Below the photo and metadata is where the comment thread begins. Visitors simply click on the microphone to record a story, or they have the option to add a text comment. They can listen to or read other stories in the thread here as well, to be in conversation with their own.

I envision this project being accessible from a kiosk set up inside the exhibit gallery, so that visitors can see a physical object, then walk to the kiosk and access the item’s page to learn more about it and to add their own stories. Over the screen, a sign reading “See anything familiar?” will draw visitors over while prompting them to think about the artifacts they see in an explicitly personal lens. Further directions will ask them to share stories about why an object they saw in the exhibits is meaningful to them. They should start the recording with their name and where they’re from, then tell a short story related to the object; a written example will be given either on a small sign or on the screen.  Since PixStori is an Internet application, the collection could be accessed remotely if community members want to contribute stories without visiting in person.

My next steps in this project are to fill out the examples in my test collection more thoroughly. I plan to add metadata for each of them, and (hopefully) solicit a few recorded stories to start comment threads. Additionally, I need to think through incorporating some oral history best practices in some form. What kind of informed consent is necessary for this type of recording? How can transcripts of comments be incorporated? The more I think through those questions, the more clear the limitations of PixStori as a platform become, but I need to consider those questions even I can’t implement the solutions. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

“Finding Our Place in the Cosmos”

Finding Our Place in the Cosmos” is a digital collection from the Library of Congress. The collection features items from the papers of Carl Sagan, while contextualizing his work in the history of the study of the universe. The digital collection is divided into three exhibit sections, as well as a full listing of each collection item included in the interpretation.

The first section, “The Cosmos: Its Structure and Historical Models,” follows the history of astronomy from ancient Greece to modern times. “Life on Other Worlds” follows, exhibiting science fiction materials to analyze how “we” (the language in this exhibit is always about telling “our” story) have imagined life beyond Earth. Finally, “Carl Sagan and the Tradition of Science” focuses on Sagan’s life and work within a context of the history of science.

The collection presents its goals right on the front page. Not only do the creators seek to contextualize materials from Carl Sagan’s papers in a wider historical context, but they also want to demonstrate the diversity of materials within the LOC’s holdings, and to encourage their audience to directly engage with primary sources.

The description notes that the exhibit is designed so that visitors can follow their own path through the material, and this true for both the exhibit content and how they choose to interact with the digital items. From the main page, you can click to the three main exhibit sections (under “Articles and Essays”) or go straight to the archival materials (under “Collection Items”). Viewing an item through “Collection Items” takes you to a metadata page – it’s interesting that visitors can see the materials in this collection both with interpretation in the exhibit itself and without interpretation on the item page (though this does have a link to the item’s location within the exhibit). The main page also has a “Featured Content” section with links to selected sources. It’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, all of the materials presented in this exhibit are digitized forms of the original items rather than born-digital materials.

A sidebar menu shows each section and subsection that makes up the exhibit

Visitors can also take their own path through the exhibit content, using a menu on the side that outlines each main section and subsection. One of the most interesting sections to me was “Sagan’s Thinking and Writing Process,” which features drafts of Sagan’s writings – such as a list of textbook ideas written on the back of an envelope. It’s a good opportunity to play around with the document viewer – I found it to be very intuitive, if somewhat hard on my computer!

Finally, the collection includes teaching and “expert” resources. The teaching resources include sets of primary sources and suggestions for lesson plans on both learning the exhibit’s content and how to work with primary sources. Expert resources include links to the finding aids for Sagan’s papers, research guides for archaeoastronomy and extraterrestrial life, a lecture series, and interviews.

This site takes a really interesting approach of encouraging visitors to engage both with the exhibit interpretation and directly with the primary sources on their own, within the same digital space. There is a lot of information to consume, but having visitors choose their own path through the material and encouraging them to follow a tangent to look at individual items more closely seems to encourage deeper engagement with that information. If you’re just interested in Carl Sagan’s work you can skip ahead to his section, or if you want a broader history of science fiction pop culture you can start off there. It’s overall goal however is to put these topics and the individual sources into a larger context of the history of science and astronomy.

Defining Digital Archives

Tension between traditional and digital archives isn’t just about the pace of technological change – it turns out this tension reaches to the definition of what an archive is. Theimer and Owens illuminate the issues surrounding the creation and use of digital archives and sources.

In her two articles, Kate Theimer writes of a definitional disparity between the “archives” of archivists and that of digital humanists. Archives in Context and As Context argues that the term “archives” reflects particular professional principles and standards that are not necessarily reflected in the work done by digital humanists under the same label. Archivists work to preserve the context of a particular aggregate by focusing on its provenance, collective control (managing the collection as a unit rather than individual items), and original order. These standards, she claims, are not always reflected in the work of digital humanists. Theimer does concede that archival materials can of course demonstrate meaning in contexts other than their original one, but raises this distinction because “it is only in a collection managed according to archival principles that the organizational context of the letter is preserved.” Theimer wishes to preserve the particular principles of archivists and keep them connected by definition to the term “archives.”

Theimer poses a similar argument in “A Distinction worth Exploring”. She writes that “the context of the creation of the information sources is critical to understanding the problems that may be inherent in that source and which the researcher should take into consideration.” Theimer walks through several types of digital archives (or “digital historical representations”) and notes some of these questions that must be asked. Primarily, she points out questions of why particular items were selected and their context in collections. Overall, Theimer argues that “the value of the collections of materials preserved in archives often lies in the relationship of the records to each other.” In her view, archivists are the professionals best suited to understand and preserve these relationships.

Owens, on the other hand, writes that historians also have this and other skills to analyze and contextualize digital sources as they have for print sources. In “Digital Sources & Digital Archives,” he outlines questions that historians should ask of digital sources that are based in those already asked of print sources while expanding on the unique needs of digital materials. Questions of creation, why something was preserved, and what information the document is leaving out are coupled with those of how a digital source was accessed, and more. Owens notes that every iteration of a digital source is a “performance” – how it appears can change depending on how and when that item is being viewed. The artifactual qualities of a digital source stand out as a main distinction and line of inquiry for analysis; this is reminiscent of Burdick et al.’s “Short Guide to the Digital Humanities Fundamentals” and its argument that the design and medium in which a digital product is presented is itself an argument. This too is a question that historians have asked of print sources, and, as Owens poses, must continue to ask of digital sources.

Owens writes that “it is likely that historians are going to need to increasingly focus on establishing and sharing techniques for working with different kinds of sources,” work that will need to be done in collaboration with archivists. First, archivists and digital humanists must resolve their definitional disparities of what an archive is and the role of each type of professional in selecting, organizing, and preserving digital materials.

Digital Co-Curation with Material Collections

Community history often features collaboration in interpretive planning and programming, but how can historians work to extend this partnership into the curation of material collections? I propose a digital form of this kind of collaboration, in which community members and visitors can interact with objects and work to co-curate them alongside museum staff.

A few years ago I visited the Tobacco Farm Life Museum, a local museum in Kenly, North Carolina, with my grandfather. The museum’s collections consists of all kinds of objects related to agricultural, cultural, and religious life in rural eastern North Carolina – with many objects that were mass-produced and commonly found in households in the area. In the museum’s exhibits, however, these objects are presented with little description or interpretation. When I visited my grandfather served as a sort of tour guide to tell me what each object was and to share his personal stories, but visitors who have no personal connection to the content don’t have this kind of opportunity. It made me wonder what steps the museum could take to further incorporate the personal experiences and stories of farm life from members of its community – a largely aging population – into its interpretation. What sort of mechanism could the museum use to collect and share those stories, provide more interpretation for its material collections, increase a feeling of ownership within the community over the collections, AND share all of this with visitors?

I plan to design a digital project to pursue these goals by creating a digital platform for co-curation of the museum’s collections. Using the image-sharing platform PixStori, I will upload images of objects from the museum’s collections with descriptions and metadata authored by museum staff. This digital collection of images will be accessible on a kiosk in the exhibit area so that visitors can see a physical object, then walk to the kiosk and access the description page.

Visitors are then encouraged to make additions to this description and metadata page. They will have the opportunity to add voice (and, if necessary, text) comments about the object. Do they have a personal story related to the object? Was a similar object in their family home? Did they grow up in the area and attend this church? Were they acquainted with this person, or visit this place? The purpose of these additions is not intended solely for visitors to provide commentary on an object, rather to contribute information that can increase the reference material that museum staff use for interpretation of those objects.

This type of collaboration is similar to the work currently being done in Flickr’s Commons, with the addition of the voice recording element. I predict this element will be key to engaging the museum’s audience; visitors with personal connections to objects from the collection are aging and are more likely to record a short audio story than to type text into a kiosk. Because this project is designed specifically for this local museum outreach would be limited to that space, but could be expanded or serve as a model in other sites if it is deemed successful.

Ultimately, the goal of this project is to contribute toward an increased sense of collaboration and community ownership within the museum. By demonstrating to community members that their personal stories about objects are valuable contributions of knowledge, this project will illustrate the successful incorporation of community collaboration into the management and interpretation of material collections.