I cannot count how many times I have been asked to define what exactly I am working on in school. There is always this lingering question for me to define digital history. As hard as I try I am often met with blank looks and confusion. Those on the inside of the academic world and, in most cases the history field, it is a look of doubt. Historians deal in hard facts, books and solid stable materials. Things which are not dynamic like websites or twitter. Digital and history are two words that do not go together. For those completely on the outside, the people I seem to encounter the most, they assume this is a fancy way for me to say “I use Wikipedia- a lot.” I have yet to come up with a concise answer for either group, and it turns out, building a rubric has proven just as difficult for me.
When reviewing digital work, many of the criteria applied to traditional sources should be considered:
- Who has created the content? Is it a reputable source and can you prove their credentials?
- Is there a works cited page? Footnotes? Has the creator provided a place to go back and review his/her work?
- When was it created and how often is it edited? When checking a Wikipedia page it is useful to see the last edits. If new information is available has that been published?
- Is it open source or does it allow comments? Open source history has both positives and negatives but it needs to be known to the research that the content could be edited by someone other than the creator. Comments are also useful for deeper discussion of a topic and at times can be historical content of their own.
I would like my work in this class to help define “good” digital repository characteristics. This is based on a paper proposal I did as an undergraduate. For me the idea repository is the FDR Library Digital Collection. Not only is it extremely search friendly, it has been scanned to look exactly as if the researcher is there flipping through each folder.
As an example, I searched the term “FALA” the name of FDR’s dog and it took me to this archive folder to search and read:
Because of the way it was scanned, I can look through and notice the details that may not be important to other researchers. If I were researching presidential dogs the folder would have one meaning, but if I were researching children’s letters to the president, they could have another.
This relates back to something in the readings, “Professional archivists complain that many archival websites are not archives at all because they lack ‘provenance’ that is, a firm history of the custody of a coherent body of materials since their origin.” (Cohen and Rosenzwig) If there were even an argument for an archive that has provenance, I believe the FDR Library is it. There are so many archives that lack authenticity, or disconnect the researcher from the experience via transcriptions, when gems like this are found they should be praised, awarded and shared. Personally I have had more than one experience of reading transcribed archives, only to find myself weeks later regretting the decision and scrolling through microfilm to find the exact copy with hand written notes, or something crossed off that the transcription did not offer. While the transcribed work is easier to read, it lacks something a scan of the document can offer.