In order to more fully understand the types of content the JWA provides, and the methods used by the JWA, I decided to look into a few other virtual archives and compare the content offered at each. This comparison is by no means exhaustive, but I thought would be a good way of determining the most commonly used practices of virtual archives.
So, first up: Westchester County Virtual Archives. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my home county of Westchester, New York, has a virtual archive (and their website states that they are “one of the few government-sponsored, online archives in New York State”!). The archive is a collaborative project between the Westchester County Archives and the Westchester County Historical Society, both of which are located in Elmsford, NY. The Westchester County Virtual Archives seem to be solely deriving their content through digitization efforts – according to their website, “Here you will find estate records, minutes from the county’s Board of Supervisors and local government sessions, poll lists, maps, assessment rolls, census records, newspaper articles, pictures, diaries, letters and all types of ephemera.” The Virtual Archive’s website goes on to explain that they have also collaborated with other local governments and LAMs in the area to provide source material not held by either of the two main partner agencies. I was excited when I saw a link labelled “Your Opportunity to Comment and Question” on the “About” page, as I thought it might lead to a page explaining commenting functions on items or online exhibits, or perhaps even describe a crowdsourcing project of some kind… but no such luck – it was just a link to the general information email address of the Virtual Archive. The service that the Westchester County Virtual Archives provides appears to be primarily a publicity one, with the added benefit that users looking to research any of the areas the five online exhibitions cover may be able to more easily locate resources. While the exhibits offered are very informative and appear to be well researched, I am a little disappointed that the content appears so static, and to have very little input or interaction from “regular” community members.
The next archive I looked was the The Vietnam Center and Archive’s Virtual Vietnam Archive. The Vietnam center is housed at Texas Tech University, and the Virtual Vietnam Archive makes available “over 3.2 million pages of scanned materials” from the Center’s holdings. What makes this virtual archive so interesting is that the holdings of the Vietnam Center, according to their website, “tend to be more personal in nature – personal photographs, letters home, etc. While there are some official records, particularly from the USMC… these are generally copies kept and donated to us by veterans or researchers of the war.” This means that the digitized materials made available through the Virtual Vietnam Archive are more than just official war documents – these more personal papers could be a treasure trove for researchers of this era. Also, the Virtual Vietnam Archive has a helpful list of tutorials, designed to assist users in navigating the collections and locating the items they want. Although the content made available by the Virtual Vietnam Archive is incredibly rich, like the Westchester County Virtual Archives, there does not seem to be a community watch and participation component, and all content is digitized from sources held (or, in the case of Westchester, used with permission from other LAMs) by the larger body responsible for the virtual archive. In a sense, the only born-digital aspect of these two virtual archives is the method of content delivery.
The final virtual archive I looked at for comparison was Georgia’s Virtual Vault, a project of the Georgia Archives. As the Virtual Vault’s website explains, “Most items are selected systematically as part of a long-term digitization plan: county maps or district plat maps, for instance, are selected and scanned as a group. In other cases the digitization is random and ad hoc: a patron orders a digital copy of a photograph, or documents are scanned before being placed on exhibit. Whether created systematically or ad hoc, all of these images are stored on the Archives’ servers and constitute a rich visual resource of Georgia history. The Virtual Vault was created to provide access to this wealth.” While this explanation may lead a user to believe that the Virtual Vault’s collections are somewhat spotty or incomplete, but there is a massive amount of incredibly interesting and useful content (and it appears as though the patron copies are placed in an “ad hoc collection,” which is a bit more random than the planned digitization projects). Like the Westchester County Virtual Archive and the Vietnam Virtual Archive, all of the content shared by Georgia’s Virtual Vault is digitized, but the Virtual Vault has a somewhat unique way of inviting users to interact with that content: “View, compare, delete and move collection items you have saved to My Favorites within CONTENTdm. Create and share My Favorites with others or view saved items as a slideshow.”
Screenshot of my My Favorites page, April 26, 2012.
ContentDM is a type of digital collection management software, operated by OCLC, that allows repositories to make their digital collections available. While I have heard of other repositories using ContentDM, I haven’t had the opportunity of seeing it used as a platform for users to select and save items within collections in this way. I can definitely see the value for those using the Virtual Vault for research, as users can save a vast number of objects and return to them at a later time for further analysis and comparison.
Some of the differences between the way the JWA acquires and makes content available and the ways the three mentioned virtual archives choose to do so may have to do with the JWA’s mission – the JWA attempts to “uncover, chronicle, and transmit to a broad public the rich history of American Jewish women,” making it more akin to a community archive than a government or academic-based one. In order to collect content that fulfills this mission, it is important for the JWA to maintain close ties to the Jewish community in general, and to Jewish women in particular. By allowing users to directly contribute content, the JWA is able to collect more material while also cultivating ties to the community the organization attempts to describe and serve. While crowdsourcing and user participation may be desirable (and necessary) for the JWA, perhaps it is not seen that way by the Westchester County Virtual Archive, the Virtual Vietnam Archive, or Georgia’s Virtual Vault.