Category Archives: Content

A Comparison of Other Virtual Archives’ Content

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.


Oral History and the JWA

The rise of Oral History is one of the most exciting developments in the fields of History and Cultural Heritage Studies. Oral histories bring about new voices and sources to fields and allow us to look at the past in new ways. However, creating and preserving oral histories presents us with a number of new challenges as well.

As a relatively small cultural heritage repository, the JWA has taken on a role as both a repository of oral histories but as a guide for others who wish to conduct and preserve oral histories as well.

Oral history allows a number of different people to participate in creating narratives of the past. The JWA recognizes and encourages this kind of participatory action research. They have created a guide for conducting oral history, In Our Own Voices: Conducting Life History Interviews with American Jewish Women. About the guide, they state, “Designed for use by individuals, as well as community groups, the guide invites readers to become “makers of history” by using oral history to capture and preserve the stories of their mothers and grandmothers, teachers and colleagues, community members and friends.”

An important thing to note is that In Our Own Voices is licensed under Creative Commons and available for download as a free PDF on the JWA website. By creating resources such as this guide, the JWA is not only encouraging others to conduct oral history interviews, they are directly engaging in a discourse that promotes access to and sustainability of cultural heritage.

Preserving oral history can be particularly difficult as it dictates that the recordings be maintained carefully across their (hopefully long) lifespan. The JWA has an oral history archive that they are working to make easily accessible to the public while ensuring that the materials remain preserved. According to their website:

“For over a decade, the Jewish Women’s Archive has been conducting oral histories. Parts of these interviews have been used in various exhibits on our website. Now we have embarked upon an ambitious program to preserve the interviews by digitizing and maintaining them, along with edited transcripts and other digital artifacts, in a secure repository. Over the next few years we will be increasing access to these materials and making them easier to find and search. We are also developing tools so that teachers and students can use the interviews, selected clips, images, and other primary documents to create online displays and presentations. We began podcasting from this resource in the fall of 2008, and the first full oral histories were moved to a digital repository in winter 2009. We are currently seeking funding and support to make contents in this repository publicly accessible as we continue our work to assure its long-term preservation.”

According to Ari Davidow’s report on the work he and his colleagues are doing at the JWA oral histories, preservation and sustainability of materials like oral histories can happen for small institutions when they turn to cloud computing and open source software. The JWA has turned to Drupal and Fedora in this effort. Davidow states, “In this project we approached long-term Digital Asset Management by accomplishing just enough work with Fedora so that our most urgent assets could be ingested and managed. At the same time we directed development in Drupal, an open source content management system. So that as we develop our public web ‘face’ we are also developing the common ways of working with data and displaying digital objects. Soon, Drupal, an excellent CMS which has no particular digital asset management affordances will be ready to serve as the front end to Fedora, an excellent Digital Repository Framework with enviable digital asset management hooks, but no interface of which to speak.”

Through collaboration with different communities, the JWA is working towards solutions for digital sustainability and a historical landscape with and increased plurality of voices.

Crowdsourcing Content at the JWA

Crowdsourcing can been seen as a redefinition of outsourcing, or “the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call” [Oomen, Johan & Lora Aroyo (2011) “Crowdsourcing in the Cultural Heritage Domain: Opportunities and Challenges”, C&T’11, 29 June-2 July 2011, QUT, Brisbane, Australia: Crowdsourcing is a growing way to both elicit community participation (falling primarily under the community watch and participation section of the Digital Curation Centre’s Curation Lifecycle model), and to complete vast projects that overwhelm staff resources (allowing for community members to contribute to various other portions of the DCC’s lifecycle model).

The JWA utilizes crowdsourcing on several of its projects, including: Jewish Women On the Map, This Week in History, and We Remember.

The “On the Map” project attempts to compile a map of sites, buildings, and public art related to Jewish women – as the JWA’s website notes, “like other under-represented groups, Jewish women have left few lasting marks on the American landscape.” By allowing users to add locations (and photos, if they wish), the JWA is able to provide access to physical sites that have communal meaning, and share that meaning with viewers from around the globe.

Screenshot of “On the Map”, April 25, 2012.

“This Week in History” is a calendar of events related to Jewish women. Calendar events may be submitted by users, or written by staff members, and feature the ability to comment on individual entries. Reading like a combination of oral history and personal testimonials, “We Remember” is a collection of memorials to deceased Jewish women – the JWA provides a list of guidelines and tips to help users contribute to this unique feature. In addition to these current features, the JWA is fundraising for project to add a “people’s compendium” to Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia – the people’s compendium would add a component similar to Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia, which would allow users to add their own content. Each entry currently includes a comment section, designed to allow users to submit their thoughts, but also point out any errors within entries.

There are several challenges to crowdsourcing as a tool used by cultural heritage sites. One issue is that of expertise – how do you know that the information users are inputting is correct? How does an institution ensure an adequate amount of community input and participation? An email exchange with Ari Davidow, the JWA’s Director of Online Strategy, shed some light on how the JWA deals with the pitfalls inherent in crowdsourcing: “Yes, we always worry that no one will contribute, and indeed, without ongoing advertising (usually in the form of tweets, facebook updates, e-letters, etc.) anything on the web vanishes quickly. People are also more likely to contribute when/if their friends have done so, so much work to build community around specific projects. We try to be clear that user-generated content may not be accurate and, especially, that nobody is vetting such content.” In some respects, a virtual archive may be easier to adapt to the challenges of crowdsourcing – since the JWA has always existed online, rather than in a physical repository, gathering a virtual community was a challenge being met head-on, rather than something the institution had to decide to invest resources in. As Ari mentions, the JWA attempts to keep their users informed that, since user-generated content is not being checked over by the staff, errors may appear. On the website’s FAQ, there is a section that directs users to email the JWA, or comment directly on the section of the site that is incorrect, in order to have that error fixed.

As Johan Oomen and Lora Aroya state in their “Crowdsourcing in the Cultural Heritage Domain: Opportunities and Challenges,” while crowdsourcing may not be perfect, it “as the potential to help build a more open, connected, and smart cultural heritage with involved consumers and providers…” Getting users involved and benefitting from their knowledge and passion allows a cultural heritage organization to not only enrich their own collections, but to also build and maintain a devoted user base that will potentially visit the site multiple times, donate funds, and encourage other community members to get involved as well. Given these objectives and possibilities, crowdsourced content appears to be a perfect fit for the JWA.

Where does the JWA’s content come from?

As a virtual archive, the JWA does not physically hold archival materials. Rather, according to their website, they “provide access to a wide variety of resources, including many primary sources, which tell the stories of Jewish women in North America.” Much of the material made available by the JWA is either staff-generated, or derives from digitization projects undertaken by the organization. The JWA aims to facilitate research at more traditional archives (the website features a searchable database that identifies material on Jewish women held by American repositories), and staff curate online exhibitions on various topics related to the lives of Jewish women, contribute to the “Jewesses with Attitude” blog, and provide resources for teachers (including running a professional development program for teachers and creating downloadable lesson plans). The JWA staff also made Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia available (and searchable!) online, digitized a four-year run of The American Jewess, and created an online walking tour of the Triangle Factory fire.

According to an email exchange with Ari Davidow, the JWA’s Director of Online Strategy, “Things get digitized when there is funding to do so! Almost everything we do is project driven, so even if I desperately want to update something or to digitize new items, tough luck for me.I can either put together a project and find a way to get it funded, or live without. I have some small discretion, but not much. On the other hand, we’re not a traditional archive. We don’t generally have assets that need digitization. A more usual process for us it to find assets in other archives that we wish permission to use for a new project (a new curriculum, for instance) and negotiating appropriate rights.” Since the JWA doesn’t have traditional archival holding, Davidow points out that their digitization projects are always collaborative efforts that involve ensuring the JWA’s ability to display that content legally – projects mentioned above, such as Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia and The American Jewess, are excellent examples of this type of content.

But in addition to gathering together and creating all of these excellent resources for researching Jewish women, the JWA also crowdsources material for many of its features. My next post will concentrate on the how crowdsourcing works at the JWA, by focusing on specific projects coordinated by the archive.