Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Digital Archives: Update

One of the reasons I began following this blog was because of its attentiveness to web resources and archives. This post sold me on the promise of digital history. This one introduced me to a favorite teaching tool, an on-line collection of presidential campaign ads. I return to this one whenever I need a photo. There is no substitute for touching and seeing "real" sources, or for physically sifting through piles of archival material (even - perhaps especially - the material that initially appears irrelevant). But resources like these are a boon to every historian with limited time or a limited a research budget.
In the spirit of sharing online finds, here are some that I've used and enjoyed: the oral histories on the Social Security website (full transcripts of interviews with people like Arthur Altmeyer and Wilbur Mills); the American Left Ephemera Collection from the University of Pittsburgh's Digital Research Library; the Supreme Court oral argument recordings at; and the Disability Rights and Independent Living collection, available through the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.
It's also now possible to generalize about where to look for treasure troves of digital archives.
  • Second, government libraries and archives. The National Archives and Records Administration has digitized over 125,000 historical documents. You can find them through NARA's searchable database or through the topical "galleries" (e.g., "Courts and Cases," "Federal Programs") on the website. NARA also offers a link to major historical documents, in case you want quick access to an image of the Bill of Rights or the Emancipation Proclamation. The Library of Congress has digitized a number of useful resources, including historical newspapers, documents from the Constitutional Convention, and evidence from famous trials. Most presidential libraries also have digitization projects. I've used the resources on the Harry S. Truman Library website and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library website. These online repositories are sometimes more limited, but usually offer speeches, photos, executive orders, and oral histories.
  • Third, historical societies and institutes. These archives often have online exhibits or "projects" (such as the one the Gilder Lehman Institute assembled on the Dred Scott decision) which hint at the material in the broader collections. Some, like the Massachusetts Historical Society, have put vast amounts of material online.
For more online archives specific to legal historians, check out the long list that the Triangle Legal History Seminar has assembled.

But I can't end on that note: a digital archives update is not complete without a reference to the great digitization debates.
  • The "millenarian prophecies" that historian Anthony Grafton described in his 2007 New Yorker piece continue. Whither paper books and brick-and-mortar libraries? I encourage interested readers to consult the Historical Society blog for ruminations on this topic.
  • More pragmatic, perhaps, are conversations about the limits and potential pitfalls of the digitization endeavor. Columbia Law School recently hosted a symposium on the legal issues (copyright, defamation, privacy) that can arise from making archives accessible on the web. (Concise takeaway: "putting archival material online is often a lot easier said than done.")
  • Meanwhile, this era of trim budgets has given new urgency to ongoing discussions about which physical archives should be digitized and what information from the virtual realm (a.k.a. "born-digital" materials) ought to be preserved. (Should we devote resources to saving "tweets"? The Library of Congress thinks so.)
Check out this excellent post from the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University Law School for a more thorough discussion of these issues.