Super-Aggregators as Digital History Tool

Much has been written about the usefulness of digitisation for history research and humanities research more generally.  It has been noted that the nature of history research means that history researchers use digital tools in different ways than other humanities scholars.  In their survey of 213 North American and Western European historians, Gibbs and Owens (2012) outline results that suggest that the primary use of digital tools by historians is to speed up traditional research methodologies.  They write that where digitised primary and secondary sources are concerned, historians tend to value quantity over quality: “In contrast to other disciplines like philology or textual criticism, where exact transcription is crucial, historians frequently preferred resources that offer large quantities of materials with even a crude full-text component. This sentiment likely reflects their primary use of technology, namely that finding references and information is a much higher priority than using tools to analyze primary sources” (ibid).  In 2007, the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project at Northern Illinois University Libraries was lauded for being unlike any existing historically oriented digitisation project, in that its website also included a number of multimedia and interpretive materials (VandeCreek 2007).  Most discussion on such projects concentrates almost exclusively on the question of access and how such access has led to the democratisation of history research. Super aggregators such as Europeana and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) would seem then to be a natural progression from digitisation projects that were organised around one research question or subject.  Such aggregators are by their nature hugely accessible and represent a further step in the democratisation of access to cultural heritage objects, but here I want to discuss their usefulness as a tool for historians.

The so-called super aggregators represent a new development in online digital resources and in particular of open shared resources.  Europeana was the first of such projects, describing itself as a cross border, cross domain, single access point for digitised cultural heritage materials provided by various European libraries, museums, archives, galleries, audiovisual collections and other memory institutions.  Similarly, the DPLA, serves as “the central link in an expanding network of cultural institutions that want to make their holdings more visible to the public” (Howard 2013).  According to its founder, Dan Cohen, the DPLA is not concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage objects but rather with being a connector or aggregator of digital and digitised cultural heritage content.  Both Europeana and the DPLA provide access to millions of objects from thousands of content providers.  Both have standardised the metadata provided by contributing institutions and provide basic search and browse functions.  Searchers are given access to a preview of the object with accompanying metadata provided by the content provider.  This immediately begs the question of how such aggregators are more useful than search engines such as Google.  Maxwell (2010) is sceptical about the usefulness of digital archives when compared with a search engine such as Google Books.  He suggests as assessment criteria, the number of hits for a given search, and the ease of access, which he measures in page loads and mouse clicks.  He uses a search for “Fichte” to compare Google Books to Europeana, and finds Europeana wanting.  His conclusions are based on what he believes to be Europeana’s inefficient and inaccurate interface and more significantly on the unavailability of full text search.  The reference to Europeana as an archive is to misunderstand its primary function, and I would also suggest that this comparison is not useful as it attempts to equate what are essentially two different tools.  However, his criticism of Europeana’s interface has some merit, as it is somewhat ungainly and not as intuitive as it could be; it is certainly not as intuitive as the DPLA’s interface, in fact, is.

Both Europeana and the DPLA have built an open API which they hope will encourage the independent development of applications, tools, and resources that make use of the data contained in both platforms.  The DPLA website lists completed and proposed projects based on their API, which is designed to be extensible in order to cater for the varying degrees of technical sophistication of the DPLA’s audience.  Stephanie Lampkin, a community rep for the DPLA, also explains that there are four interfaces – exhibitions, bookshelf, map, and timeline – which could be useful for research.  She suggests that the Map can be used as an excellent visualisation tool to pinpoint exactly where resources are available.  Gibbs and Owens (2010) found that the respondents in their survey were mostly interested in the availability of as many resources as possible.  They were concerned about gated access but had little interest in other tools that might help them make use of the objects they were accessing in novel ways.  In an interview with John Palfrey (2013), Dan Cohen suggested that one of the benefits of the DPLA for academic libraries was that it can be used to suggest research materials and collections beyond a home institution, to create virtual exhibits from federated sites which would serve to enhance the scholarship of students and faculty.  Aggregators use their metadata to point searchers to records relevant to their searches.  This has the effect of increasing the visibility of small and potentially unknown archives and collections.  According to Gibbs and Owens this access to a large quantity and variety of resources is typically what historians require from a digital tool.  Perhaps this is a symptom of a general reluctance to embrace digital tools among historians, however as things stand, such super aggregators perform an important and desired function, one which could not easily be substituted with a search engine, no matter how sophisticated.  Access to such a large amount of content from different cultural domains not only provides historians with access to a large quantity of both searched for and unknown digital collections, it also, by providing such access, has the potential to open up new research questions.

Bibliography

  1. DPLA. Digital Public Library of America. 2014. Web. 26 November 2014.
  2. DPLA. Meet our Community Reps: Using DPLA as a Research and Teaching Tool. June 17 2014.  Web. 28 November 2014.
  3. Europeana.eu. Europeana. 2014. Web.  20 November 2014.
  4. Gibbs, F. and Owens, T. “Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Toward Broader Audiences and User-centered Designs.Digital Humanities Quarterly. 2 (2012). Web. 29 November 2014.
  5. Howard, J. “Digital Public Library of America: Young but Well Connected.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 60.1 (2013). 28 November 2014.
  6. Palfrey, J. “What is the DPLA?Library Journal. 7 (2013).  Web.  28 November 2014.
  7. Maxwell, A. “Digital Archives and History Research: Feedback from an End-user.Library Review.  1 (2010).  Web.  20 November 2014.
  8. VandeCreek, D. “‘Webs of Significance’: The Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, New Technology, and the Democratization of History.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. 1.1 (2007) Web. 28 November 2014.

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