Date: Fri, 21 Mar 1997 12:10:22 -0500 (EST)
From: Peter Nelson <>
To: Mellon Archives Project DistList
Subject: UPDATE on Archives Digitization Project


1. First on-line product completed: Sophia Smith exhibit
2. Current status and 6-month outlook
3. Electronic exhibits vs. elecronic collections
4. A new paradigm?
5. Project web site and faculty "focus group"


Greetings after a long dry spell. I will try to make these updates a regular monthly thing.

1. First on-line product completed: Sophia Smith exhibit
The final version of the Sophia Smith web exhibit is now complete ( Changes were incorporated into the site recently based on comments from library directors and archivists as well as perhaps more objective interested others. Mainly the changes involved clarifying the sources of quotes and images and dispelling the impression of contemporary bias. Take another look at it if you haven't seen it recently. Comments generally have been positive. I think now we've reached consensus that the exhibit is ready to be unleashed on the public and it's time to move on.

2. Current status and 6-month outlook
Last week I moved my base of operations from Smith to the project's "home base" at Mt. Holyoke and I'm getting settled in to a new office just adjacent to the MHC Archives. At Smith, in addition to working on the Sophia Smith exhibit, I spent several weeks surveying collections in the College Archives, identifying and gathering information on materials that will be most appropriate for digitization. I now have a preliminary list of Smith archival sources encompassing a wide variety of content and formats. It is a very large body of material, too, and it will have to be pared back later on when we see what best complements the materials identified at the other institutions. The current phase of the project, then, is devoted to surveying additional collections and gathering data. This will continue at the MHC archives and at Amherst and I expect it will last well into the summer. In the meantime I will be reaching decisions about software and hardware purchases. At the end of the data gathering phase, when we actually know what stuff we want to make available, it will be useful to call in Paul Conway as a technical consultant to look at methods.

3. Electronic exhibits vs. elecronic collections
A subject of much discussion among the archivists recently has been the issue of creating an electronic product that is very clearly a *collection* and not an *exhibit*. If you look on the web, you'll find a lot of other archival repositories creating what are essentially on-line exhibits. Almost no one has produced on-line collections, outside of photographic collections perhaps. The aim of our project, and the source of our innovation, will be to gather collections of very different kinds of material *and* present them in something more than a precious item-level electonic display case. The distinction is clear if you think of a conventional exhibition, which is an artificial gathering of materials selected from multiple collections and accompanied by interpretive text written by a curator especially for that occasion. The critical issue is *context*. Do exhibitions remove materials from their original context? Yes, and that's principally why so much interpretive text is required. Exhibits involve a large amount of a curator's personal judgment and selection and interpretation. Archival principles, on the other hand, make very much of the maintenance of provenance (not mixing items from different sources or creators) and original order (not disturbing the arrangement in which materials were created, if it is meaningful). The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and collections must be allowed to tell their own stories. [An aside: archival theory, I've always thought, has much in common with archaeology.] The Sophia Smith web site is an *exhibit*. What we want to create in the rest of the Mellon project are *collections*. If you look at Duke University's "Digitial Scriptorium" (which actually is what incited our discussions recently ..., you'll find (in my opinion) a blurring of the line between exhibits and collections. This is a well-organized and attractive site, but if you look closely you see that single items have been selected from larger collections, and in at least one instance a photograph has been appropriated to accompany a manuscript with which it is unrelated! No doubt the Duke site attracts the attention of students and other researchers, but it is really mainly an exhibit, not a collection. We want to go beyond the exhibit. If you have any thoughts on this, I'd be happy to hear from you.

4. A new paradigm? If you made it through the long-winded lecture above, you've seen that if we are to achieve our ambitious goals of building electronic archival *collections* to support research, we have our work cut out for us. It is clear from ongoing discussions among the archivists at the five institutions that the most appropriate way to organize digitized collections -- really the only useful way -- is to provide access that reflects the organization and provenance of the originals. This means that finding aids, a standard archival tool, should be called into service for digital access. At least as much effort will be spent in this project preparing suitable finding aids as will be spent in digitizing collections. But... One thing the 5C archivists have realized in recent discussions is that we have the opportunity to develop a new model for delivering content of collections that goes beyond the standard function of the paper finding aid. Our conception of this new model still needs to be worked out more fully, but essentially we envision a hybrid between an exhibit and a collection, in which the finding aid acts as the central relay between the two. Extracts from a collection could be made available as a kind of "front end" giving researchers and casual browsers alike a sense of what the collection holds; if a person has sufficient interest in exploring more of the collection s/he can use the finding aid to see how it is organized, then follow the links to the actual digitized materials. The new potential here is that the finding aid could function in its traditional way *and* as a rich and interesting learning tool in itself. We'll keep you informed as this concept develops.

5. Project web site and faculty "focus group" A project web site is under development. Its main purpose as I see it is not to serve the project team (though it will do that) but to attract the interest of faculty and students at the five institutions and possibly outsiders as well, so that they can monitor progress, give feedback, and generally generate enthusiasm and support among our potential users. The web site will also include summary lists of materials tentatively identified for inclusion in the project. I will announce when it is ready. As collections are being surveyed, it is now a critical time to begin soliciting the advice and feedback of faculty members who will be interested in this project. Susan Perry has already given me the names of several people on the MHC faculty who will be contacted. Will the other library directors please also send me the names of perhaps 5-6 faculty who will be willing/anxious to offer their views? These will form our "focus groups," as they say in the marketing biz.

Spring is a time to get the mental sap flowing and emerge from our hibernation to do pastoral dances. In that spirit, I look forward to hearing from you on any matters pertaining to the archives digitization project!


Peter Nelson
5 College Project Archivist
c/o Mount Holyoke College Archives
(413) 538-3020