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Zeros and Ones and Ones and Zeros

I accompanied my husband on a business trip to New York City not long ago. It was a whirlwind, less than 24 hour excursion, but I hadn’t been in a while and I always find the Big Apple both intellectually and sensorially stimulating—yay for NYC! I noticed on the trip that every time (I’m not exaggerating) my husband mentioned he was a magazine editor the person he was talking to asked if the magazine was available online or as an app. The age range of the people asking him was between 18 and 55. This spoke volumes to me as a person whose job is also making information available to people.

There are scores of articles written about digital information and, on our side of the coin, digitization. But how does a small historical organization keep up? What should our standards be? Do people expect everything to be accessible via a computer keyboard? Is that even possible?

Over the last dozen or so years at my institution, we’ve been slowly marching toward a larger digital presence. The catalog for our research center, including archival materials, has been on our website almost as long as we’ve had a website. In 2007, we added photographs and postcards to the database. While it is not perfect and could be improved, it is more than many organizations our size offer. We also know we should do more. We think about the records that aren’t online; the pictures that are in photo albums, the ephemera in scrapbooks,  our entire museum artifact collection.

I don’t think the general public understands the time, labor and equipment i.e. money it takes to make records ready for public viewing. I recall a line of questioning directed to my research center coordinator at a recent meeting. She was explaining the detailed process by which a large collection is being cataloged for access by patrons, in house as well as online. One person didn’t seem to grasp that this process is cataloging, not digitization and didn’t understand why people wouldn’t be able to bring up images of the records at will. This kind of thinking shows ignorance on various levels including how information is organized and how computers are deployed in this process. I don’t think this person is unique, it shows where many people are in their assumptions about the capabilities of computers and the web. While computers have made the ability to access information as easy as a few keystrokes, there are still humans on the other end that have to input that information and arrange it so that it can be retrieved.

Our goal as a small historical institution is to make every effort, with the resources we have, to provide what we can online, but make people aware that there is more to be discovered if they visited or contacted us with their research queries.

I've been making my way in the public history and museum fields for the past couple of decades and hold history degrees from Kent State and Slippery Rock Universities. Currently, I am Director & Chief Curator of the DAR Museum in Washington, DC and, on occasion, I teach museum studies, public history and history courses at Hood College in Frederick, MD.

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