Digital Directions and the Direction of the Digital

Digital Directions comes to Boston

Starting tomorrow I’ll be in Boston for three days at NEDCC’s Digital Directions, where I’ll be on the “faculty” talking about Digital Repositories and Managing Digital Content. [Full disclosure here: my wife, Jessica Branco Colati is the Director of Preservation Services at NEDCC and the organizer of the conference. However, let me just say that I participated in Digital Directions BEFORE Jess went to the NEDCC so I guess that gives me some amount of credibility.]

Back when Digital Directions began in 1995 it was called “School for Scanning” because the idea was that rather than a conference where you might learn something, this was seen as a purposefully educational experience. The faculty as they were (and still are) called, were drawn from what was then a very small group of people actively involved in creating the discipline of digital curation (althogh no one called it that at the time) and were there to teach people to THINK in this new, digitally directed way. They generally stayed for the entire conference and were available to participate in discussions and mingle with the students.  I attended the School as a student in 1998 and can tell you that I was in awe of the people who I felt were actually bona-fide digital gurus.  I don’t know if any of them thought of themselves as digital gurus at the time, but they seemed to me the people who held the keys to some mystic brother- and sisterhood that was creating a new world for archives, museums and libraries. It was only later, when I had the good fortune to get to know some of them, did I learn that they were much like me, only with a bit more experience and opportunity, that is, they were navigating a new and uncharted territory with their imagination and intelligence, and their constant collaboration and discussion with their peers as guides.

From the beginning School for Scanning/Digital Directions focused on how to make decisions rather than prescriptions for how to do this or that task. It was never a training session or a software or hardware review (although goodness knows that there are always a number of people who just wanted to be given the “answers” to those questions).  But in the true educational spirit, we were urged to find those answers for ourselves, based on how we were taught to think about our own situations,

Eight years after attending School for Scanning as a student, I shared the stage as a faculty member with some of the same people who had taught me how to think like a digital archivist, and told the student audience that I was in NO WAY a digital guru, and that if I could go from student to faculty, they could too, because, after all, it was all about learning to think and learning your profession and being willing to share that knowledge.

So, I’m tremendously grateful to have the opportunity over the next few days to share my thoughts and to learn from others both on the podium and in the audience, not as one who knows the “answers” but as one who is also on the journey, because that’s what keeps us all moving forward toward whatever future we can imagine.

Special Collections and Digital Scholarship

The Reading Room at the British Museum

In the early days of digital scholarship, “real” scholarship and web delivery were seenas incompatible and even the most innovative scholars published in traditional journals. Gradually, with the development of online article archives (originally limited to pre-prints or post prints) and the emergence of the Open Access movement that model began to change. Concurrently, the development of software and systems designed to disseminate digital scholarship (DSpace and the Open Journal System for example), and course material sharing and collaboration sites, such as Rice University’s Connexions, and MIT’s Open Courseware among others, helped to alter the attitudes of scholars and tenure committees toward the idea of web-based publishing and scholarship.
This revolution is by no means complete, but the tide is definitely running in favor of electronic publishing, in either traditional or more importantly in new more open and flexible models. SHERPA/RoMEO has become the de facto aggregator of publishing rights information, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) now numbers more than 6,000 titles, and the development of the Creative Commons has permanently changed the landscape for intellectual property management.


This revolution in scholarly publishing has spawned a complimentary revolution in access to research data. In the print environment, citations were the chief means of referencing supporting evidence and data. Libraries housed untold volumes to support citation following. Even so, references to primary sources or unpublished research meant that this material remained almost permanently unavailable to all but a few scholars. Digitization of historical sources and digital repositories, as well as access to digitized printed works are changing this model. This revolution was pioneered in what has become known as the digital humanities. Most notably, and somewhat surprisingly, this occurred first in the classics and archaeology and then spread to the hard sciences.  Today, research data, in both the humanities and the hard sciences is being deposited in open-access repositories and being made available to scholars worldwide. Combine that with the permeation of electronic versions of printed works and you have a scholarly experience that mimics the link-following behavior of the web. I can read a scholarly work and click to look at the data that supports a particular point, or I can read an entire letter that is only briefly quoted in an article and tell immediately if the author took the quote out of context.


As they have for centuries, libraries can remain standing at the nexus of scholarly communication if they can pursue traditional services in modern ways. Winston Tabb of Johns Hopkins University recently made the point that “data centers are the new library stacks.” As more published information is available electronically from cloud-based providers, local libraries can become the stewards of unique scholarly data (and by scholarly data we mean all the resources used to create scholarship and new knowledge) created by faculty, and students, that contribute to the growth of knowledge. Libraries have the organizational structure and ability to potentially support long term preservation of not only the digital content, but the permanence of access that is required for scholarship. Additionally, libraries, with their understanding of copyright and ethical values of information exchange, can support Open Access publishing in its own right by leading the movement in both thought and action by becoming not only the stewards of scholarly content, but the distributors of that content as well.


It seems to me that this approach to thinking about the library, and increasing the visibility and prominence of its special and unique collections, will help libraries, especially Special Collections libraries, not only avoid the fate of Blockbuster Video, but remain relevant and important in the world of scholarship.

Going Mobile

A recent post in the AOTUS blog by David Ferriero entitled  “The Future is in the Palm or Our Hands” called for archivists to think about ways to connect archival collections to potential users through mobile devices. Ferriero was speaking specifically about NARA and its collections, but this idea is of course broadly applicable to all archives and collections.

The great opportunity for archives  in connecting to users through mobile devices comes from one special nature of these devices: they can locate themselves in space, that is, they know where they are. And since they know where they are, we can link digital objects in our collections to those locations and have them pop-up on a mobile device and announce their presence, without the user doing practically anything at all except holding up his smartphone.

The idea of geo-coding locations for historical documents (especially photographs) has been around for some time. I was a part of some work in the late 1990s at Tufts University in collaboration with the Perseus Digital Library to overlay historical resources of London and Boston

"Boston Streets" at Tufts University

onto historical maps. These were large-scale, programming intensive projects that used what we would now consider primitive, web-based GIS display tools to visually display and deliver historical information through a web-browser. They certainly were not optimized for mobile devices, because, of course those devices didn’t really exist then. While these tools were good at showing a visual representation of the location of historical information, we didn’t yet have the ability to do what we could imagine, which was to stand in a particular spot on the earth and connect with the historical record of that particular place.

The advent and general adoption of the Google maps API  made it possible to more easily connect content to maps, and the development of smart phones and web-enabled mobile devices makes it possible to deliver historical documentation to people right where the history happened even though the resources that document that history are stored in our repositories.

How great would it be to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Or stand on a street in San Francisco and see photos of that street after the 1906 earthquake? Actually, I don’t know that you CAN’T do this right now. The technology exists, I don’t know if anyone has done it yet.

Of course, there are people already doing this sort of thing. For example, if you are in Philadelphia, you can point your iPhone to and be shown historic photos of Philadelphia based on your location. North Carolina State has produced WolfWalk ( which provides information on the history of approximately 60 major sites on the NCSU campus drawn from resources at the University’s Special Collections. In both cases I need to know that Phillyhistory or WolfWalk exists and what the url is.

What would it take for my Google maps app to list, not only restaurants or barber shops, but historical documents, images, and media related to nearby places?  Well, maybe that’s getting a bit too optimistic, but we can still dream can’t we?

The Essence of Self-Government is Information

With that statement from George Mitchell as a governing principle, I set out  in 1994 to process 1,000 linear feet of papers from the former Senate Majority Leader. They came in a truck like the ones they use to move households. I had never processed anything on the scale of this collection or of this complexity. It challenged me to think differently about processing and access.

George Mitchell web site, 1999
George Mitchell web site, 1999

The first thing we did was to think about a productivity approach to processing, although in a very  paper-based way. We used a primitive, but effective, database system to manage the series and folders and, using the “report writer” function planned to create an electronic finding aid on the College’s gopher. (Anyone remember gopher?)

Well the web exploded onto the scene not too long after we started, and to our good fortune but not surprise, we found that with just a little adjustment to our report templates we could export HTML pages from our database. In the true fashion of reinventing the past in a new technology, we created a finding aid for the collection in a few short weeks that looked suspiciously like a paper finding aid in its construction and organization. We didn’t really know what to do with this new thing, but we knew we had to be there. So we

were on the web and we had pictures, and video! Even then we were exploring the potential of the web for organizing and reorganizing information. We  had a photograph “database” that was really just a categorized alphabetical list of digitized photos. We believed in searching and indexing, but didn’t have the tools in place to be able to do it, so we faked it. Similarly, the “menu” system on the left side of the finding aid is not dynamically generated, but is a set of images hard-coded into every page. We could imagine what we wanted to do, but didn’t have the tools or the expertise to do it.

Somewhat to  my astonishment, more than 10 years later, this finding tool is still available on the web as  part of a larger project to document the former Senator’s career. Take a minute to visit the George J. Mitchell Papers at

Bowdoin College for a look at the past envisioned as the future. Good enough for its time, and a beginning of understanding the power of this new thing called the World Wide Web. It is also a story of attempting, but not completely succeeding, to think out of the box. Even though many of the elements of what would become quantum archives were there for us, we just didn’t have enough experience to see it then.

p.s. Another round of thanks to Eliot Wilczek and Calley Gurley who embraced and supported the experiment. Both of them went on to careers in archives in other institutions. You were wonderful people to work with.

Of Time and Rivers Flowing …

Most people just live and do what they do, and only later they might discover that they either did something unique and wonderful, or not. Often, what they think is important at the time isn’t, and what they think isn’t important at the time is the big thing in the long run. That’s what makes the study of history so interesting.

Talking to some of the people who we consider Digital Pioneers, one of the questions I am asking is whether or not they had any idea that they were making history, or if they knew that they were doing something new and unique. While the general response is “yes” to the latter, no one has yet said that they considered themselves as making history.  At best, people were trying to change the face of research or discovery in their particular discipline or project. But there wasn’t a general sense that the work they were doing would ever merit being written about by historians.

That being said, I had a recent conversation with someone who told me that the story of humanities digitization particularly was one that needed to be told, since the humanists were always unjustly overshadowed by the better funded scientists, even though the humanists were often ahead in digital development.

Without taking sides on this one yet, I’ll say that the primary focus of the project is on the humanists. The scientists may need to get someone else to tell their story.

The project is not yet publicly available as we gather a  useful body of content. I’m looking at a preliminary unveiling in the next month or so.

Stay tuned.