Fashioning Metadata: Two Casestudies

As burgeoning digital historians, understanding metadata and its significance to the online experience of museums are essential to the production of functioning online exhibits and archives. The effective application of metadata is particularly pertinent to researchers accessing the collections of those online exhibits because it depicts necessary information describing the object of research. Although I describe museums and archives here, metadata is used across the web to make the discovery of information easier. As institutions that prioritize the dissemination of quality information to a mostly technologically literate public, it makes sense for museums and archives to be more mindful of the quality of their metadata so that a wider audience can gain access to their collections. Once found, metadata makes it possible for the public to know the ins and outs of a particular item. Metadata, at least in the case of cultural institutions, usually comprises the pertinent dates, dimensions, location, and copyright of the data.

For this week’s examination of metadata, I looked at two institutions that deal with the same kinds of collections. Both the Chicago History Museum and the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Museum hold a robust online collection of costume and textiles. The Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s search engine, found through the ‘Collections’ tab on their main page for their collections, shares some of the 50,000 pieces  and their accompanying metadata with website viewers. The catalogued objects were listed neatly with a photograph, the associated dates, as well as its corresponding object number. When the viewer clicks on an image, they are taken to a more detailed entry with more information about the history of the object, the donor, and designer information if known. Interestingly, the FIT also offers two ways of viewing the objects in their collections. They can either be viewer in “light box view,” that is with images and no metadata for quick skimming, or “list view” which enables the viewer to see more information on the object before clicking on it.

 

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Metadata for ‘Tea gown,’ c. 1925.

Similarly, the Chicago Museum’s Costume and Textile Collection offers a “light box” view of their collections, but the functionality for the purposes of researching costumes and textiles specifically is more difficult. It may be an unfair comparison, as the FIT is solely dedicated to the preservation of textiles and costumes while the Chicago History Museum holds other kinds of artifacts as well. Like the FIT, users can perform a general search for specific items that appear across numerous collection; however, unlike the FIT, all of the costumes and textiles artifacts are lumped together in one sub-section of the database. To their credit, Chicago Museum’s digital collections provides “suggested topics” and filtered searches that the careful construction of metadata and subsequent tagging made possible. Although the organization within the costumes collection itself is burdensome, the tagging of pieces of metadata allows for greater connection among objects than the structured and finite navigation of the FIT. CHM1CHM3

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‘Butterfly’ gown and a portion of the accompanying metadata.

The FIT’s metadata seems more an afterthought in consideration of a digital necessity while the Chicago Museum uses its metadata to create opportunities for heightened engagement. Both sites provided comprehensive background information for their digital collections, although ease of access slightly differed. Metadata can provide researchers and museum goers with necessary awareness of the essential background information regarding collections in a museum’s care. It behooves institutions to “fashion” detailed metadata for consumption while also taking care to make it easily accessible to all.

 

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Access to the “New America”: Working in the Columbia Archives

Over Spring Break while visiting my home town of Columbia, Maryland, I visited someplace  I had never experienced in my twenty plus years of residence: the Columbia Archives. As a student of history, former resident, and Graduate Assistant in an archives on Loyola University Chicago’s campus, I am embarrassed  to admit that I had no idea that the Columbia Archives existed, let alone the valuable collections they house in their repository. My visit happened as a consequence of a project I am working on this semester with both the Columbia Archives and an organization called Preservation Maryland, a preservation organization that works to advocate for the policies required to make the historic preservation of historical places possible as well as perform direct engagement with audiences concerning the importance of their work and the sites they endeavor to save. This semester I have supported the creation of a history tour narrating the founding and impact of Columbia, Maryland, a planned city of over 100,000 that sits between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Developed by James Rouse in the 1960s, the vision for Columbia was for it to serve as an example of religious, economic, and racial tolerance to the rest of the country.

As I began the process of researching the history of Columbia’s founding, I crossed paths with Jeannette Lichtenwalner, the Assistant Archivist and Director of Digital Initiatives at the Columbia Archives. As the Assistant Archivist, Jeannette aids researchers that come into the archives and directs them to materials of interest; however, her role as the Director of Digital Initiatives occupies a good amount of her time. At the moment, the Columbia Archives has no digitized collections on their website. Jeannette, with the help of a bare bones staff of herself, the archivist, the director, and some volunteers are tasked with formulating strategies to pick which collections should be digitized, acquire funding to hire someone to upload the materials and buy the expensive equipment needed, and decide what format the digitization project will take. Basically, they have to start from scratch.

The struggles of the Columbia Archives to modernize and remain relevant in our current digital age brings the realities of understaffed community-based organizations into stark relief with the large, well-funded, state of the art websites and digital projects available on the History Web today. As we have discussed in class various times, smaller institutions that lack the revenue find it difficult to evolve when technologies change so quickly, and funding is not so readily available. By the time the grant has been written, the technology necessary for the project’s completion has already been made outdated by newer innovations. Talking with Jeannette about the problems with digitization the Columbia Archives faces makes me further appreciate the hard work of putting history online for public consumption.

 

The’History Web’ for Teachers and Learners

As I read Rosenzweig and Cohen’s chapter on the history and characteristics of the “history web,” the term they use to describe the collective of history websites on the World Wide Web, I was particularly drawn to their discussion of the genre of ‘teaching and learning’ history sites. Historical texts, exhibits, and primary source material are inarguable sources of instruction; unsurprisingly, most makers of history websites now incorporate some resources that allow those materials to reach teachers in K-12 classrooms. Whether lesson plans for direct instruction or digitally accessible documents and images, the history web provides a significant source of material for both teachers and learners inside and outside the classroom.

A site that exemplifies the best of the teaching and learning genre is the Children & Youth in History website. Created by the University of Missouri-Kansas City in association with the Center for History and New Media, the crisp, colorful  website not only provides a easily navigated resource for both students and their instructors, but allows free access to more than 300 annotated primary sources. The primary sources are separated by eight separate regions and include such source material as paintings, governments documents, excerpts from literary works, photographs of artifacts, the list goes on. However, more than simply serving as a repository for teachers and lesson plans, the website’s creators encourage its users to engage critically with the material, specifying ways to do so in their formulation of sample questions and modules that go along with groupings of source material. In fact on their introductory page the website developers link to a detailed discourse on how students should “read” such source material while recognizing the limitations of gleaning historic events from such sources.

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Children and Youth History Homepage url: https://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/

The site is not without imperfections. A common problem for history sites, this website does not consistently update outside links for its source material. Sustainability is an issue as several of the links lead to 404 pages. However, this would not be a problem if all of the sources were embedded within their respective pages. Unfortunately some of the sources require clunky downloading while others are easily displayed in the window. As a result, navigating the website, and the individual sources, is time consuming unless you use one of their teacher ‘modules’– a course pack of primary source material with guided instruction built into the framework. Although separated by region, the materials are not organized by type. Separation by documents, art, and artifacts would create an interface more conducive to exploration by a young audience. As a 24 year-old I found the act of scrolling through the artifacts taxing. I can only imagine what a young student would think!

Despite its faults the website offers excellent opportunities to examine detailed account of an often untold component of history: experiences of childhood and youth. As we age, accounts of childhood events are often considered inconsequential compared to the larger issues of the ‘adult’ world, such as politics, sex and sexuality, economics, etc. As public historians, we should seek to reach all audiences for the information retained in our respective institutions. Why should “serious” academic work always be linked with adult actors? The best way to connect with children and young adults, and to ultimately make them better consumers of public history, is to make the past immediately applicable to their lives in the present. What better way to do that than to “connect” them, through the power of the internet, to evidence of that past.