Metadata: Two Case Studies

As Murtha Baca points out in the edited volume Introduction to Metadata, good metadata is an investment that ensures that your resources can remain useful and accessible through all the changes in hardware and software that are still to come. While I personally have not given this topic much thought in the past, it is clear that metadata planning and updating is an essential part of online collections and exhibition design that many public historians must become familiar with. To get a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, I took a closer look at two online exhibits to compare their use of metadata.

As might be expected, recent online exhibitions mounted by the National Archives are comprehensive in their use of metadata and thoughtful about its presentation. The exhibit “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” has as its dual mission the preservation and presentation of materials relating to a now nearly vanished Jewish community in Iraq, which were discovered in the flooded basement of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service’s building by the U.S. Army in 2003. Photos of items in the exhibit are uncluttered by too much metadata–usually just their date, creator’s name, and a brief description–but they link to a single record for each item with much more detailed information organized in the categories “Bibliographic Information,” “Format,” “Preservation,” and “Metadata.” The archive also provides a helpful guide to searching the collection that notes what kinds of information each object was catalogued with. Because the goal is to make this large archive as accessible and searchable as possible, the investment in extensive metadata makes sense, but I also appreciated how that information did not clutter the exhibit pages themselves.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an online exhibit on Nazi propaganda that is decent, but not as comprehensive. The artifact gallery allows you to search by year, format, and theme (out of a list provided), but the artifacts themselves do not display a full complement of metadata when clicked on. In addition, I wonder about the choice to set up a predetermined list of themes by which to search: it seems somewhat restrictive for such a gallery. In developing our online exhibit, my group will have to think about how much time we want to devote to metadata, and how much of it we want to directly display alongside the artifacts.




Networking at NCPH 2016

Rather than describe a single informational interview, for this post I wanted to discuss my first experience at the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History, which took place this week in Baltimore. I chose to attend the conference to get a better sense of developments in the field and the range of jobs and projects that public historians engage with; I also hoped to meet a few new people and talk to them about their work. On both counts the conference was a success. I left feeling inspired by many of the thoughts, ideas, and questions I heard, and I got a better sense of what the opportunities and challenges of certain types of positions might be.


For example, I spoke to a young woman who works in exhibitions at the 9/11 Memorial Museum—the institution about which I wrote my undergraduate thesis, and which I find fascinating. She came to the job with an MA in international history, not a museum studies or public history degree, and explained that much of what she enjoyed about her job came from the excitement of welcoming hundreds or thousands of visitors every day and getting to see how the museum’s displays affected some of them. Since exhibition development is an area of the field I am considering, it was helpful to hear that her history background had prepared her well for the job—I hope that mine will do the same! I am also hoping that my future positions will include a variety of types of work, something else that she confirmed is part of her current job.

In addition, I have been considering ultimately pursuing work in the federal government, perhaps with the Smithsonian or the National Park Service. Based on presentations at sessions and on a couple of conversations, I have been thinking more about the limitations that can be placed on historians working at federal sites, particularly when such sites are controversial. Some of the presenters were reporting on jobs that they no longer occupied, and indicated that they could now speak with more candor than would have been possible while they were federal employees. I also wonder if I have the temperament for the diplomacy that can be necessary for these types of jobs, especially if the topic area they deal with is controversial. The former historian of the Nixon Presidential Library, who oversaw the transformation of the Watergate Gallery there from a largely false presentation that excused Nixon of responsibility to a more accurate and damning portrayal, described receiving complaints every day of work about his oral history project, his exhibition development, and even his clothes.

Overall, I found that my first experience at NCPH was a valuable one both in terms of learning about some timely issues and problems in public history, and in terms of illuminating my vision of what kinds of positions I might be best suited for in the future.



“The Vault” and the History Web on Slate

The popular generalist online magazine Slate has a robust presence on what scholars Roy Rosenzweig and Daniel J. Cohen have termed the “History Web.” Slate frequently publishes posts that place current events or popular culture in historical context. With Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump apparently reluctant to distance himself from the endorsement of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, Slate posted a long account of the eradication of the first Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s. The success of the Oscar-winning movie The Revenant prompted a piece about Americans’ long fascination with the myth of Hugh Glass, which the film retells. The site even hosts a paywalled online course on the “History of American Slavery,” a collaboration of Slate writers Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion with renowned scholars of the Civil War. A subscription gets you nine podcast episodes; primary and secondary sources on the topic; excerpts from books by leading scholars; and a private discussion group for participants to engage with each other and the material. The Slate Academy material combines all the genres of the History Web mentioned by Rosenzweig and Cohen; archive, secondary source, educational, and discussion. More traditional textual material is accompanied by innovative maps and timelines that take advantage of the potential Cohen and Rosenzweig saw, in 2006, for digital history projects.

Since Slate Academy is behind a paywall, I’ll also discuss an open-access area of the site’s history content, the blog The Vault, another project of writer and American Studies PhD Rebecca Onion. The Vault (tagline: “Historical Treasures, Oddities, and Delights”) is at first glance a collection of historical ephemera, well-conceived to appeal to Slate‘s regular audience. With short posts and catchy headlines, the blog usually features an image, map, document, or other artifact that readers might find odd or interesting to glance over, accompanied by a write-up that places it into historical context.

However, the Vault accomplishes more than just sharing “historical oddities.” By linking to the online databases where she finds her material, and often featuring whole collections or innovative digital history projects, Onion helps to aggregate and share the work of a diverse “History Web.” In addition, the blog boasts features that are designed to make it useful as a cohesive learning tool, or a jumping off point for future research. For example, Onion recently added a timeline that displays all the documents the Vault has posted in its three-year existence, in chronological order.

Each entry links to the archive where it’s hosted, and also to one or more “related” posts, making chronological and thematic connections easier. The goal, in her words, is to combat the fact that the Internet is a “relentless decontextualizer.” In her post introducing the new tool, she writes that she found the process revealing: for example, a preponderance of posts about the late 19th and early 20th centuries corresponds to her own academic interests as well as the availability of public domain material from that era. This kind of analysis is exactly what Cohen and Rosenzweig point to as the great potential of digital tools for historians: the ability to aggregate, rearrange, and therefore gain new substantive insight into historical materials that are themselves the same.