There are many reasons why digital collections are helpful and are, in someways, unique. First of all, having a digital collection allows one to gather items and display them in one place. Maybe the letters written to and by a famous person are held by multiple institutions with physical locations across the country. A digital exhibit might allow these institutions to display all the letters in on place, creating a more complete of collection. This was one of the goals of the Smithsonian when they started using Flickr Commons. Because the Smithsonian is made up of lots of individual institutions with different collections in different physical locations, the wanted to use Flickr Commons bring images from their different institutions together in to one searchable place.
Secondly, digital collections can help improve public outreach. By showcasing some of what the museums has to offer, it can attract new types of visitors. This was the second goal of the Smithsonian’s use of Flickr Commons to display their digital collections. They sought to attract visitors that used Flickr, but would not normally visit their museum’s website or step foot in the physical building. They said that they chose to go where the people were, instead of making the people come to them. Their campaign was very successful in attracting new visitors and letting people know what kind of collections the Smithsonian held.
Another somewhat unique feature of digital collections is the ability to easily allows users to make contributions to the collections. This is great for building oral history collections or collections that try to preserve memories of a important event, such as the Hurricane Memory Bank or the September 11 Digital Archives.
Digitized Collections can help an institute grow the usability of its collection and the engagement with its visitors through crowdsourcing activities like transcription, tagging, or subtitling. Not only does this make the data in the collection more easily searchable, but it also provides a way for committed volunteers to really engage with the institute and its materials. For example, the National Archives allow this type of engagement through their Citizen Archivist Dashboard.
Finally, digital collections can allow others to reshape how those collections are presented and what stories are told. Tim Sherratt shares about his process of trying to document the lives of Chinese-Australians in his article “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People.” Instead of using National Archives of Australia’s database records in a traditional sense, he used the images preserved due to the White Australia Policy to create a new finding aid, “A finding aid that brings the people to the front.” He calls it “The real face of White Australia.” He believes that projects like his can help in “finding the oppressed, the vulnerable, the displaced, the marginalized and the poor and giving them their place in history.”1
There are two main ways I can use Omeka to create an engaging digital collection for my own project: to bring various objects together in one place and to use those objects to tell unique stories.
As mentioned above, one of the strengths of digital collections is bringing together digital representation of physical objects stored in different locations in order to create a fuller story. In my exhibit, I bring together documents, artifacts and paintings housed in many locations that all have to do with the Siege of Fort Sackville. For example, the Library of Congress has in its collection the Articles of Surrender, written by Henry Hamilton to George Rogers Clark, February 24, 1779. It also possess a document written by the The Virginia State Council, outlining why Henry Hamilton is being held as a Prisoner of War in Williamsburg after the Siege. While it holds both of these documents, they are in separate collections and are not linked together in any way. At the same time, the Indiana Historical Bureau owns the letter written by Patrick Henry to George Rogers Clark, giving him secret orders to attack British Forts in the West. It also own a famous painting, “Fall of Fort Sackville,” by the famous painter Frederick Coffay Yohn. Finally, a portrait of Father Pierre Gibault is found in the collections of the Indiana State Library. Without a digital exhibit like mine, all of these sources would remain in their separate collections. A digital collection allows me to amass them all in one location, where they can contribute to telling a larger story.
Once I have created this collection, I can then go about creating exhibits which showcase certain objects and present various perspectives. For example, I might use objects such as a pipe fragment to talk about the relationship the British had with the American Indians, the ceramic pieces to explore the perspective of the local French inhabitants or the brass crucifix to talk about to role of the French clergy. Because these objects will be linked to specific stories of individuals who might have used such items, it will create a better connection between the physical objects and the more abstract stories told about the individuals.
- Sherratt, Tim. “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1.1 (Winter 2011).