March 2007


The Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums doesn’t have a very active website, but they do host a legislative update page with news on museum-related bills in the Minnesota Legislature.

It’s pretty fascinating:  grants to the MHS to regrant for preservation and for county historical society grants-in-aid, large grants to children’s museums in St. Paul, Duluth and Grand Rapids.  You learn that the Minnesota legislature really does value museums and the MHS, but also will give appropriations to single museums if someone lobbies for them (I’d love to talk to the folks at the Nicollet County Historical Society about how they came to get site improvement funding from the state).   The MAHLM doesn’t publish a feed, but you can create one at Feed43 or similar sites.

In other MAHLM news, they’ve announced some info on their spring conference, to whit:

The Alliance spring conference and workshop will be Friday, May 4, at the Sherburne County Historical Society in Becker. Planned topics include fundraising ideas and a review of the MHS Grants-In-Aid program. A survey for people to offer thoughts on the grants program will be mailed in early April and also posted on this web site.

As a history blogger, I am required by law to talk about this article on digitization which appeared in the NYT this Sunday (might require registration).

As more museums and archives become digital domains, and as electronic resources become the main tool for gathering information, items left behind in nondigital form, scholars and archivists say, are in danger of disappearing from the collective cultural memory, potentially leaving our historical fabric riddled with holes.

Though it’s great to read an article on archives and digitization in the Times, even in the Business section, the whole argument strikes me as specious. As Sharon Howard counters,

But only a few of us ever were willing or able to go out there in the first place. Archival research has always been a minority pursuit, given the commitment and resources (including time) that it demands. Is it really the case that that minority will be even smaller in the future because some research can be done without leaving one’s desk? Or is digital history creating large numbers of new researchers who, even if what they’re doing is limited by what’s available online, would never have even contemplated visiting archives or record offices to look at original documents?

The Times article seems like a rehearsal of the argument that since we’ve got the internet, no one will go to the library anymore, just replacing internet with “digitization projects” and library with “special collections”–and we know that that hasn’t proved true with libraries.

Sharon’s point is especially important here, though: not many people go to archives and special collections in the first place. The museum I work for is rather small and obscure, open twice a week, in the basement of a hospital. We don’t have the resources to digitize all of our collections, but the bit the Minnesota Digital Library is doing, and the oral history digitization and collecting I’m working on, will certainly increase the use of our collections: people will know that we’re around and have collections. If the only part of our collections researchers use are the photos up on the Minnesota Reflections website,* we’ll still probably double our collections use.

Greater access equals greater use, but it’s not an either/or proposition. Archives are not abandoning their mandate to hold objects in trust because they’re digitizing some and not others; in fact, they’re fulfilling their mission to the greatest extent possible with these new tools.

*They’re not up yet, I just wanted to link to it.

Some interesting museum- and history-related conferences with CFP deadlines coming up.

Rethinking Museums, an interdisciplinary academic conference 5/3-5/4 in Seattle.  Looks like it’s aimed mostly at folks in the Seattle area.  They have a lovely logo, and of course, who doesn’t like to talk about the future of museums?  Abstracts due 3/26

SHOT, the history of technology conference, this year in DC 10/18-10/21.  Abstracts due 3/16 (and if anyone would like to join a panel on curating medical instrument collections, contact me!)

For some reason I thought there were more, but it seems that the MCN cfp closed last week.

Coming up here on PH:  a discussion of the Academic Health Center (UMN) History Project kickoff which happened last week, thoughts on nurses in the military (our museum’s next exhibit), and even more about timelines!

Brett started with a huge laugh from the crowd saying that he didn’t want to steal IMLS’ thunder but that NEH Program Officers would be waiting in the lobby after the conference, with checkbooks in hand, making immediate grants.

Holly Witchey has all the details over at Musematic.

Update:  Gunter Weibel has more at Hanging Together, and notes that podcasts will be up sometime in the future.

I got tagged last month on the 5 things meme, originally ‘5 things you don’t know about me.’ William Turkel from Digital History Hacks hacked it, turning it into a reflective meta-meme about digital history and the blogosphere, and exposing his own reflective work, even exploring how one decides who to tag. “Should you tag new bloggers, in an effort to bring them into the social flow?” I’m happy to have been included. Brett from Airminded has already responded with “5 Things about PhD Research Blogs.”

I’m further tweaking the meme, in a very literal-minded way. I work in and think about history museums, particularly small local history orgs with collections but no money. At the small museum I work for we’re in the middle of a small digitzation project right now, as well as a web project, and I feel like I’m losing sight of our collections and what they mean amid the scanning and research and everything else. So here are 5 things from our and others’ collections, and what they bring up about digitizing history collections. Through writing this I’ve learned that context, especially, and the metadata around the objects make digitized items more tangible.

1. Watermelon. It’s not in the collections, it’s in my fridge, waiting to be pickled, to join the rows of pickles and preserves I made last summer and entered in the State Fair. But despite the long popular tradition of home canning, you just can’t keep that stuff in a museum. General wisdom is to pour it out and keep the container. The contents might draw pests or pose danger from leakage or decay to other items. A major problem here is with the limited sensorium we can capture digitally. Until someone develops smellovision, we’re stuck with visual and audio documentation only.

2. Diary.The diary of a first-year nursing student at Minneapolis General Hospital in 1929, in her handwriting, with a dedication in the front and photos pasted in. We can transcribe its contents and mark them up, making them searchable by names, departments, locations; but we lose the aesthetic power of the diary, the handwriting, notes, stains. We can scan the diary, page by page, but we lose the flexibility and interoperability of data that we get from markup. If a local historical society is doing a digitization project, which will they do? Which is more valuable? How can we make the resources available to digitize both the informational and tactile content of the obect?

3. Mysteriously-appearing boxes. Since the museum I work at is infrequently open but is located in the hospital, we often receive mysterious donations. We’ve tried to institute a more rigorous tracking procedure, putting donor forms outside our door, but we still get items without any sort of provenance. How can we accession them? What do they signify? Here, it’s extremely useful to take a picture and post it on the web or circulate it. Someone knows someone who knows what the object is and recognizes it from one of the old wards. Some aspects of digitization can help solve collection management problems.

4. Typewriter. Local historical societies usually have excellent documentation on one subject: their own history. The medical history museum I work for was founded by two retired nurses who began collecting when the old General was torn down in 1976. They gathered an amazing collection of equipment, textiles, photographs, documents, on the history of the hospital and of medicine in Minneapolis and Hennepin County. This typewriter was the one Audrey used to type the labels for all the collections storage, all the exhibits, all the transcribed oral histories. We haven’t accessioned it yet, and we haven’t decided what to do with it.

Things like this typewriter take their meaning from context. It’s a pretty unremarkable early 80s electric typewriter, but it has value for our museum’s history. When we digitize our collections, we need to evaluate these items of metahistory. (As a zinester, I’m moderately obsessed with typewriters, but that’s not the reason we’ve kept it.)

5. Styrofoam Box. Not a particularly interesting box, heavy white styrofoam, like something you might use to chill food or wine. I found it in a cardboard box in our storage space. But this is no ordinary piece of foam! It was used to transport kidneys, here at the hospital that in 1963 perform the first kidney transplant in the Midwest. Like the typewriter, collecting it fufills our mission only when you know the context. That’s why those metadata standards need to be so exacting, and need to be followed so closely. Otherwise, all you’ve got is a box.

Having talked about things, let’s talk people. I’d like to tag Thomas of Biomedicine on Display, Mary from the Morrison County Historical Society in Little Falls (birthplace of Lucky Lindy), Sheila from the CHNM, my bootcamp colleague Chris, and Lila the digital construct (once I track her address down). I hope they continue to perform iterations on the meme.