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.