October 2008

Check out the demo videos for this interesting project, World History, which mashes map data and historical content about people, events, artifacts, photos and so on. (I found the middle video, How Content Works, particularly cool, if you have time for just one).  You can, for instance, see on the map all of George Washington’s travel to battles and other events throughout his entire life, matched with modern photos of the places and information on collaborators and events.  Or you can see events that happened in Detroit at any given point in time.  You can also access, upload and develop genealogical data about your family and map their locations, movements, and relationship to events, places and other people (if your ancestor died at Dunkirk, for instance, you could enter that information into content around the battle.)  World History seems to pull most of its content from Wikipedia at the moment,  but it will hopefully be more populated when it gets into public beta and more people start contributing.  Also it sounds like they’ll release an API.

I’m always happy to see new ways to connect people to history.  I can see a lot of interesting museum applications, especially because they want to key artifacts to the map.  Keep your eyes on this one. (via)


Archives Next has a post up called “Archives are a Luxury.”  Kate’s responding to the SAA’s idea of hiring a lobbyist for archives and archivists, and says that when you put archives up against such things as hunger, homelessness, the energy shortage and so on, archives are clearly a luxury.  We should acknowledge this and as a result work smarter on advocacy by building a united community of users.  She concludes:

The value of collections lies in how they are used. Understanding and connecting to our users should be our first priority as a profession.

So, there, Frank, that’s my answer. If I were President of SAA, or even better, if I won the lottery, I’d invest resources in building a coalition of users of archives. I’d harness their voices—and their lobbyists—to help make the case in Washington for archives funding. I would collect hard data on usage of archives nationwide—an A*CENSUS about our users. I’d try to get funding to conduct the kinds of broad public surveys that ALA has done on public perceptions and usage of libraries. I would pursue a public relations campaign that shows people how archives support things they care about (I might have to win the lottery for that one!). And if the surveys and data collection show that archives aren’t actually being used that much, I would make increasing usage a major focus.

Archives are a luxury. This means we have to fight harder and smarter to compete in the difficult economic times ahead.   

I agree with her conclusions about the value of collections and about harnessing user goodwill and energy to advocate for archives, but I disagree that archives are a luxury, and even if you deeply believe that, I don’t think it’s a useful place to start when it comes to advocacy.    

I think effective advocacy comes from a place of confidence and belief in our missions of preserving, researching, interpreting and providing access to knowledge, information and authentic materials and artifacts.  (I’m talking here about the work of museums, archives, libraries, and other cultural institutions as a whole.  I readily acknowledge that I don’t know much about archival community internal debates.)  To start by saying that our work is not as objectively important in the world as more bread-and-butter issues leaves us in a bit of an uncomfortable position.  If we start from this place:

We are trained to think that what we do is essential. But is it? When you stack it up against things like feeding people, finding cures for diseases, repairing crumbling bridges, funding for police and fire fighters, keeping people from being homeless, finding alternative sources of energy—how essential does what we do seem? 

It begs the question, why are we not working on those issues?  Why am I in the museum today instead of in the lab?

We don’t need to apologize for our work.  Lobbyists for corporate interests don’t tell legislators that they’re not essential parts of the country.  Other educational and social service groups don’t tell legislators that they’re not so important as the other interests.  The AAM has some great primers on advocacy, including reasons why to get involved and talking points about why museums are so important.  AAM empowers museum professionals to do our own advocacy on behalf of our sector.   I see no reasons why archives and archivists can’t follow this model.  (Also, the National Coalition for History lobbies on archives-related issues, and the SAA is already a member organization.)     

I don’t think archives are a luxury, or museums or libraries.  Repositories of the world’s knowledge and culture are key to putting our world back together and building a sustainable future.  (That’s one reason that there are so many museum/history/heritage based structs on Superstruct.)  We don’t have a future without the real stuff of the past.  After natural disasters, one of the first things that happens, while cleanup and evacuation and food relief and reconstruction are starting up, is storytelling and the collecting and saving of stories and the material culture of stories.  That’s where we come in.  Our work is worth every penny.

This upcoming conference on maintaining digital collections still has some seats left, so register today. 

Persistence of Memory:
Sustaining Digital Collections 
December 9-10, 2008
Chicago, Illinois

Co-sponsored by 
American Library Association 
Center for Research Libraries 
Society of American Archivists

What is Persistence of Memory? This conference, taught by a faculty of national experts, addresses the question of digital longevity. Institutions are rapidly acquiring collections of digitized and born-digital resources. Without intervention, these materials will not survive even a single human career. This two-day conference will highlight evolving best practices for digital preservation to help you with the life-cycle management of your institution’s collections. 

Who should attend? Librarians, archivists, museum professionals, information technology specialists, chief information officers, and administrators responsible for managing and preserving digital resources. 

Conference topics include:

  • Preservation in the Age of Google
  • Digital Collections that Persist
  • Electronic Collections and the Law
  • Trusted Digital Repositories
  • Preserving Audio
  • Preserving Video
  • Preserving Digital Art
  • Building a Successful Digital Preservation Program
  • Creating and Sustaining External Partnerships
  • Values and Business Models for Preservation
  • Technology and the Global Village

 Conference faculty include: 

  • Paul Conway, University of Michigan
  • Robin L. Dale, University of California, Santa Cruz
  • Andy Kolovos, Vermont Folklife Center
  • David Liroff, Corporation for Public Broadcasting
  • Bernard Reilly, Center for Research Libraries
  • Richard Rinehart, UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
  • Shelby Sanett, Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science
  • Katherine Skinner, Emory University
  • Sarah Stauderman, Smithsonian Institution Archives
  • Simon Tanner, King’s College London
  • Ken Withers, The Sedona Conference®

What does the conference cost?  $425   

When is the registration deadline?  Tuesday, November 11, 2008  

Via Museumatic, here’s a fascinating report on barriers to universal access to digital collections.  The paper, “Digital Assets and Digital Burdens:  Obstacles to the Dream of Universal Access,” by Nicholas Crofts, presented at CIDOC last month, argues that museums and other cultural institutions need to examine our assumptions about the technology available, about what kinds of records are appropriate for dissemination, and about museums’ willingness  to make digital material freely available.  He concludes by noting that if museums do not commit to providing free access to their digital materials, we may lose our role as provider of content.   (See, for instance, public.resource)

What the foregoing examples seem to suggest is that museums and other cultural heritage institutions may be caught in a Catch 22 situation with respect to universal access to cultural heritage. While making cultural material freely available is part of their mission, and therefore a goal that they are obliged to support, it may still come into conflict with other factors, notably commercial interests: the need to maintain a high-profile and to protect an effective brand image. If museums are to cooperate successfully and make digital resources widely available on collaborative platforms, they will either need to find ways of avoiding institutional anonymity, or agree to put aside their institutional identity to one side. While cultural institutions are wrangling with these problems, other organisations and individuals are actively engaged in producing attractive digital content and making it widely available. Universal access to cultural heritage will likely soon become a reality, but museums may be losing their role as key players. [emphasis mine]

In honor of this report, and my recent interest in continued museum survival past 2019, I’m adding a new tag:  shareordie.

If you watched the presidential debate on Tuesday, you may have noticed that John McCain counted a proposed $3 million earmark for a new “overhead projector” at the Adler Planetarium as an example of his opponent’s wasteful pork.  

On the theory that all publicity is good publicity, I’m pleased to report that this has spurred some discussion about museum funding on a national level.  At the very least, it’s called national attention to the dire state of the equipment at the Adler, which is a vital location of regional and national astronomy education, where the projector hasn’t been replaced for 40 years, and, since the federal government did not approve this request, where the quality of the experience may deteriorate.

The Adler has released a statement, which I’ll quote here since it’s a pdf:

Last night, during the presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee, Senator John McCain

made the following statement:


McCain: “While we were working to eliminate these pork barrel earmarks he (Senator

Obama) voted for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel earmark projects. Including $3 million for

an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend

that kind of money?”


To clarify, the Adler Planetarium requested federal support – which was not funded – to

replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the

Western Hemisphere. The Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI projector – not an overhead projector – is

the instrument that re-creates the night sky in a dome theater, the quintessential

planetarium experience. The Adler’s projector is nearly 40 years old and is no longer

supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It is only the second planetarium

projector in the Adler’s 78 years of operation.


Science literacy is an urgent issue in the United States. To remain competitive and ensure

national security, it is vital that we educate and inspire the next generation of explorers to

pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.


Senator McCain’s statements about the Adler Planetarium’s request for federal support do

not accurately reflect the museum’s legislative history or relationship with Senator Obama.

The Adler has approached the Illinois Congressional delegation the last few years for federal

assistance with various initiatives. These have included museum exhibitions, equipment and

educational programs we offer to area schools, including the Chicago Public Schools.


We have made requests to Senators Durbin and Obama, as well as to 6 area Congressmen

from both political parties. We are grateful that all of the Members we have approached,

including Senator Obama, have deemed our activities worthy of their support, and have

made appropriations requests on our behalf, as they have for many worthy Illinois nonprofit



As a result of the hard work of our bipartisan congressional delegation, the Adler has been

fortunate to receive a few federal appropriations the past couple of years.


However, the Adler has never received an earmark as a result of Senator Obama’s efforts.

This is clearly evidenced by recent transparency laws implemented by the Congress, which

have resulted in the names of all requesting Members being listed next to every earmark in

the reports that accompany appropriations bills.


October 8, 2008

Congratulations to the distinguished historian of medicine Nancy Siraisi, who is one of 25 MacArthur Fellows this year.  Her work combines careful scholarship with vivid stories about the world of medieval and Renaissance medicine.  This award is also a great reflection on our field; historians of science/technology/medicine can stand among the best scholars and thinkers of the day.  Hurray for Nancy!

My home base for Superstruct over the next six weeks or so will be Public History 2019. What will you be doing to imagine museums in an unstable future?

Public historians!  Please take this survey on public history professionals and our work, sponsored by all of our favorite professional organizations, including the NCPH, AAM and AASLH.   I already took it; it’s just ten minutes long.  I’ll just quote this email I received from the NCPH:

The NCPH is currently participating in a Survey of Public History Professionals
(SPHP), with seven other historical organizations*, and asks for your help.
The survey (which was prepared by staff at NCPH and AHA) seeks to learn more
about the demographics, training, employment conditions, and expectations of
public history practitioners.

Each participating association is helping to distribute the survey across the
public history community and will share the aggregated, anonymous data that is
collected. But as a result, you might receive this questionnaire from more than
one participating association. It does not matter to which organization's
e-mailing you respond.

You may leave and return to the questionnaire multiple times until you hit
"done" at the end. Individuals who wish to be entered in a drawing for one of
two $100 book gift cards may include contact information at the end of the
questionnaire, but this information will not be used to connect survey data
with specific persons. Participating associations will present findings from
SPHP in a variety of formats in 2009.

Please visit the following URL:


Please feel free to share this URL with colleagues, students, and others whom
you think might identify themselves as public history professionals.

We hope you will fill out the questionnaire today, but if you cannot, please do
so by December 1 (when the drawing for the two gift cards will be held).
Thank you.

[*] Sponsoring Organizations of the Survey of Public History Professionals

    American Association for State and Local History

    American Association of Museums

    American Historical Association

    Canadian Historical Association

    National Council on Public History

    Oral History Association

    Organization of American Historians

    Society for History in the Federal Government