Collecting History Online as Web 1.5

One of the ways that digital technology is supposed to change the practice of history is through the collecting and preserving of historical content online. To be sure, millions upon millions of historical texts, images, and digitally reproduced artifacts have already been made available (and presumably preserved) on websites around the world.

But what about the collecting of historical content through open interface archives–archives that invite the public to deposit materials in their collections, either historical artifacts that individuals own and are willing to share, or „history as it happens?“ The open nature of the collecting process–one where anyone can deposit virtually anything into the archive–raises many questions for historians and archivists about the nature of archives themselves. But these sorts of projects can also raise difficult questions for the creators and managers of the projects. In a recent essay, my colleague Sheila Brennan and I try to make sense of at least a few of the lessons we learned in our work on one such project.

A debate mentioned only briefly in the essay, but which I believe deserves much greater attention from historians and archivists interested in open archives, is the degree to which the content deposited in these archives should be open for general tagging by visitors to the site? User-created folksonomies are often cited as central to Web 2.0 projects such as Flickr.com and we had an extended debate about whether visitors to our project should be allowed to tag content they found there. In the end, the decision of the group (I was a dissenter) was that it was more important to allow contributors to maintain control over their content than it was to let future visitors to the archive organize that content however they might like.

We’ll never know whether the consequence of our decision was to increase contributions to the archive or to depress use of the archive. But this issue won’t go away. If allowing tagging becomes a standard practice for web archives, what will happen to those that do not allow it? If they are only Web 1.5 projects will they be shunted to the far corners of the Internet and forgotten?

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