Collecting History Online

Good Candidates for Online Collecting–and Poor Ones

ot every topic lends itself well to an online collecting project. Even with the global reach of the Internet and the world’s most interesting subject matter (undoubtedly, whatever you as a historian study), you will need to connect with a fairly sizable body of contributors for your project to succeed. A website seeking personal narratives of the Roaring Twenties will fall flat (consider the average age of a person who can recall that era), as will most projects targeting topics before World War II. One website, on the history of Greenland ice drilling (co-sponsored by the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Institute of Physics), attempted to capture memories from scientists who have gone to Greenland to study the environment by sampling tubes of ice drawn from millennia-old sheets, but it eventually faced a difficult reality: although the ice drilling projects in Greenland are tremendously important for ongoing debates about critical climate issues such as global warming, the number of climatologists and geologists who have set up and run such experiments is relatively small. There simply are not enough of them to populate the site with a highly active historical discussion.6 Less obvious than the problems associated with a small pool of potential contributors is the opposite quandry: a topic so broad that it fails to excite any discernable cohort. A project directed at collecting the experience of “senior year in high school,” in general, is much less likely to attract participants than one directed at the graduates of a particular high school.

Between too sparse and too diffuse pools of contributors, there are many large but discernable communities that will likely respond well to an online project that solicits, archives, and presents their stories and related images, audio, and video. A good candidate for a collecting website often revolves around a topic that already has an active, historically conscious online community. For example, Apple Computer’s fanatical user base and committed employees have engendered numerous sites on the history of the Macintosh, including two major efforts to record the first-hand recollections of those who worked at Apple in the late 1970s and 1980s: the Computer History Museum’s Apple Computer History Weblog and Apple software engineer Andy Hertzfeld’s website. David Kirsch’s electric vehicle history site appeals to a relatively small but committed, almost cult-like community of enthusiasts who were experimenting with zero-emission cars long before the major automobile manufacturers were. These hobbyists were used to exchanging helpful information with each other over the Internet. Before the much larger effort of the September 11 Digital Archive, we began our experiments in online collecting through similarly focused histories of recent science and technology in our Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online–Science, Technology, and Industry project, funded, like the September 11 effort, by the Sloan Foundation as part of its program encouraging the use of the Internet to gather history.7

Figure 37: To capture the early history of Apple computer from those who were there, Andy Hertzfeld, one of Apple’s pioneering software engineers, set up the website.

Figure 38: Our project entitled Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online—Science, Technology, and Industry, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, not only serves as a portal for those interested in researching the history of science, technology, medicine, and business, but has functioned as a laboratory for how to gather this history via the Internet.

Online collection efforts tied to a real-world event, institution, or social network have a good chance of attracting and sustaining involvement. Many school and college alumni associations run discussion boards that recall the glory days. Flourishing sites related to actual communities, like one devoted to Brainerd, Kansas, or the Rowville-Lysterfield community center in Australia, craft online spaces where local people build their own historical record, contributing family histories, reminiscences, folklore, and personal artifacts such as photos and scanned documents. Sites connected to museum installations such as the powerful Atomic Memories site at San Francisco’s Exploratorium use the shared experiences of visitors to their physical exhibitions to encourage storytelling and historical reflection online. Established virtual communities for seniors, including SeniorNet’s World War II Living Memorial and the History Channel’s Veteran’s Forum, host discussion “threads” with thousands of historical recollections and conversations about the past, and they allow veterans to reconnect to some of their most distant yet most significant life experiences and social networks. Indeed, perhaps the most active sites collecting history online today, for example, the World War II Living Memorial and the Veterans’ Forum, exist primarily to enable personal connection among their membership. These sites simultaneously engage participants by bringing them into contact online with their cohort, while encouraging them to relate the details of their lives and the times through which they lived.8

Topics that do not match up with an existing online community or offline association still have the potential to succeed, but only if they are carefully framed to make them attractive to a discernable body of contributors. Clearly delimited audiences make it easier to target potential contributors and for these potential contributors to feel comfortable in the knowledge that they “belong” at a site. For example, Joshua Greenberg’s Video Store Project provided a space for the original owners and employees of video stores, before Blockbuster bankrupted or bought out most of them in the 1990s, to discuss their history. An eclectic bunch, this “invented community”–more than nine hundred people–enjoyed the chance to recall the early years of the revolutionary technology of the VHS and Betamax, and to read the recollections of others. In turn, this online collection helped sharpen Greenberg’s sense of themes to highlight in his dissertation on the social uses of video technology, and provided him with a cache of primary sources that complemented printed sources well.9

6 Spencer Weart, “Icedrilling: History of Greenland Ice Drilling,” Discovery of Global Warming, ↪link 6.6.

7 Computer History Museum, Apple Computer History Weblog, ↪link 6.7a; Andy Hertzfeld, Macintosh Stories, ↪link 6.7b; David Kirsch, Electronic Vehicle History Online Archive, ↪link 6.7c; CHNM, Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online–Science, Technology, and Industry, ↪link 6.7d.

8 Kevin Roe, Brainerd, Kansas: Time, Place and Memory on the Prairie Plains, ↪link 6.8a; Rowville Lysterfield History Project, Rowville Lysterfield History Project, ↪link 6.8b; Exploratorium, Remembering Nagasaki: Atomic Memories, ↪link 6.8c; SeniorNet, World War II Living Memorial, ↪link 6.8d; “Veterans’ Forums,” History Channel, ↪link 6.8e.

9 Joshua Greenberg, Video Store Project, ↪link 6.9. The resulting dissertation was entitled “From Betamax to Blockbuster: Medium and Message in the Video Consumption Junction” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 2004).