November 07, 2005
The digital archive/database, I believe, is the greatest asset to the historian of all the web-based historical websites that have appeared in the past decade. While I have used a number of the suggested archives to comment on for this week’s assignment, including the National Security Archive, it would seem to me the best sites are those that have as their “core” some form of visual artifacts, whether they be photographs, advertisement, movie clips, etc. The benefits of those archives that deal strictly in print material, documents, etc., to a researcher is that the researcher won’t have to travel to various archives around the country or the world, which is a heck of deal if you have a limited budget or time to travel and the ability to easily search through those documents for what you want. But to take full advantage of the web and all it has to offer, it seems to me, the addition of visual materials tips the scale in favor of those sites that utilize such imagery.
Since my web project will be based on advertising, I decided to explore the “Ad*Access” site that was developed by Duke University’s Digital Scriptorium: "Ad*Access".
Using this archive, my proposal for research would be to study and explore the question of how advertising for women’s products changed from the 1910-era through the early 1950s, the period covered by the archive. I would hope to be able to develop an argument that advertising changes during the period reflected the societal and cultural viewpoints of the country regarding women. Of particular interest would be the advertisements included in the section entitled “Beauty and Hygiene, 1911-1956.” Such advertisements exploded on the scene during the 1920s with sales pitches such as “A New Benefit to Womankind”!
Instead of traveling to Duke University, getting a hotel room, dragging my computer and scanner to their archives and spending countless hours and days there, scanning hundreds of advertisements (if they would even let me handle them – some are too old and brittle to handle – which is one of the points mentioned in the opening narrative as a reason this site was developed), all I had to do was grab a cup of coffee, turn on my computer at home, and bingo, I began my research. Accessibility and the ability to view hundreds of images from my computer at home seems to me to be the best argument in favor of web-based historical database.
The “Ad*Access” site loaded quickly, even on my old laptop with dial-up. It opens to a nice, simple index page with an opening narrative that is short and describes the site, who runs it, who paid for it, why it was set up in the first place and what it contains. There is a nice caveat at the bottom warning viewers that the ads are presented unedited and some have negative stereotypes, so beware and understand that the ads are reflective of the times they were created. That was a good, gutsy call (I have had to deal with this issue at work, particularly when working with World War II-era material and the U.S. portrayal of Germans and Japanese).
One slight problem is that the main page does not appear on the screen completely and one has to scroll down to view the entire page. The main index links are on the left and are clear and concise. These main index buttons also appear on the bottom of each page. One problem with developing an archive is how to arrange your material. They have chosen to divide their material into five main categories further subdivided by narrower subcategories and also by the decade the advertisement was first published. The five categories were “Beauty & Hygiene,” “Radio,” “Television,” “Transportation,” and “World War II.” A researcher can browse by time period (the database includes ads from around 1911 through 1955). The main index buttons includes links to timelines (not interactive, unfortunately but a minor criticism), a comprehensive search engine, the ad database directly, technological information, and an FAQ. Also included are short historical narratives that can act as a decent guide to the various time periods covered by the database. The timelines also can act as a shorter guide.
Not having much experience in dealing with advertising databases/archives of any sort, it took me about 20 minutes to figure out how to navigate this site in general and how to access the ads in particular. But after that point I was comfortable in moving about the database. It was a user-friendly website. Each of the over 7,000 ads in the database appears first as a large thumbnail with access links to higher resolution jpegs (up to 150 dpi). Each ad page has descriptive listings below the ad itself that list the date of publication, where they appeared, etc. and a list of the various sub-categories of the database the ad appears in. You access each ad from either the browser link or by searching the database. A list of each ad appears by decade or type of ad with a descriptive phrase, usually the title of the ad. One then clicks on the phrase to access the image of the ad. I thought it might have been better served by having thumbnail images placed on these index pages next to each descriptive phase, although this would have led to increased downloading time.
For my project proposal, I would concentrate on the “Beauty & Hygiene” section. The ads are broken down by type, such as cosmetics, deodorant, feminine hygiene, hair preparations, rouge, soaps, etc., and by the decade in which they first appeared. I can access those ads via their search engine, which was easy to use or by simply clicking on the browse button. In using the search engine, one may find the ads by using a key word or by using provided terms in the “Illustration or Special Features” where one may search for ads featuring African-Americans or sports. One may also access the ads, as previously noted, by browsing by decade. Either way you end up with a list of ads by their title. Click on the title and the ad appears. Simply put, with these digital tools one may easily access the material in the database via multiple choices. Overall I would say this database is very well done. I kept asking myself how else would I be able to research through this type of material other than by web? It would be a daunting task going through this many ads with this web but without it?? Doing it in person at the archives? Definitely problematic. But this computer-web-based database/archive makes a daunting task seem possible.
Copyright issues, one of the main points covered in this week’s readings, are also addressed. Duke University points out that they do not hold the copyright for the ads but a scholar may use the material under “Fair Use”. It is then up to the researcher to abide by copyright law, a nice way to dodge the issue by the archive! I wonder if they’ve ever had any copyright holder take them to legal task?? If only the World Wide Web was a "Creative Commons," as Cohen and Rosenzweig argue. Nevertheless, their point that "Historians need to recognize that ther is no fixed body of rules but rathera shifting terrain of interpretations of the law." Duke's copyright link explains the usage of these images by researchers fully though.
Although there is a wealth of material, almost an overload as explored by Rosenzweig in his article “Scarcity or Abundance?”, the comprehensiveness of the site is welcome. Better to have too much material than not enough. Although to fulfill the promise of my proposal I would have to utilize other archives, this site, in its elegant simplicity, makes for a great starting point. This type of historical database holds great promise for the development of history on the web. The ability to access a wealth of material from your home or office and the ability to search for what you want from that wealth of material easily and relatively quickly are the benefits of “research and writing” in the digital era. May this trend continue!
Posted by sprice7 at November 7, 2005 02:38 PM