Collecting History Online

Attracting Contributors to Your Site

our choice of an appropriate collecting technology probably matters less to the overall success of your project than the content and design of your site and effective outreach to the potential contributors. Too many collecting projects have started with high hopes and ended with a frightfully low number of submissions. You should therefore spend more time thinking about how to excite your intended base of contributors than mastering every last detail of Internet communication.

One strategy for attracting contributors is to offer information or materials that will bring them to the site. What ultimately matters in choosing “magnet” content is not so much its exhaustiveness or the refinement of presentation, but rather its distinctiveness on the web. A small collection of compelling or provocative materials, carefully annotated or explicated in some fashion that appeals to the curiosity of your targeted audience, is far more effective than a vast but conceptually murky collection of materials or a set of documents that can be easily found elsewhere on the Internet. For example, the Atomic Veterans site provides its community with the information that it desires (e.g., an up-to-date collection of declassified documents on nuclear tests) and it presents it in a fashion that reflects the veterans’ experiences (i.e., as it pertains to specific military operations and outfits). On effective collecting sites such as this one, the magnet content is seamlessly integrated with the contributions, leading to a historical collection that is greater than the sum of it parts. Atomic Veterans steward Keith Whittle has also recognized the importance of keeping a site current and fresh to maintain its attractiveness to visitors and contributors. Like Whittle, you should rotate featured items on your home page or highlight the most recent additions to the collection.

Probably the best magnet content on a collecting site is other contributions. This leads to a major paradox, however, and one that will be familiar to anyone who has ever taught a class: just as no one wants to be first to raise his or her hand, no one wants to be first to contribute to an Internet collection. Potential contributors of personal historical materials may be self-conscious, and even the most eager contributor can fall victim to the worry that his or her story or image will attract too much scrutiny as it sits alone on a featured web page. Visitors with historical recollections or materials to contribute may even visit the site several times, “lurking” as they try to overcome these worries, and many newly launched online collecting projects have enjoyed great peaks in traffic without seeing any corresponding increase in historical contributions. Thus the paradox: to build a collection, you first need a collection; often the only way to attract contributions is with other contributions. A second contribution is always easier to get than a first, and a third is even easier. Once you’ve collected a few items, it will become easier to collect more, and a kind of momentum will gradually build.

But how do you establish this momentum? You might ask a related online collecting project or physical archive if you can reprint some of their contributions on your website until you have established your project. The coalition of museums and archives behind Moving Here plumbed their rich physical collections for suitable materials that could serve as model “contributions,” such as the Jewish Museum’s transcripts of interviews with Jewish immigrants to London’s East End.18 If you do not have access to existing collections, try to seek out friends, family, and colleagues who are in the target audience for your site to have them “seed” the collection.

Unless you have such helpful contacts, however, you will likely be reaching out to a new community–one that may not know you–and you will have to convince that group of possible contributors that your project is worth their time. This will require marketing and publicity. As we noted in Chapter 5, historians usually have no training in such matters, but they are especially important for online collection projects. Successful projects devote much, if not most, of their resources to outreach. Potential contributors have to hear about a site, often repeatedly, before they become interested in contributing. Formulating a detailed outreach plan in advance will help you affirm that you can actually accomplish your collecting goals–after all, if you can’t think of a way to reach possible contributors, you will likely face disappointment–and provide a quick jumpstart to your endeavor once the website is finished.

Probably the first step is contacting potential contributors directly through email, telephone, or postal mail. When Claude Shannon, the father of modern information theory and the mathematics behind key parts of the Internet such as modems, passed away in February 2001, we launched a modest project to collect his colleagues’ reminiscences of him. Sending out approximately three hundred targeted emails pointing to our website, we collected more than thirty detailed accounts of Shannon’s life and legacy from a variety of scientists and technologists, revealing new information about Shannon’s work at Bell Labs and his enormous impact on such far-flung disciplines as computer science, computational biology, and genetics. We were also able to collect historical materials from people who would otherwise have been impossible to reach without the Internet. As our initial email was forwarded to listservs and online discussion groups, it ultimately reached a group of scientists working in Siberia who, it turns out, had been profoundly influenced by Shannon’s work thousands of miles away.19

Indirect marketing focuses on reaching possible contributors through their social networks. You should spend some time identifying and contacting the key organizations and institutions most relevant to your historical subjects. Their assistance to you can range from a simple link on a home page to a feature story in their newsletter to a posting to their email list. If your project genuinely interests their members, they will likely help you. You should also spend some time in your contributors’ communities, virtually or in the real world. Become a member of a web forum, newsgroup, or listserv related to your topic. You may want to attend a live meeting, where you can distribute literature about your project (along with its URL or a phone number to reach you). David Kirsch, director of the Electric Vehicle History Online Archive, spent hours posting on online discussion boards and days attending electric vehicle club meetings to become a trusted member of the electric vehicle hobbyist community and acquire the first set of contributions to his website.20

Although a direct, personalized email to a historical participant or a community newsletter article about your site may be more effective in building a pool of contributors than a colorful ad in a journal, magazine, or newspaper, you should not ignore the potential of a media campaign or a mass marketing approach. If you can tie your project in some way to current events, a well-placed press release can attract media attention and increase contributions. We experienced some success in this regard for a website we built with the National Institutes of Health called A Thin Blue Line, where we leveraged the thirtieth anniversary of the creation of the home pregnancy test to collect the popular history of that landmark reproductive technology. The Washington Post and other newspapers ran stories about the site because of its timeliness, which led to a spike in site traffic and a smaller bump in contributions.21

Combined with high-quality historical materials, a website that collects the history of the recent past can become a trusted center for information on the web and spark media coverage simply by its existence. As mentioned in Chapter 5, when the lights went out in the northeastern United States in August 2003, our colleague James Sparrow immediately received calls from the BBC, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, National Public Radio, and other major media outlets because he had created the definitive site on the history of the 1965 and 1977 New York City blackouts. With scanned primary documents and audio clips, as well as hundreds of stories gathered via the web, Sparrow’s site shows how an Internet project, done well, can successfully collect history once it has achieved a status as the place to go for a particular historical topic. Following coverage in the mass media, the site gathered over a hundred new personal narratives for its archive.22

18 Jewish Museum, “The Jewish Lads’ Brigade,” Moving Here: Two Hundred Years of Migration to England, ↪link 6.18.

19 CHNM, “Claude Shannon: The Man and His Impact,” Echo: Exploring and Collecting History Online–Science, Technology, and Industry, ↪link 6.19a. For the Siberia entry, see the submission dated 5 August 2001, ↪link 6.19b.

20 Kirsch, Electric Vehicle History Online Archive.

21 National Institutes of Health, A Thin Blue Line: The History of the Pregnancy Test Kit, ↪link 6.21.

22 James Sparrow, Blackout History Project, ↪link 6.22.