Collecting History Online

Encouraging Contributions and Building Trust

ost people will come to your site to view contributions or contribute themselves. You should therefore make it as easy as possible for visitors to contribute and to recognize the value of what you have already collected. You will also need to create trust about you, your site, and its mission. The design of your site and the ways in which you convince possible contributors that their submissions are worth saving for the future are at least as important as the technology. Image-heavy splash pages and Flash movies may be very attractive, but first and foremost you should have clear invitations to “Contribute,” “Tell your story,” “Read the stories of others,” or “View donated images.” Beyond these signposts, an attractive design, of course, does burnish the reputation of a website and makes it more likely to attract contributions.

When contributors find themselves on the correct web page to add their recollections or upload a digital file, they should face as few hurdles as possible. Even if you feel that the technology is self-explanatory, provide clear step-by-step instructions, and if possible test them ahead of time with potential contributors. Sites that require logins–usernames and passwords that you must register for in advance of your contribution–will almost always receive fewer submissions than those that allow all comers to proceed. This phenomenon is part of a larger tension between sound (and some would argue sane) archival practice and using the web to collect historical materials and narratives: the more you ask contributors to reveal about themselves, the less likely they will be to contribute. As we will see in Chapter 8, librarians and archivists relish “metadata”–that is, solid information about the who and what of an accessioned document, such as the name, address, and other contact information of the creator, and exact details about the provenance of what has been donated. Unfortunately, years of spam, online scams, and poor handling of private information by supposedly trustworthy institutions (such as banks) have made most web users extremely cautious about entering personal data.

This does not mean that you should accept only anonymous contributions. Instead, we recommend making only contributors’ full names and an email address or phone number mandatory–some small bit of information necessary to reach a contributor later–and making other information (such as a mailing address) optional. Moreover, you should ask for this personal information after they have completed their submission. Many people will volunteer this information; others won’t, but you can use the one piece of mandatory information to contact a contributor later to get further metadata for your collection. This flips the normal order of archival acquisition on its head, of course–get the materials first, then learn about the contributor–but it raises your chances of actually getting contributions in the first place. It also may be worthwhile to offer opportunities for contributors to keep their submissions “private,” that is, saved in your collection but unavailable for a time to the public, or to offer to remove their names and other identifying information from any public display.

Figure 39: The stories submission page for the September 11 Digital Archive, which is co-sponsored by CHNM and the American Social History Project, highlights some of the principles of online collecting forms, including a large upfront box for the first-person narrative, much smaller secondary metadata collection boxes (Zip code, age, gender, etc.), and the importance of building trust, in this case by highlighting our limited use of the contributor’s email address.

Likewise, it helps to link from your submission page to a reassuring policy statement that details how you will use the information provided. Specify in bold that all personal information will be closely guarded and not shared for any reason without the consent of the contributor. Online collecting projects should formulate these important policy pages early on and attempt to identify all potential legal and ethical problems. By accepting donations from your contributors, you are assuming responsibility for the information they provide you. It may become too easy to think of your contributors simply as subjects of your research, and for this reason you should always remember to treat them with humanity and respect.

If you are associated with a college or university, these concerns may have a legal import as well. Because of controversies surrounding medical and psychological experiments, all research involving “human subjects” has come under heightened scrutiny by institutional review boards (IRBs) that oversee university-based research. Whether or not oral history–to which this online collecting can be compared–should fall under the regulation of IRBs remains a controversial subject. Although we agree with those who believe it should be excluded (because it is very different from the kind of research that the federal regulations are directed at), many IRBs disagree and if that is the case at your university you will have to have your project reviewed for approval. If so, it will probably help your case if you describe it as “online oral history.” Describing your work as a “survey” will place it in a category of social science research where it doesn’t belong and where it will fall under closer official scrutiny. Whether or not you need to have your plans officially reviewed, you should always strive to follow the ethical guidelines provided by disciplinary organizations such as the Oral History Association.23

Regardless of your affiliation, a well-crafted policy page will help protect you and your contributors from ambiguities. The terms of attribution and ownership must be made completely clear, and participants should indicate their informed consent by acknowledging, either through a button click or a check box, their consent to a set of terms for every submission. These consent forms need not be overly detailed or legalistic. They merely should state in plain language what the rules of submission are, where the contribution is going, what may be done with it (such as transferring it to another institution or to other researchers), and whether there may be any further contact from the project staff following the submission. This last part of your policy statement is important because some people will consider further unsolicited entreaties as annoying spam. Although oriented toward companies, the online watchdog TRUSTe has a helpful guide to crafting such policies, including handling disclosures about personal information and related matters.24

The Moving Here site on immigration to the U.K. facilitates contributions and builds trust with contributors extremely well. It has a well-designed, simple entry form for stories, with boxes for the contributor’s name and an email address or phone number. A clear note about the need to contact contributors and a reassuring link to their privacy policy, which is admirably less than two hundred words, sits adjacent to the short form. The policies on privacy and data protection are devoid of legal jargon, and they pop up when requested so the contributor doesn’t need to leave the entry page. The Rosie the Riveter stories site requires only an email address to proceed, though it gently requests other information such as a contributor’s name, phone number, and mailing address. Unfortunately the site puts some people off by mandating that they agree to a long, legalistic “Terms of Submission and Disclaimer” before beginning the submission process, though clearly this has not dissuaded the thousands of Rosie the Riveter contributors.25

Figure 40: The coalition of British museums and libraries behind the Moving Here website chronicling immigration to the U.K. includes on their site a clear and concise policies page, devoid of legal argot.

We suspect that this acceptance is in part due to the reputation of the high-profile institutions behind Rosie the Riveter, prominently displayed with large logos on their website. Even if your site is not sponsored by a giant automobile company or government agency, it builds trust with contributors if you scrupulously reveal who you are and where they can find you. You should play up any affiliations because they give a website a feeling of being connected to the real world and provide a sense of where the contributions are going. Indeed, you may want to make an alliance with a local library, historical society, or university archive to sponsor your website and perhaps even house the final collection (in digital or printed form). Many people still consider the web an ephemeral medium; knowing that their donations have a nonvirtual home helps to overcome the hesitation engendered by this feeling of impermanency. Partnerships with brick-and-mortar institutions help add “weight” to an otherwise “weightless” online project.

23 A couple of years ago it seemed as if oral history had successfully won an exemption from the stricter IRB rules. See Bruce Craig, “Oral History Excluded from IRB Review,” Perspectives (December 2003), ↪link 6.23a; American Historical Association, Questions Regarding the Policy Statement on Institutional Review Boards, Press Release 10 November 2003, ↪link 6.23b; Donald A. Ritchie and Linda Shopes, “Oral History Excluded from IRB Review,” Oral History Association, ↪link 6.23c. More recent developments have put this exemption in question. See Robert B. Townsend and Mriam Belli, “Oral History and IRBs: Caution Urged as Rule Interpretations Vary Widely,” Perspectives (December 2004), ↪link 6.23d. For general guidelines for ethically conducting interviews (online or off), see Oral History Association, Oral History Evaluation Guidelines, Pamphlet Number 3, September 2000, ↪link 6.23e; American Historical Association, Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, May 2003, ↪link 6.23f.

24 For good examples of short, clear terms of contribution and use, see the submission page for the Voice of Civil Rights project at ↪link 6.24a or the Echo project policies page at ↪link 6.24b; for further guidance on building a policies page, see “TRUSTe Model Privacy Disclosures,” TRUSTe: Make Privacy Your Choice, ↪link 6.24c.

25 “Tell Your Story,” ↪link 6.25a; National Park Foundation, “Rosie the Riveter Stories–Your Contact Information,” Ford Motor Company Sponsored Programs, ↪link 6.25b; National Park Foundation, “Rosie the Riveter Stories–ÔYour Stories’ Terms of Submission and Disclaimer,” Ford Motor Company Sponsored Programs, ↪link 6.25c.