Exploiting Synergies: Among Digital Repositories, Special Collections, and Online Communnity

By Huwe, Terence K. | Online, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview

Exploiting Synergies: Among Digital Repositories, Special Collections, and Online Communnity


Huwe, Terence K., Online


There was a time, just a few short years ago, when the Library of Congress and a couple of other leading research libraries were the principal developers of high-quality digital collections. Not now. Today, enterprising academic organizations, museums, and think tanks can take advantage of powerful open source development tools and get started digitizing, albeit on a smaller scale. Activity has grown, but one thing remains constant: Historical collections can still benefit from a big burst of "Web Wow!" when they appear online-at least among the scholars and experts who need them.

Digital collections gain vast new readerships when they appear online in structured and searchable formats. The fact that the excitement factor remains high spells opportunity for the profession. At the same time, the explosion of social networking software such as blogs, wikis, and community sites (think MySpace, Facebook, or Bebo) now enables repository managers to merge static repositories with Web 2.0 applications. When the static web meets the "social" web, new synergies emerge. Repositories can now go interactive, and they're earning a place in the Web 2.0 universe.

The University of Calif omia-Berkeley's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Library (IRLE) received a firsthand chance to take the digital dive with some historical collections as part of a sponsored research project (www.irle.berkeley.edu/Jibrary). The results were not only surprising but also empowering from a public relations perspective. IRLE's experience provides a fresh look not only at the technical aspects of repository building but also at the community-building synergy that is increasingly affecting repository design.

COLLECTIONS ARE POWERFUL

Archivists and scholars have long traveled to distant places to read obscure publications, but when a collection appears full-blown on the web, the travel and the struggle for access shrinks. Extending web access to historically valuable collections is a tremendous opportunity to take a leadership role in scholarly communities. The challenge is to identify the hidden gems within our special collections and then secure the funding to convert them.

The IRLE Library found a willing funder in the University of California Labor and Employment Research Fund (UC LERF) . Our objective was to create a series of related online repositories focusing on California and West Coast labor history. The crown jewel of the collection is a full century of proceedings and papers from the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.

The federation's materials attracted considerable interest within our user community from the outset. Labor history, as recorded in the annual proceedings and papers of the federation, is far from dull. California's labor history is both colorful and multidisciplinary in scope, and it encompasses a social record of conflict, economic growth, and civic involvement.

This collection in particular presented an enticing tool for researchers-if it could go online. California's growth as a state was deeply influenced by social movements, immigration on a vast scale, and the rapid growth of big business. During the early days of the forty-niners and the Barbary Coast, San Francisco was a magnet for Utopian thinkers and nonconformists of every political stripe. The city's social life was fertile ground for labor activism, and organized labor gained significant political power. That power persisted into the 20th century. The 1930s longshore worker riots on the San Francisco docks, the postwar prosperity that spawned the "California Dream," the emergence of a global work force, and the advent of plant closures - all of these events and trends are recorded in the California Labor Federation's proceedings.

As an online repository, this collection would enable scholars to trace issues, legislative mandates, social movements, and speeches over the full span of a century. An easily searchable chronological span of digital files would allow crucial new insights to come into focus. …

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