Thursday, September 9, 2010


In the Journal of American History's recent (September, 2008)  "The Promise of Digital History," round-table participants discussed the resources necessary to produce digital history materials at a university. William G. Thomas, III of the University of Nebraska called for "a commitment by research universities to support digital humanities or digital history ... at the department level" or in the form of a center specifically dedicated to the task (465). He lists "faculty lines in the tenure track in departments and sustained commitment to library, information technology, new media, and academic computing resources" as indispensable for the work of producing digital history and humanities materials. Daniel Cohen of George Mason University points out that "a digital history center... is expensive to set up and maintain.... But if an institution wants to do cutting-edge research, staff is critical." (466)

In this post I will discuss another means of producing digital history materials, one that I have employed at an institution that, while it enrolls 25,000 students, does not boast all of the resources of a major research university. I call it scavenging.

Let me begin to say that we are fortunate here at Northern Illinois University Libraries to have in place a core of information technology resources and support adequate to support our work. We employ a full-time programmer and a digital projects librarian, as well as a jack-of-all trades familiar with many elements of digital object production. But we have found ourselves obliged to look around on campus for the other talented individuals necessary to make our projects happen.

These include full-time faculty and staff members currently employed doing something else. Every campus contains individuals with talents and skills that do not find full expression in their job. We have been fortunate to benefit from the talents of our library's Art librarian, who is also a talented graphic artist.  He has produced the graphics used in each of our digital history web sites (see

We have also made use of talented musicians on campus, including those employed in positions outside the College of Visual and Performing Arts itself.  They have worked with NIU music students eager to place their performances on the web in our recording of nineteenth-century sheet music. These recordings provide several of our web sites with rich multimedia content that, while it does not fit the definition of primary source material, sheds new light on the periods under consideration. See, for example.

Other students have also taken advantage of the opportunity to bring their talents to the attention of web users through our projects. These include a broadcast journalism student who has served as a presenter in video components of cultural tourism modules developed in conjunction with the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. These materials are still in development. I will discuss them at greater length, and provide a link to the web site where they will reside, upon their completion.

Our on-campus collaborators have also included student programmers who allowed our Lincoln/Net and Mark Twain’s Mississippi projects to explore the early potential of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology. GIS has proven to be a very expensive technology in the long run, and we have backed away from the development of new GIS projects, but our student-coded materials remain online, providing users with another type of digital material useful in learning about the past. See and for examples.

Finally, we have made use of digital materials originally developed for another purpose. Our Lincoln/Net site features a significant amount of video materials in which historians such as Eric Foner, Ed Ayers, James O. Horton, and Kathryn Kish Sklar discuss themes and episodes pertaining to the site’s subject matter: Lincoln’s life and times in antebellum America. We originally shot this video as part of the production of a documentary film exploring Lincoln’s life before the presidency (which eventually became a film exploring his participating in the Black Hawk War of 1832). In the production of a fifty-minute film the director and I shot over twenty hours of discussions with historians, integrating some twenty-five minutes into the final production itself. Rather than discarding the remainder of the footage, I reviewed it and selected several hours’ worth of additional footage for use on our web site. Members of our digital project staff edited the film and presented it online, where it has proved popular with users.

This post does not address Thomas and Cohen’s discussion about the production of digital history materials at major research institutions. Nor does it shed light on the practice of digital history as research or scholarship. Rather it pertains to the production of digital materials aimed, at least in part, at a public audience, with the resources available at a mid-sized university. Practitioners at institutions not organized for the production of digital history materials may benefit from the tactics I have discussed here. As government funding for universities deteriorates, digital historians at state-flagship and other large, public research institutions may find them to be of interest as well.

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