In honor of Archives Month, I want to call attention to a new interview feature that has been launched by Choice.  This monthly article is called “Ask an Archivist,” and according to the press release distributed by the ALA, its intent is to introduce new users to materials found in digital archives and libraries.  I imagine some of the questions will repeat each month — such as: provide a brief description, indicate the intended audience, and explain how it might be useful to undergraduate students.

This month’s interview is with Edward L. Ayers, who created The Valley of the Shadow, an online archive of materials that reflects the views and ideas of both sides of the Civil War by focusing on a community in Virginia and another in Pennsylvania.  Through a combination of letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, census data, and other related records, the voices of individuals coalesce into a story of the War.  Interestingly, his original intent for this project was to create a boutique book, but his timing coincided with the early development of the World Wide Web.  With initial support from the University of Virginia and IBM, he and his team created a web site that has become a model for digital humanists.  In my opinion, Ayers has been successful in large part because he recognized both the possibilities and the limitations of the Web platform and tailored his project to it.  In his words, “We knew at the outset that a digital archive was really good at some things — outreach, manipulability, search — and really bad at others, such as presenting coherent narrative or long stretches of text.”  If more digital humanities projects can embrace the possibilities of the digital medium without trying to force square pegs into round holes, there undoubtedly can be other digital projects that will also enjoy decades of success.

 

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