For this week, our assignment is to look at Montana Memory and similar statewide online archival portals from Western states. Montana Memory is a joint project of the Montana Historical Society and the Montana State Library, but, like many such portals, it contains collections from many other contributing institutions. The goal of Montana Memory is, first and foremost, to provide access to primary source materials. Collectively, these primary sources are meant to serve as “a resource for education, business, pleasure, and lifelong learning,” according to the State Library’s page about the project.
Since at Ford’s Theatre I’m working on the Remembering Lincoln digital collection, for this blog post I’ll discuss using Montana Memory to find materials for that project, as a way to assess the resource. (Please note that I am writing this post, like everything else on this blog, purely from my personal perspective.)
Our goal with Remembering Lincoln is to bring together responses to the Lincoln assassination from the time just after it took place, helping to personalize and localize that national event. We’ve been working with a range of partner institutions, but are also researching to find other digitized pieces and incorporate them into our collection.
My search for relevant materials in Montana Memory admittedly disappointed me. I began by using the term “lincoln” and set the date range to April 15, 1865 (the morning Lincoln died) to June 1, 1866 (the range we are currently using for the collection). It gave me one hit: The commission of a territorial Supreme Court justice in 1864, signed by Lincoln. I was surprised that this came up in my search. I did notice, though, that the years listed in the metadata for the entire collection description include 1865 and 1866. Perhaps this explains why this particular piece came up. Still, I was surprised that the commission wasn’t filtered out. Is this an issue with ContentDM, the system underpinning Montana Memory, and used by many other libraries and archives? I don’t personally know, but would be curious to find out.
This also shows why we can’t be too dependent on searches: We might miss something relevant, because no metadata is perfect. One of the most interesting sources for Remembering Lincoln is one about which we learned at the American Association for State and Local History conference in September: The memoir of Mary Sheehan Ronan. A couple of fellow attendees tipped us off to it, and we quickly found it. The memoir, edited by Ellen Baumler of the Montana Historical Society, includes Ronan’s description (pages 47-48) of dancing in the streets with friends of Southern origin when they learned of Lincoln’s assassination.
This source would not come up in a search for items created during those dates, but yet is extremely relevant for Remembering Lincoln. It shows the need to keep an open mind for sources when undertaking any research.
No search engine can be perfect. Thus, one has to try a range of searches in any portal, just as one has to try different collections when looking for something in a physical archive. One can’t let a machine’s judgment substitute for the historian’s sense. If we had just used searches, even broadly constructed ones, we wouldn’t have found a gem like Ronan’s memoir. Instead, because public historians knew about it off the tops of their heads, we found it.
This is not to say that Montana Memory and other similar portals are not valuable. Indeed, aggregators like Montana Memory have facilitated–some might say even revolutionized–the research process. Not only do we not have to go to Montana to research Montana history, but we don’t even have to know what institutional repositories to search–we can search multiple repositories all in one place. Regional aggregators like the Mountain West Digital Library are taking this a step further, and the Digital Public Library of America, headed by a former member of our own History department, Dan Cohen, is taking this another step further.
Thus, we just have to be careful not to become too dependent on automated searches. They can facilitate our work, but still cannot substitute for the hard work of the historian using the most important resource we have at our disposal: the brain.
This week I commented on Megan’s post.