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How Do We Bring the Past to the Learners of Tomorrow?

by on June 17, 2014

Sketch for billboard of the Open Road

Source: Duke University

Nearly everyone has probably experienced that moment when you are out to dinner when a question comes up and no one knows the answer, so someone whips out a smart phone and looks up the answers on the web.  The explosion of information and resources has changed our  lives.

And it is changing how we learn about the past. The  NHPRC has been contributing to this increase in access to historical records by supporting digitizing projects of archival records.  From the papers of noted conservationist Aldo Leopold and those of  southern 19th century lawyer Septimus Cabiness to the records of Missouri Supreme Court from 1821 to 1865 and photographs of billboards across the country, these 39 grants have made over a million digital images of historical records available to the public to use at no cost.

These projects complement those NHPRC-funded documentary editions who are increasingly putting significant parts of their collections online for users to discover. The Walt Whitman Archive includes not just his poetry and other literary writing, but also his letters. Founders Online, launched just over a year ago, contains thousands of letters, diaries, and documents from six of the Founding Fathers. NHPRC and many other funders have supported the publication of books of these transcriptions, but the website has opened the material up to many more users.

But all of this woPortrait of Septimus Cabanissrk requires new skills and new thinking for historians, archivists, and the public. Indeed, what are these skill is the question that many of us are asking. What is the best way to present material to the public? I asked this question to Jody DeRidder, the Head of Digital Services at the University of Alabama who managed the Septimus Cabiness Project. She said:

 The first thing you need to do is to identify your target audiences . . . As a simple example, grade-school students generally need visual browse interfaces (such as with representative images for each category or subcategory), and the younger ones will prefer icons with primary colors.

For college students, the challenge is different. Katie Davis, a professor at the University of Washington’s iSchool notes that students today have grown up in an “app” culture and as a result tend expect that “any question or desire one has should be satisfied immediately and definitively.” As a result, Davis cautions the “learner of tomorrow may need support to break free from an app mentality that demands instant, unambiguous answers to all questions.”  As one possible answer, Davis is investigating the use of digital badges  — similar to those scouts earn for demonstrating certain skills — that online users earn after completing tasks.  She reports that developing such badges requires close collaborations with teachers, developers, and students to ensure that the learning experience is meaningful and the badge is desirable. She is excited about continuing to explore the possibilities. (“Katie Davis: Who is the Learner of Tomorrow?”, Project Information Literacy).

Here at the NHPRC, we hope to encourage others to explore these questions specifically in terms of historical records. A new grant opportunity this year, Literacy and Engagement with Historical Records, is designed to let applicants explore how people understand historical records, both digital and those in archives. Applicants may choose to focus on K-12 students, the college student, or the broader public. The grant announcement gives more detail.

So some questions for readers:

  • What are some of your favorite websites that provide access to historical records?
  • If you design websites for historical records or use them, what do you expect?
  • What do you think we need to be doing today for the “Learners of Tomorrow” in terms of historical records?


Jody DeRidder June 18, 2014 at 3:50 pm

I think one of the most important things we can do is to increase the findability of our holdings in major search engines, such as Google. Options include creating sitemaps (and submitting them), creating static browse pages that link into our databases, and using encodings to inform search engines how best to index the pages they crawl. Our users are finding the content they use on Google and Bing; we need to take our content to them at the point of need.

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