This past Thursday, I had the pleasure of interviewing an archivist at the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) about the Internet Archive. Because he oversees the digital collections at WHS, this archivist was a natural choice for this interview. We spoke for approximately an hour about a wide variety of topics ranging from the Internet Archive to digital collections in general to the shortcomings of the Internet.
He has been using the Internet Archive for nearly a decade and has a very positive opinion of the site. He first learned of the Internet Archive in 2005 because of his personal interest in the Grateful Dead. He had heard this site had an extensive collection of their recordings and wanted to check it out. In his opinion, the Internet Archive's Grateful Dead collection is a prime example of what a digital collection should be. First, it is carefully targeted at a well-defined audience, the Deadhead fans of the Grateful Dead. Second, the collection itself has been built by the fans. Hundreds of people have uploaded their own high-quality digital content, and the forums at the Internet Archive support community participation. Third, visitors to the Internet Archive can comment on, or "review," content within the collection, similar to YouTube or social media. Lastly, the collection has an easy-to-use interface. He contrasted this with the digital collections on WHS's website. There, the digital material is contained withing CONTENTdm, a digital asset management system often used by libraries and archives. It is not as user friendly as Internet Archive, nor can users upload their own content or leave comments.
This archivist also had fascinating insights into the successes and failures of digital collections in general. The most important step in creating a digital collection for a library or archive is to have a defined audience in mind and know how you want to influence and reach them. He said there is no such thing as the "general public." Everyone is part of at least one subset of society. The problem with most digital collections is that they digitize material simply because they have it. They do not have an audience selected, and as a result, one looks at their material and wonders, "Who is this for?" Also, many digital collections of archival or library material is intended for scholars, a group that makes up only about 6% of the US population. This technology is not being used to its fullest potential if we are only catering to such a small group. As information professionals, we should strive to serve all segments of the population.
Another important trend he pointed out was that most people will be accessing the Internet using mobile devices in the future. Therefore, it is vital that an archive's or library's digital collections have an app to support viewing them on smart phones and other mobile devices. They must also use social media to promote these collections.
In addition, this archivist was disappointed in the current state of the Internet. When it first created, many people thought it would be a powerful tool for sharing information. This archivist actually had the opportunity to meet Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, around that time. Kahle was and still is thoroughly in the camp that believes "information wants to be free." What nobody expected was how quickly corporate giants would take over most online content, and the Internet has now become a tool for manipulation. He also expressed many of the concerns we discussed in earlier weeks for this class, such as the fear that the Web was changing the way our brains work, shortening attention spans, and impairing the ability to think critically.
After our interview, this archivist e-mailed me the links to several resources about the Internet and digital resources which we had discussed. I greatly appreciated this extra effort, and that information should be quite helpful to me in my technology evaluation. I enjoyed this interview greatly and found it very enlightening.