I’ve known about this project for a while, but was waiting for my friends at the AHA blog to announce it themselves before I wrote about it, but Dan Cohen has broken the ice, so I guess it’s fair game.
The American Historical Association has created a wiki intended to provide information about archival repositories in the US and around the world. The site has been pre-populated with basic information for 100 organizations from their Directory of Historical Organizations. AHA hopes that historians will supplement basic information about archives with more user-based tips, such as suggestions for how to approach the collection, where to stay inexpensively, etc. When I just checked, a few European archives had added information about themselves, bringing the total number of entries up to 105.
The site has potential, but I have a few reservations. The selection of the pre-populated organization seems a bit odd–there are some organizations like the National Endowment for the Humanities and the journal “Film & History” that I don’t think would really hold many records of interest to historians. I would have created a separate area for these kinds of organizations. The selection of archives for the pre-population can’t, by definition, be comprehensive, but it seems rather random and I could find no explanation of the population methodology (or citation of where the information originally came from). It’s not clear if AHA will continue to import data from their directory on a regular basis, or if population is all up to the users now.
The data seem to have been imported, but not necessarily cleaned up to fit the site’s formatting. A small thing, I know, but personally I’m a stickler for that kind of thing. The site could benefit from some information about what kinds of information are appropriate for which parts of the page. The concept of “categories” also needs some explanation for those adding information. The site started out with only one kind of category–location by U.S. state. In the first few entries they’ve received, users have entered other kinds of categories (such as “Census” and “19th century”). Are these acceptable as “categories”? Is someone from AHA going to be actively monitoring the categories? That’s not clear from the site.
I also have some reservations about the site’s goals. I am all for having a wiki that has information about different kinds of archives (although most of the basic information would probably have been pretty accessible through a Google search), but I wonder how eager historians will be to share really detailed information about their experiences with collections. (Cheap hotels, maybe, but not tips on how to get access to “the good stuff.”) I had the impression that most historians were rather close-mouthed about their sources. Or is my stereotype of the historian just as unfair as the stereotypes of archivist that I complain about regularly in this blog?
And, to play devil’s advocate, how much of this background information is really useful or necessary to be gathered in this format? Do historians really not know where to go for archival resources in their area, and if they don’t, would they really discover an archives by this kind of broad categorization? (As opposed to a more targeted Google search?) And, I think most researchers wanting information about hours, policies, and contacts would always rely more heavily on the archives’ own web site than on the information in this wiki (which might very well be out of date).
The value-added part of the wiki would clearly be the unique perspectives of the historians about the collections. How much of the other kinds of information about archives are useful? Would a simple link to the archives’ website and a few sentences be enough, and then leave the rest of the page blank for the historians to fill in with their inside dirt?
Please go and take a look and share your impressions. Do you think your users would find this kind of resource helpful? What kinds of information do they need most? What else does the site need? I think this is a great opportunity for us to engage with our historian colleagues and try to help build a resource that will be truly useful to our common communities.