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Digital Projects and the Unique Opportunities for Collaboration

Libraries, museums, galleries, and archives are not just repositories of physical materials anymore. For every book published, a digital copy also exists. For every record printed to paper, another document is stored on a hard drive. For every traditional painting, another exists as a PSD (Photoshop’s proprietary file format). Digital objects, whether born-digital or created as a digital surrogate to a physical object, are now a part of every repository’s collections. This means that, just as we create programming and projects around our physical collections, we must create programming and projects around our digital holdings based on the needs and wants of our user communities.

Digital projects are wholly unique affairs which bring with them unique opportunities. We cannot treat digital projects as we might projects involving physical materials. For starters, by their very nature, digital objects may be changed. We can only interact with physical objects using our senses; in order to see a physical object one must go to that object’s location. Digital objects though may be seen and interacted with even across great distances within digital spaces.

Digital access is an incredibly important opportunity born from the nature of digital holdings. The last twenty months have only reinforced just how important digital access is for repositories; digital access to some portion of our collections is necessary in order to maintain and grow a user base, especially when physical access to collections is impossible. But opportunities do not exist solely in the transmission of digital objects online. Digital objects can be transformed and transmuted in order to create unique experiences that cannot be replicated with physical objects. We can use digital spaces to create online exhibits that are unique in their presentation when compared to a physical exhibit, or even create an art installation. Digital spaces also offer a chance to create collaborations that would otherwise be impossible working only with physical materials.

The New England’s Hidden Histories project at the Congregational Library & Archives is special in large part because collaboration has, and continues to be, a significant part of the project. The CLA has collaborated with numerous cultural institutions and worked with many different church communities and these collaborations have only been made possible because of the digital nature of the project. The end result is a collection that enhances the user experience because NEHH draws on the resources of numerous institutions and organizations.

NEHH has long looked towards existing church communities for collaborative opportunities. Many of the oldest Congregational Churches in New England still worship today and continue to maintain their own records. Our work in NEHH has offered us many opportunities to work with some of these churches and communities, to identify and select records for digitization from within their collections, and make these records, which would otherwise be largely inaccessible to people outside the church community, widely available to a larger public. Working and collaborating with church communities is not only about making records available though. These collaborative opportunities also bring with them opportunities to create ongoing relationships with new communities which can grow and enrich our own existing user communities.

As the NEHH project has grown in scope over the years, we have also worked to grow new partnerships with other museums, libraries, and archives. This project has given us an incredible opportunity to reach out to some of these organizations to gather, digitally, many of these important records, into a single central place. Where physically you’d have related materials across multiple locations, each with their own access policies, digitally you can bring these materials all together and easily accessible. This is a huge boon for researchers. And not just the CLA’s users, but the users of every organization involved in the project. These collaborations too provide opportunities to reach new audiences and build cross community excitement. The nature of the project pushes users to discover the greater holdings of every organization involved. Every organization has a unique user population, and these collaborations provide each organization the opportunity to reach out to these populations and introduce them to new resources and user experiences.

New England’s Hidden Histories is a project that could not exist if it were not a digital project. The opportunities to gather these historic resources from numerous organizations into a single digital repository is an enormous boon to researchers, genealogists, students, and anyone interested in colonial and early-American New England. On the front of access, this is already huge; visiting multiple different organizations can be both time consuming and expensive. But by gathering all of these resources into a single digital space, the user can access these without needing to visit each organization individually. Further, because everything is in a single digital archive, we can encourage comparative research across collections; for example it is not uncommon to find ministerial correspondence from the same minister in otherwise unrelated collections from different organizations or churches. Growing this collection collaboratively also means that there are many more points of access to guide users and communities to our collections. For example, if you had only a single church collection, perhaps you would only have one town name as a point of geographic access. But because our collaborations have allowed us to diversify the geographic scope of New England’s Hidden Histories beyond what our single organization could do alone, we have many more geographic access points across the whole of New England. And if you can bring someone in with one point of access, they can then discover the larger scope of the collection. Collaboration has made the whole far greater than the sum of its individual parts.

Digital projects bring with them opportunities that you would never have working solely with physical materials. And when these opportunities align with the needs and wants of your known and potential communities of users, the effects can be transformative for these communities. Digital projects can change, sometimes subtly and sometimes wholly, how people interact with and use the resources available at a library, archive, museum, or gallery. In the case of our New England’s Hidden Histories project we have had opportunities to collaborate with church communities and partner with cultural institutions. These collaborations have resulted in a large and multi-faceted digital collection that brings together the unique resources of each contributor and will help to tell, and even shape, the story of life in early New England for years to come.