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Google Earth, Historical Maps and Ideas on Context

I have maps on the brain right now (just finished a 15 page paper about appraising geospatial electronic records) and a while ago LifeHacker [1] gave me an excuse to install the latest version of Google Earth [2] on my computer.

From LifeHacker’s Post: “To view these new old maps, you’ll need the latest version of Google Earth (use the program’s check-for-updates feature if you’re not sure you have it). In the layers section, select All Layers, then look for Featured Content > Rumsey Historical Maps.”

For the biggest bang – try the ‘Lewis and Clark 1814’ layer. I never really understood how large an area they traversed. This is such a great example of giving an archival record context. In this case it isn’t the context of who, when or why the record was created – it gives the user context that connects the record to the rest of the world. For maps this is easy to imagine (especially with Google Earth’s snazzy new Historical Maps), but what if we thought of ways to not only frame archival records within the context of their creation – but ways also to connect them with the current world.

When reading a newspaper article about a current event, the reader often will wonder about things that happened in the past that are related to what they are reading. One of the glories of the web is having terms hotlinked [3] to other pages that give you more information about that term.

As more and more archival records are digitized (or are just born digital in the first place), the archival community will have the opportunity to find better and better ways to encourage the rest of the world to use said records in a quest to better understand current events. I see this as a major way for archives to earn the respect and understanding of the average person.

To some degree there is nothing now to stop a top notch newspaper (pick your favorite with a good online presence) from adding a “Learn more about this issue in history” sort of sidebar that links to a select list of relevant archival records. Many articles do this already to some degree simply by including images related to the story.

WPA Poster: Tuberculosis Don't kiss me! : Your kiss of affection - the germ of infection [4]

Take the recent Washington Post article Quarantined [5] about a woman diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1954. If you click the link to the photo gallery [6] and go to the 4th photo in the set you will see an image from the Library of Congress. While it is attributed (in teeny tiny type) there is no easy way to go and explore other images like this one. Ah – but by doing a search over on the LOC.gov site on the words tuberculosis poster kiss, I find my way back to this same poster [4] shown to the left (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WPA Poster Collection, [LC-USZC2-5369 ]).

I am trying to imagine what the next leap beyond the sort of usage demonstrated by the Washington Post article would look like. Could we come up with a centralized virtual archive with the ability to do the following?

  1. permit registration of specific records – and allow assignment of meta data (such as date, location/GIS info, topic, and perhaps some keywords)
  2. build an interface for those who want to fish for related records to feature on their sites
  3. ensure that when a link to a record is shown, that the proper credits and links to the home institution are included

I guess what I am imagining is the equivalent of Google Ads [7] for archival records. Sort of funny when I think of it that way. In fact – it makes me wonder if access to such a repository of well organized archival records available for use by online publishers could create some sort of revenue stream for those who carefully populate the metadata for records such that the online publishers can quickly find what they need. Would the keepers of the records provide the images themselves or thumbnails of the images with a link to the primary copy deep in their repository’s website? Talk about an interesting engine for fueling outreach and bringing in new web traffic.

I know that there are a million issues I am not thinking of (or thinking of and carefully ignoring) – but the best wild ideas pay no attention to the fine details when they are in the brainstorming stage. Let’s just leave it with the fact that I really like the idea of increasing exposure of the general public to primary sources. If we can both encourage and make it easier for purveyors of online content to use archival records to enhance their websites (especially with deep links [8] back to the websites of online repositories) I think it can only serve to increase the profile of archives and their repositories.

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