How do we talk about digitizing, curating, and managing community history? – Leslie C. Working

How do we digitize, curate, and manage community history? As important a question as this is, encompassing technology, stability, pedagogy, institutional priorities, and numerous other considerations, it leads to questions that may be even more important in the context of interacting with community participants – How do we talk about the ways we are digitizing, curating, and managing community history? What does a digital record mean for individuals without access to, or familiarity with, technology?

Students preparing for a History Harvest event must be ready to explain the processes taking place to participants who may live well on the other side of a digital divide.  From the earliest planning stages of HH, we expected to encounter this divide and those of us doing interviews brainstormed ways to explain the techniques and technology of digitization without jargon or condescension.  The importance of this preparation became clear during from the beginning of the program, as many of the individuals we had the opportunity to interact with at the first two HH events either had no computer or used computers primarily for email – the idea that we would be “digitizing” their object/their stories encapsulated a number of processes with which they had little to no familiarity. In these interviews, it was as important to be able to explain what we were doing with their history and where it would “live” as it was to capture an image or a video.  It became clear in these interviews that participants would most likely never access their own digital record – they planned to tell family and community members, but were not planning to change their own relationships with technology as a result of the event.

Community participants’ willingness to share their stories, their objects, and their images in digital formats they themselves will likely not access is, for me, an important marker of the History Harvest. The desire to preserve and share individual and community histories in one of the most visible modern spaces, the internet, has moved people to participate in the History Harvest in spite of, not because of, the place of technology in their lives. Whether they are contributing to an event in this format because HH is the first time their individual histories have been taken into consideration, or if they are doing it with an eye to the future and preservation, they are sharing pieces of their lives with strangers wielding unfamiliar tools. When those of us whose professional and personal lives are firmly embedded in technology talk about honoring and respecting community participants who are sharing their history, we also need to remember they are trusting us with its future in ways they may not understand, but they do value.

Leslie C. Working is a PhD Candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has been a part of the project since the start, and has helped with the Railroads and Nebraska City History Harvests.

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