Project Management of a Digital Archive – Svetlana Rasmussen

As project manager for the Nebraska City History Harvest collection in 2012 I negotiated the transfer of artifacts from a community of collectors to a digital exhibit that preserves the collection while presenting it to communities across the nation and around the world. The transfer was a fruitful experience for the community and History Harvest scholars. The project manager must understand and follow the rules for curating digital archive and successfully find a balance between popular visions of history and stories that emerge from the items that have traditionally been obscured.

The History Harvest project broadcasts people’s stories across the nation. As a project manager for the Nebraska City collection responsible for curating the collection on the World Wide Web, I established and maintained clear rules and protocols for preserving and presenting these artifacts and memories. I believe that the successful communication of people’s experience is impossible without clear-cut rules for project managers and scholars to follow. These rules guide the artifact presentation from the digital images’ pixel size to the background story to highlight the oral histories shared at the History Harvest. The rules enable proper handling and preservation of the artifacts from one researcher to the next within one cohort and from generation to generation of students. Finally, the rules make for an easy-to-follow protocol for organizing the History Harvest event that give consistent and helpful guidelines for participants, especially novices. Project managers are critical to creating and adapting the protocols, since they are directly responsible for presenting the harvested material to the public.

Presentation has to conform not just to the rules of historical research, but must also account for the popular images of history projects generated by the small industry of TV shows about buying, selling and appreciating antiques. Without attaching a price tag, the History Harvest scholars have to engage the curiosity of general public by providing the artifact’s authentic background or story. Only substantial and accurate research can build the authority and trust in the project. Further, what engages the public may lead to a larger historical project that would be the subject of research and education for the next generation of students.

One example of a family artifact from the Nebraska City event that caught public interest was a certificate of parole releasing a Union Army prisoner of war with a pledge “not to take up arms again” against the Confederacy. The fact that the young soldier from Iowa broke this pledge, as is certified by other documents from the family collection, including his letter from a battlefield near Atlanta, offers an insight into how he felt about the Civil War. My favorite, though is a photo of Joseph Littlefield next to his “drugstore on wheels” – a traveling Baker’s medicines salesman’s cart. Aged 63 in 1904, Joseph Littlefield could no longer farm to support his increasing family, so he had become a travelling salesman. This photograph, preserved in the family archive, might have been used as a business card that Littlefield gave to regular customers. Only careful research and the existence of other digital projects allowed the manager to establish the most probable reason for taking this picture.

The project manager is a single person who learns the details of all the stories in a given year or event. Their task is to organize and coordinate the team of researchers to make all these fascinating stories available to public through responsible collection and presentation of the past with best organization and curation practices.

Svetlana Rasmussen is a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is the former Project Manager of The History Harvest, and has assisted with the Nebraska City, North Omaha and Lincoln Refugee History Harvests.

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