Tagged digital archives


Collaboration Adventures with Primary Sources: Exploring Creative and Digital Outputs


The Archives & Special Collections (A&SC) Department at the University of Pittsburgh endeavors to play a central role in instruction involving the use of primary source materials. Since 2013, A&SC developed and continues to build upon a dynamic instruction program through active outreach and recruitment to invite faculty to bring their classes to visit the reading room and engage with primary sources. We collaborated with faculty to design assignments and in-class exercises that incorporate primary sources and allow students to generate and share original research. By presenting a series of case studies, the authors will share how they experimented with new ways to present research using primary sources through social media, zines, data sets, and visualizations: what we call “creative outputs.” This article highlights the experiments, challenges, and lessons learned in hopes of advancing undergraduate research with primary sources and supporting an environment of student innovation.


The Archives & Special Collections (A&SC) Department at the University of Pittsburgh endeavors to play a central role in instruction involving the use of primary source materials. In this article, Jeanann Haas, the Coordinator of Special Collections and Preservation, and Jennifer Needham, an archivist, discuss the variety of ways they have worked together to engage students in primary source research, including working with faculty to develop assignments that result in blogs, zines, data sets, and visualizations, what we call “creative outputs.” Since 2013, A&SC developed and continues to build upon a dynamic instruction program through active outreach and recruitment to invite faculty to bring their classes to visit the reading room and engage with primary sources. A&SC collaborate with faculty to design assignments and in-class exercises that incorporate primary sources and offer students the opportunity to generate and share their original research and discoveries in creative ways. This article presents a series of case studies in which students worked with primary sources and used digital humanities methods to present their research in creative ways.

Recent literature on archives and special collections reveals that the information literacy movement impelled the profession to champion participatory and collaborative learning with primary sources, thus departing from the show-and-tell model of instruction where students simply look at rare books and archives as librarians and archivists talk about them (Carini 2016, 192; Garland 2014, 326). Participatory and collaborative learning allows archivists and librarians to collaborate with faculty to support student researchers in analyzing primary sources to create, produce, innovate, and contribute to scholarship in creative and visual ways (Vong 2016, 150; DeSpain 2011, 30). Creating opportunities for students to engage with primary sources using digital humanities methods not only advances research-based learning but also fosters collaboration and communication among faculty, librarians, archivists, and digital humanists (Davis, McCullough, Panciera, and Parmer 2017, 482). In this article we share our experiences collaborating with faculty to support their pedagogical goals, design assignments that transcend the traditional research paper, and challenge students to produce creative outputs that further visualize and showcase their research.

Zines as Creative Outputs

In 2017, an English Department professor contacted A&SC to discuss possibilities for incorporating primary source research and creative projects in the two courses that she was teaching in the upcoming semester: “Women in Literature” and “Science Fiction.” The professor assigned students to create a zine or write a final paper about alternative publishing methods that would draw on class readings and discussion, personal interests, and materials consulted during their visit to A&SC.

During their visit to the A&SC reading room, students consulted science fiction fanzines, science fiction pulp magazines, feminist zines, and underground and alternative press newspapers in order to gain an understanding of pre-internet modes of communication and creative labor. As students explored the materials they completed a worksheet, designed by the professor, to prompt close examination of the materials. They were asked to consider the publisher, format, content, imagery, advertisements, and other interesting features.

Students enrolled in “Women & Literature” consulted feminist newspapers and newsletters from the 1970s including titles such as WomanSpirit, Broomstick, and Allegheny Feminist. They also reviewed lesbian feminist materials from the 1990s, comic books with women protagonists, and science fiction fanzines created by women. During their class visit, students studied the materials and considered the different literary approaches that female authors employed as well as women authors’ many perspectives on political upheaval, personal quandaries, and oppression in different literary and societal traditions. The “Science Fiction” course worked with a variety of science fiction and comic fanzines such as Cosmic Reflections, Granfalloon, Feinzine, and Cerebro. Students also worked with science fiction pulp magazines such as If and Galaxy, and superhero and science fiction comics like Superman, X-Men, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers.

Students in both courses returned to the reading room outside of their class time to perform a closer reading in preparation for their final assignment. The aim of the zine assignment was to encourage students to create a self-published and original work in response to the materials that they researched and consulted. Creating zines is a “reflection-based activity” that models a “student-centered approach to learning” (Vong 2016, 63). Students were challenged to think critically about the ideas, values, and events not necessarily covered by the mainstream media. In addition, those in “Science Fiction” considered the history of fandom and the subculture and emergence of the genre as a whole.

The students’ creative output was engaging and enlightening. The zines produced by students in both courses included reflections on class readings; editorials; original fiction, poetry, and art; and repurposed articles and headlines. Many of the zines modeled the common zine aesthetic and incorporated magazine clippings, repurposed illustrations, collage, and other DIY features. Students focused on gender representation in science fiction, women in the scientific community, lesbian culture and community, sexual harassment and assault, and mental illness. For the “Women & Literature” course, one zine addressed sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement, discussing the historical nature of contemporary debates. The author hopes that their zine will reach a wider audience and provide support for those who have experienced sexual assault.

A student in the “Science Fiction” course created their zine to address the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in mainstream science fiction and included a short story and reading list of what they believe to be quality queer content in books, television, and video games. They modeled the cover art after a specific issue of Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine that they consulted in A&SC and tried to emulate text produced on a typewriter. Elated by the final assignment, the faculty member showcased the zines at Pitt’s Digital and Handmade Showcase. She plans to explore this type of assignment in future courses. Taking inspiration from the professor and her assignment, A&SC hopes that this non-traditional method of scholarly output is something that can be further utilized by other professors. With the students’ permission, the class gifted the zines to the A&SC to enhance the zine collection, preserve their creative output, and serve as an example of student-produced work.


Figure 1. A selection of zines created by the classes, Women & Literature and Science Fiction

The zine collections also inspired another student who received a Brackenridge fellowship which provides undergraduates with a summer stipend so that they can devote themselves full-time to a creative or analytic research project. While other scholarship awardees were directed to submit a research paper as a final deliverable, this student negotiated to create a series of zines. She consulted with the science fiction, comic, and feminist zines as well as the contemporary zine holdings at Pitt’s Frick Fine Arts Library and Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Public Library. Interested in placing the zine, as a format, in historic context, she conducted research throughout the summer in order to publish a variety of zines based on her findings that outline zine history, how to make a zine, the social significance of the medium, and a personal zine reflecting upon her research experience. In addition, she hopes to start a zine club at the University in order to provide direction, resources, and space to students interested in self-publishing their own zines.

Digital Humanities Application

Many faculty have expressed interest in using digital humanities methods to provide opportunities for students to share research as an alternative to the traditional research paper.  Special collections, archives and rare books can provide students with the resources to inform compelling digital humanities projects. At the University of Pittsburgh, the Digital Scholarship Services (DSS), part of the library system, provides support for digital humanities teaching and research. They work closely with A&SC to recommend digital humanities applications to students and professors. For example, the Composing Digital Media course requires that students, “compose digital media while exploring the rhetorical, poetic, and political implications of multiple writing platforms. Students will learn how to compose a range of critical media objects using web-authoring languages, text, sound, images, and video in proprietary and open-source software” (University of Pittsburgh, 2018). The professor required students to visit A&SC to perform a close reading of science fiction fanzines, comic books, 1970s rock magazines, and feminist and gay press materials from the 1970s and 80s. The assignment asked students to categorize content based on a predetermined set of tags relating to gender and race, organized in the form of a digital timeline. She wanted the visual representation of the text to help students contextualize the categorized content over time. In addition, the faculty member wanted the final product to benefit A&SC. Many of these materials have not been digitized or indexed, so the professor hoped the project would render the materials more discoverable. DSS recommended that she use Timeline JS because it is a free, easy to learn software application that can quickly produce a digital timeline.

During the students’ initial visit to A&SC, the professor and archivist led a Timeline JS tutorial and introduced the content that would be incorporated into the timeline. After the students consulted the materials, the class regrouped and decided to assign tags including trans communities, objectification, sexual norms, diversity, empowerment, and animosity. Anticipating challenges, the professor required students to compose one timeline as practice before delving into the full assignment. Students voiced concern that the categories were too broad and difficult to tag and worked together to choose new tags that they believed would more accurately describe the content and settled on overcoming objectification, call to action, defying gender roles, verbal violence, and racial diversity. Although the new categories were still broad, they were nuanced enough to aid in the completion of the assignment.

The professor divided the class into groups of 3-4 students and directed them to work with a specific format such as fanzines, rock magazines, or feminist newspapers. Each student read three articles from their assigned format and assigned tags, took photographs, and entered metadata about these publications into a Google Spreadsheet. The spreadsheet detailed the bibliographic information along with the tag. Students also drafted a synopsis of each article that would position their chosen reading in the context of the tag. Timeline JS generated the timeline using the information on the spreadsheet. Examples of the timelines include Science Fiction Fanzines: A Collection of Thoughts, Theories, and other Things and Pop Rocks.

Battershill and Ross recognize that “many activities in the digital humanities require adaptability, creativity, and openness” (Battershill and Ross 2017, 5) and urge practitioners to keep an open mind and learn from those things that don’t always turn out as expected. Due to the complexity of the project, a data visualization tool may have been better suited, but visualization tools tend to require time and effort to learn beyond the two-week scope of the project. Nevertheless, this exercise still proved to be valuable in exposing students to a new digital humanities tool that challenged them to use close reading to produce a digital timeline. Furthermore, the assignment empowered students to participate in the decision-making process, negotiate and build consensus, and modify the categories based on their research and initial experiences with primary sources.

Social Media

While timelines are a great way of visualizing key events within the context of a specific period of time, multimodal social media blogs also serve as effective tools for telling a compelling narrative.  Composing a blog post is an important exercise in clear and concise writing, and it also allows students to share their work with a larger audience. In addition, when students compose multimodal blogs related to collections, they help to publicize these collections to potential future researchers.

Several years ago, A&SC started using the blog platform Tumblr to highlight collections in an engaging and visual way. Student employees served as the content creators and researched and wrote blogs based on their interests, drawing inspiration from A&SC collections. Recognizing that Tumblr could also be a great way to engage classes, A&SC invited faculty to consider assigning blog entries as alternatives to regular writing assignments.

In one example, we helped a professor design a multimodal blogging assignment in which students would collaborate with local community groups to help them memorialize their histories. This was part of a course offered in the History of Art and Architecture Department (HAA) titled, “Nationality Rooms: Visualizing Heritage in Pittsburgh.” The Nationality Rooms are thirty classrooms, located in the University of Pittsburgh’s historic Cathedral of Learning, that depict the national and ethnic groups that immigrated to Pittsburgh and also serve as University classrooms. Committees consisting of community representatives from across the world were formed to design, fundraise, and support the construction of the classrooms to represent different cultural heritages. The host committees’ planning, design, and construction for each of the Nationality Rooms are documented in the archives and include meeting minutes, correspondence, architectural drawings, and photographs. The course required each student to choose a specific room and research that room’s archive in order to identify how the host committee wanted to memorialize and represent themselves. Along with a paper and oral presentation, students wrote a short blog post using their paper abstract. For the last two weeks of the semester we featured one post per day on the A&SC Tumblr site. Some of the topics included, “Keeping Greek Heritage Alive during World War II,” “Showcasing Japan’s Cultural Past to Facilitate American Interest,” and “The Politics of the Syrian-Lebanese Nationality Room: Memorializing Unity and the Arabic-American Identity.”

The posts were written well, however, they focused more on the room as a whole and not on one aspect of the room in conjunction with a primary source from that room’s archive. Also, they did not include images of materials from the archives, but rather images of the rooms. From this experience, we learned that the students required more explicit directions. Although the instructions for the assignment were communicated to students verbally during the initial class visit, it would have been better to provide the students with written instructions outlining the requirements for the post.

Some faculty maintain their own class blogs and assign students to create posts using  A&SC materials. A&SC hosted an Introduction to Creative Writing class to look at scrapbooks from S. Leo Ruslander. Solomon Leo Ruslander (1879-1976) was a tax lawyer in Pittsburgh who compiled thirteen scrapbooks which document his professional and family life. The scrapbooks contain letters, photographs, event programs and invitations, postcards, newspaper clippings, and ephemera that document his wedding, family vacations, and material relating to local and regional associations[1]. Interacting with personal artifacts such as diaries draws researchers closer to the object’s history and cultural significance by evoking personal reflections and emotion (Lanning and Bengston 2016, 9). The professor asked students to spend time consulting with the scrapbooks and to each create their own, individual, creative portrait of Mr. Ruslander based on the information gleaned through the scrapbooks. Using WordPress, the class compiled their essays and created an online class magazine titled Seventeen Ways of Looking at S. Leo Ruslander. This project motivated students to embrace different roles throughout the creation process such as author, editor, reviewer, and publisher, while simultaneously establishing a meaningful connection with primary sources (DeSpain 2011, 26).

Faculty assign blogs to teach students how to articulate their research in shorter writing exercises that ask students to write succinctly and for a popular audience. In addition, assigning hashtags to their posts enable students to consider ways to enhance discoverability. Students often include links to their blog posts in job applications to demonstrate their writing skills. In addition, the blogs raise awareness of collections as posts are “liked” or “reblogged” by other individuals, libraries, or museums. They are indexed and discoverable through search engines such as Google, rendering these stories available to future researchers. To encourage faculty to incorporate blogging into their writing assignments, A&SC has created guidelines to assist faculty in scoping projects and has provided information about formatting, content length, and images.

Independent Student Research and Digital and Creative Outputs

In addition to class blogging assignments, independent student research opportunities teach students how to perform research using primary sources. As part of a larger library initiative and in partnership with Pitt’s Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), A&SC offers the Archival Scholar Research Awards (ASRA) to encourage undergraduate scholars and researchers from the humanities to engage in original research using archives, special collections, and primary sources at the University of Pittsburgh. The ASRA program creates opportunities for students to connect with faculty mentors as well as with librarians, archivists, and curators who support student research and introduce students to collections. ASRA students also engage in collections work that supports their individual research projects and enhances the  discoverability of library and archival resources.  A&SC strives to find ways to incorporate creative outputs such as producing zines, timelines, social media, and other digital applications into the ASRA students’ collections work while simultaneously giving the faculty mentor a glimpse of what might be possible to include in their class assignments.

The ASRA program has made it possible for A&SC to witness the enthusiasm and passion that a researcher has when they detect a sign or clue that provides greater insight into their research. An undergraduate Biology and Philosophy major and ASRA recipient studied the archives of David Hull because it was a newer collection that had never been researched. Hull was one of the philosophers who founded the modern subdiscipline of Philosophy and Biology. The student began her research by focusing on the correspondence files in the Hull Papers to situate Hull’s thinking among twentieth-century philosophers of science within the century’s wider cultural movements. She carefully documented major themes, correspondents, events, locations, and dates that she encountered in the archive in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The student also created Tumblr posts to raise awareness about the Hull papers and document the progress that she was making in her research.

Through her research, this student witnessed firsthand the debates among philosophers, and scientific philosophy theories that differed from the “winning” side. Based on this research, the student concluded that subject material taught in general philosophy classes is often from the viewpoint of the “winning” or most popular side of a theory. The correspondence files also revealed how the philosophers networked with one another, discussed ideas, and formulated their theories. From this data, she identified patterns in the letters and developed the thesis that Hull’s ideas synthesized the opinions of many different philosophers and that the best ideas are the products of cooperation. She worked closely with the DSS to find a tool that could visually support her theories and that she could embed in her poster for an end-of-term presentation. Figure 2 illustrates how she was able to carefully examine the manuscripts, recognize and interpret patterns in the author’s writings, create a narrative, and draw powerful conclusions about Hull’s work (Carini 2015, 194). In addition, she used the data in her Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to create a visualization using the data visualization and analytics application Tableau.


Figure 2. Visualization chart detailing themes in Hull’s correspondence

This student’s experiences and discoveries demonstrate the importance of original research with primary sources. This student is one of the first researchers to use the David Hull papers and she made some significant discoveries that other researchers can build upon; she and her Faculty Mentor published a paper titled “David Hull Through His Own Philosophical Lens” focusing on this research and made it available in D-Scholarship, the University of Pittsburgh’s institutional repository.

Another success story from the ASRA program revolves around three students who received the ASRA award to conduct research using the Black Panther, the newspaper published by the Black Panther Party. The students each conducted their own individual research using the Black Panther. They studied the Black Panther Party’s foreign involvement and support, the origins of the publication’s visual vocabulary, their use of propaganda, and the artwork of Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. At the same time, students consulted every issue of the physical newspaper that was held in Pitt’s archive and recorded information about the publication in a Google spreadsheet. Their goal was to create a dataset that would aid their research and provide insight into collections that are not necessarily discoverable through the library’s catalog and allow researchers to collect, process, and critically analyze data using quantitative methods. They recorded information about the inventory and missing issues, the cover art and accompanying headline, the back cover art, and any other art found within each issue. In addition, students noted articles about women’s health, women in prison, women’s leadership within the party, and the party’s international connections. The faculty mentor, who supervised the students’ research,  consulted this data set in order to design a new course on conflict and art. Further, this data set will also benefit A&SC in assisting other faculty interested in incorporating the newspaper into their curriculum.

The intent is to make this Black Panther newspaper dataset public so future researchers can better locate information. As Chester et al. recognize, “masses of data and statistics are no substitute for close reading, but they create an opportunity for individual scholars to pose new questions to sets of data never before assembled” (Chester 2018, 67). However, in retrospect, A&SC needed to coach the three students to adhere to the same format when entering their data.  As a result, the dataset is inconsistent and requires more revision before it can be released to the public. The project did successfully identify content for class visits and has the potential to feed into other digital humanities projects. When students engage in primary source research, they move away from being consumers of information to producing, creating, and contributing their theories and ideas to the greater body of scholarship. A&SC also supports students engaging in independent research or internships under the direction of faculty. These autonomous pursuits offer a little more freedom to experiment with creative outputs and are not necessarily confined to a specific class or curriculum. To this end, Pitt librarians seek out academic departments who wish to offer undergraduate students internship opportunities and place them in A&SC for course credit. These internships support original research and provide a mechanism for students to share their research in creative ways. For example, an undergraduate student focusing on Museum Studies focused her internship on Japanese printmaking and consulted Japanese prints in Pitt’s University Art Gallery, Carnegie Museum of Art, and in A&SC’s Walter and Martha Leuba’s print and broadside collection. The student compiled detailed information about selected prints; enumerated, re-housed, and labeled prints; and investigated unattributed prints for the eventual digitization of this material. She aimed to create a virtual exhibition of Japanese prints using Omeka, a free and open source web-publishing platform for content management and online exhibit creation, and to promote the Leuba collection prints and her research through Tumblr. Given her personal research focus on twentieth-century Japanese woodblock prints, she specifically took interest in a piece by Kiyoshi Saitō (1907-1997) titled Clay Image. The student realized that the people featured in the print were actually the hollow figures made from terracotta clay, called Haniwa, which she learned about that previous year in an Asian art class. She then shared this new insight on her blog and featured this print on her Omeka site. Through this internship, the student became familiar with the Japanese prints within Pitt’s collections and became proficient in using Omeka to help communicate her research discoveries. In addition, the student’s contributions will help lead to increased discoverability of the prints.

Digital Microscopes

In addition to encouraging creative outputs, A&SC encourages students to interact with collections through in-class exercises. When a professor teaching Making the Book brought his personal digital microscope to a class visit, A&SC immediately realized the potential to engage students in a method of active learning often reserved for the biological sciences. When the department purchased five microscopes[2] for class use, faculty enthusiastically requested that they be made available for their students. The ability to see cotton fiber threads in 17th-century paper or to distinguish a woodblock print from a lithograph allows students to identify and study the materiality of paper, ink, and printing methods.  Peter Carini notes that “Primary source materials come with special and unique challenges, particularly in an era when young people are increasingly electronically literate but have less and less interaction with physical documents” (Carini 2016, 193). Classes focusing on the history of the book appreciate being able to see and actually touch older books, compare paper to parchment, witness real evidence of animal skins in books, and study features like marginalia, decorations, watermarks, and clues to ownership and provenance such as library stamps, call numbers, annotations, etc. Faculty feedback indicated that the digital microscopes and physical interaction served as a wonderful complement to the theoretical discussions in the classroom by allowing this first-hand, philological experience. The microscopes helped students better observe examples of stereotyping, electrotyping, linotype, and rotogravure to understand how the press was mechanized. Similarly, they compared  different machine-made papers such as wood pulp, typescripts, dime novels, and mass market magazines to hand-made paper found books produced during the hand-press period and fine press books created during the Arts and Crafts movement.


Figure 3. Researcher using a digital microscope to view text from a 16th century book



Figure 4. Microscopic images of rubrication and a woodblock print[3]

Unfortunately, A&SC was not prepared for the demand for the microscopes (including out-of-class assignments which required students to come in on their own time to capture and save screenshots) and lacked the hardware needed to operate them.  The professor expressed serious concerns about asking students to use the digital microscopes on their own personal devices and download the software, but the library-owned devices proved unreliable and difficult to troubleshoot. We learned we must fully test equipment prior to implementation and we must manage expectations of faculty and students. The department will invest in dedicated devices to use with the digital microscopes and ask students to save captured images to a flash drive or upload them to Cloud storage.


By collaborating with other colleagues such as faculty, community organizations, subject specialists, and Digital Scholarship Services staff, A&SC facilitates and supports a wide variety of research endeavors in both traditional and creative formats. These collaborations support student research and allow students to explore not only how to perform research using primary sources, but how to disseminate their research through the creation of zines, digital humanities projects, and blogs. In addition, it helps us share information about our collections and services.

When learning new technological skills, students run the risk of concentrating on learning the new technology rather than prioritizing the research process. Based on these experiences, we advise others interested in these kinds of collaborative assignments to allow plenty of lead time in experimenting with innovative pedagogical approaches, especially when they involve new technologies. In the case of the digital microscopes, the microscopes were extremely popular, but we were not prepared for the hardware challenges. Make certain that the technology enhances the experience with primary sources and does not overshadow the lesson and become the focus.

A&SC wishes to build upon anecdotal feedback that we receive from faculty and students to create  a more formalized assessment program based upon the joint Association of College & Research Libraries/Rare Books & Manuscript Section–Society of American Archivists Joint Task Force on Primary Source Literacy. A&SC hopes to determine whether students are walking away with new knowledge of primary sources, how we can better collaborate with faculty, and how we can better reach ambitious goals around student success, retention, and graduation rates set by the University of Pittsburgh. Peter Carini argues that a standard is needed to “provide a collection of goals for planning class sessions for students…help shape conversations with faculty about fitting primary source teaching into the broader curriculum…and allow archivists and special collections librarians to better assess the work they do in their class sessions” (Carini 2016, 196).

Finally, A&SC acknowledges how important it is for students to become creators and producers who can make use of primary sources and digital applications in order to contribute their theories and ideas to the greater body of scholarship. Their discoveries and research outputs shed light on what modern archival research looks like in the 21st century.  Collaborations among librarians, archivists, and other experts improve student learning by encouraging innovative teaching through combined expertise and new technologies (Davis, McCullough, Panciera and Parmer, 2017, 483). These collaborations offer different perspectives, diverse ideas, and expertise from across disciplines and functions. After a series of collaborations with faculty to design assignments and in-class exercises that incorporate primary source research, we have discovered that encouraging creative outputs and the use of digital applications can foster student innovation.


[1]Description of collection taken from finding aid.
[2]Bodelin Technologies ProScope EDU 5MP High Resolution Desktop USB Microscope.
[3]Example of rubrication from Hugues of Fouilloy’s De Claustro Animae, 14–?, and Ptolemy’s Almagest, 1515.


Battershill, Claire, and Shawna Ross. 2017. Using Digital Humanities in the Classroom: A Practical Introduction for Teachers, Lecturers and Students. London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Carini, Peter. 2016. “Information Literacy for Archives and Special Collections: Defining Outcomes.” Libraries and the Academy 16, no. 1: 191-206.

Davis, Ann Marie, Jessica McCullough, Ben Panciera, and Rebecca Parmer. 2017. “Faculty-Library Collaborations in Digital History: A Case Study of the Travel Journal of Cornelius B. Gold.” College & Undergraduate Studies 24, no. 2-4: 482-500.

DeSpain, Jessica. 2011. “On Building Things: Student-Designed Print and Digital Exhibits in the Book History Class.” Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy XXII, no. 1: 25-36.

Garland, Jessica. 2014. “Locating Traces of Hidden Culture in Rare Books and Special Collections: A Case Study in Visual Literacy.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 33, no. 2: 313-326.

Lanning, Robbyn Gordon and Jonathan B. Bengston. 2016. “Traces of Humanity: Echoes of Social and Cultural Experience in Physical Objects and Digital Surrogates in the University of Victoria Libraries.” Cogent Arts & Humanities 3, 1-19.

MacDonald, Susan Peck. 2007. “The Erasure of Language.” College Composition and Communication 58, no. 4: 585-625.

Michelle Chester, et al. 2018. “Old Text and New Media: Jewish Books on the Move and a Case for Collaboration.” Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Partnerships: A Critical Examination of Labor, Networks, and Community. Edited by Robin Kear and Kate Joranson, 67.  Cambridge: Elsevier Ltd.

Miller, Kelly E. 2014. “Imagine! On the Future of Teaching and Learning and the Academic Research Library.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 14, no. 3: 329-351.

University of Pittsburgh. 2018. 2017-2018 Undergraduate Catalog.  Retrieved from https://catalog.upp.pitt.edu/

Vong, Sylvia. 2016. “Reporting or Reconstructing? The zine as a medium for reflecting on research experiences.” Communications in Information Literacy 10, no. 1: 62-80

About the Author

Jennifer Needham is a Research Librarian at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, MA. After working five years at the University of Pittsburgh Archives & Special Collections as an archivist, in October of this year, she decided to move back to her native New England and accepted a position at Deerfield Academy. Jennifer earned her bachelor’s from Smith College in 2010 and her MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011.

Jeanann Croft Haas is the Special Collections Coordinator in the Archives & Special Collections (A&SC) Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

Figure 1. Digital image of a poster left at the Boston Marathon memorial in Copley Square. The poster reads “From Peoria Illinois to Beijing China, we all stand strong for Boston” in both English and Chinese (http://hdl.handle.net/2047/D20262219).

Crowdsourcing Traumatic History: Understanding the Historial Archive


This article discusses the challenges and opportunities for digital archives that aim to both historicize and memorialize recent tragedies through crowdsourcing materials from the public. Using an archive built after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings as an example, I offer the term “historial archive” as a distinction from the much-critiqued adoption of the word “(A)rchive(s)” that we see used throughout the disciplines. Although crowdsourcing in this type of archive works as a catalyst for community, the speed of collection operates (rhetorically at least) as an active buttress against the problems of provenance. That is, historical archives must go to great lengths to verify the veracity and historicity of their collections; in the historial archive’s more philosophic approach to history, the time-sensitive collection methods ensure the archive’s veracity and historicity. Using my own research, I model how students may approach historial archives and the ways these types of repositories can allow for various productive paths that go beyond simply aggregating primary materials.


With the speed at which information travels today, there has been a shift in how we engage with news: we are more likely to hear about an event as it unfolds as opposed to hearing about it after it ends. As we (literally) see in our social media feeds, in the wake of a tragedy, memorialization happens rapidly both at the physical site of the event and in digital contexts. To capture such ephemera, there has been an uptick in digital archives that use crowdsourcing in order to populate these spaces. As various libraries continue to encourage instructors to engage with their digital collections (for examples see Duke, Vanderbilt, and The Newberry), it is important to pause and understand the unique aspects of creating a digital archive in real time that seeks to both historicize and memorialize an event. I offer the portmanteau “historialize” to acknowledge the ways these collections remain distinct from traditional archives in terms of their scope, rationale, and methods of collection.

In this article, I draw upon my experience working with a team to create a digital archive after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. First, I present some context, a brief exploration of the term archive(s), and a discussion of some ways the Boston Marathon archive departs from traditional archives. I then unpack the term “historial archive” as a name for digital repositories that aim to both historicize and memorialize an event. Next, to further expand upon how one might use a historial framework, I draw from primary research conducted with community members who shared their written accounts with the archive (NU-IRB Protocol # 15-04-09). I conclude by sharing one rhetorically rich arena that came about from my study. By offering samples of the kind of follow-up possible with the historial archive—in my case, surveys and interviews with contributors—my goal is to inspire instructors to compel their students to examine such archives based upon their own disciplinary backgrounds and to see what questions—and perhaps answers—they come up with.


More than just an annual race, the Boston Marathon is an important community event: it brings together runners from around the world—both elite and amateur—and the Hopkinton-to-Boston course is a source of pride and tradition for spectators as well. On April 15, 2013, two homemade pressure-cooker bombs were detonated near the marathon’s finish line. The blasts killed three people and injured over 260 others. The days that followed this act of terror included an unprecedented shelter-in-place order that kept residents inside their homes as a manhunt for the two suspects took to the streets. In the end, the death toll reached five, including an MIT police officer and one of the suspects; the other suspect, eventually found hiding nearby, was arrested and charged for the crimes. This horrific week in Boston’s history touched people from all over as evidenced from the artifacts left at local makeshift memorials, the thousands received by the Mayor’s office, and the surge of #BostonStrong social media posts.


Figure 1. Digital image of a poster left at the Boston Marathon memorial in Copley Square. The poster reads “From Peoria Illinois to Beijing China, we all stand strong for Boston” in both English and Chinese (http://hdl.handle.net/2047/D20262219).

From mourning the victims to celebrating the first responders, many community members connected with one another and processed their emotions by sharing stories of their personal experiences both digitally and in person. Noting the historical importance of such communications, a group of professors and graduate students from the English and History departments at Northeastern University came together to create a digital repository of these materials. Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive defines itself as a community project that consists of pictures, videos, and stories related to the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and aftermath (McGrath et al 2018). The archive was crowdsourced, which meant that anyone with an Internet connection could have potentially participated in populating the archive. The spirit of the archive involved gathering as many artifacts as possible in order to capture an important moment in Boston’s history.

Understanding Our Marathon as an Archive

Outside of academia, rarely do we hear people talking about archiving—save for clearing up email inboxes—but even in academia, people in different disciplines don’t necessarily align. For example, Marlene Manoff (2004) explores the way the word “archives” has been taken up by scholars other than librarians and archivists and explains how this word can refer to anything from the general contents of a museum to specific repositories of documents and objects; moreover, when discussing digital archives, the term can range from anything found in a digital format to a more select collection of related digital documents (10). Despite the various qualifiers certain disciplines have developed—social archive, raw archive, postcolonial archive—scholars from the social sciences and humanities understand that archives have important scholarly and political functions especially for those interested in the recovery work that accompanies actions like rewriting women and minorities back into historical records.

Digital archives add another layer of complexity to the conversation. In her article “Archives in Context and as Context” archivist Kate Theimer (2012) explains her hesitations with the field of Digital Humanities co-opting the word archives in a fairly expansive way. Theimer endorses the Society of American Archivists’ definition of archives: “Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control” (Pearce-Moses 2005). Theimer discusses how there is a long history with specific values and practices when working with/in “archives.” Though she is appreciative of how words and meanings change, she is concerned with “the potential for a loss of understanding and appreciation of the historical context that archives preserve in their collections, and the unique role that archives play as custodians of materials in this context” (Theimer 2012).

To understand Theimer’s hesitations, it is useful to consider how a more traditional, physical archive functions differently from a digital archive like Our Marathon. For example when The Boston Globe started in 1872, photography was still a very expensive craft and the technology for mass printing photos was still to come. As technology progressed, and as the newspaper continued to grow, one might imagine that a system of curating their images became important. Thus, the artifacts themselves necessitated an archive, and the staff could create a system that made most sense for their anticipated work. On the other hand, some archives are less calculated. For example, Mary Hemingway donated crates of her deceased husband’s papers to the Kennedys upon suggestion of a mutual friend. Now housed at the JFK Memorial Library in Boston, The Ernest Hemingway Collection contains the initially donated drafts of his manuscripts and personal letters, but it has also collected other related materials such as newspaper clippings and audio recordings of the author. The archivists in charge of this collection have curated the materials in ways that make sense for potential researchers and have also created finding aids.

These two examples illustrate key terms for analyzing archives: purpose, audience, location and preservation, and overall access. In what follows, I use the example of Our Marathon to discuss how the digital impacts these terms.

Purpose: How does the digital affect the purpose of Our Marathon?

With the Photo Archive, the purpose is very clear: should a news story relate to something that happened in the past, the reporter can search for the appropriate photograph. With the Hemingway Collection, there are multiple purposes: to preserve an iconic author’s writing process, to educate people about this particular person and his life, and so on. With Our Marathon, collecting stories for historical purposes made a lot of sense, but the vision of the archive was not just for history: the archive was created as an instrument of healing and a place for all community members to feel free to add their voices and share their parts of the story.

Audience: How does the digital affect the audience(s) for Our Marathon?

Although there are intended and imagined audiences, public digital archives can be viewed by anyone, as the archive itself is not located in the dusty basement of a building, like The Boston Globe photo collection was in 2013, nor does it take much effort to access, like the Hemingway Collection, which necessitates “proof” that you have business there. When Our Marathon was built, there were two main audiences in mind who would be accessing the digital archive through their devices: community members (who possibly needed a space for healing) and future researchers. We quickly found that these two audiences would both complement and complicate each other: for example, while researchers would want to know about community members’ experiences, the nature of a public digital archive might dissuade certain people from participating. Because the creators intended for the archive to be mostly crowdsourced, the overall design of the archive needed to be clean and user-friendly. From the choice of words to the colors we used, there were many discussions on how our intended audiences would engage with the digital archive.

Location and Preservation: How does the digital affect senses of location and issues of preservation with Our Marathon?

With physical archives there is always the chance of an unavoidable disaster decimating a collection, but for the things archivists can control, there are plenty of best practices for handling archival material, such as temperature-controlled rooms that are under lock and key, and protocols for handling old paper so that the oils from one’s fingers do not affect the text. When it comes to digital archives we understand that technology is not infallible and digitized and born-digital artifacts are in no less danger than their physical counterparts.

In April 2018, Northeastern University moved the archive from its open-source content management system (Omeka) to a permanent home on its server space; however, Northeastern will need to be committed to updating the site as technology changes. In her article “Digital Preservation: A Time Bomb for Digital Libraries,” Margaret Hedstrom (1998) reminds us that digital forms are vulnerable to technological obsolescence: “Digital works which are created using new or emerging software applications are especially vulnerable to software obsolescence because standards for encoding, representation, retrieval, and other functions take time to develop” (191). Digital preservation remains challenging because one is not usually aware that a change will impact digital artifacts until it actually happens.

Access: How does the digital affect access to Our Marathon?

As discussed in terms of audience, Our Marathon was accessible should one have access to the Internet, but contributors also needed to have a certain level of digital fluency to engage with the archive and to follow the archive’s prompts for sharing stories. Contributors could submit a story, image, email, video, text message, audio recording, or website. The Our Marathon team also created guides for capturing/uploading social media updates, but at the time there was not a simple way to grab one’s own updates. Upon clicking a “Share” button on the website’s homepage, a potential contributor would be guided through a series of steps to submit an item. For the purposes of this article, I focus on how people submitted their stories and note that the linear model used was based on the same design style as Tumblr, a popular blogging platform at the time.


Figure 2. First step. The screenshot shows orange buttons that signify which type of item someone would like to submit (e.g. story, image). “Story” has been selected, and below are two text boxes asking for someone to type in a “Title” and to “Tell us your story.”

After writing the title and story (or copying and pasting the text into the box) and having the option to upload a photo with the story, the arrows guide the participant through the next steps, which includes selecting where the story took place, when the story took place, details about the contributor, and the final stages of sharing.


Figure 3. Second step. The screenshot shows a map where a contributor could place the location of their story using an address.


Figure 4. Third step. The screenshot shows a clickable calendar for when the story took place.


Figure 5. Fourth step. The screenshot shows the optional data a contributor could choose to submit alongside their story. The fields are zip code, name, age, ethnic/racial identity, gender, and Twitter handle.


Figure 6. Fifth, and final, step. The submission form requires the contributor’s email address, and then asks in a series of checkboxes whether it is ok to contact the contributor for further information, if the contributor wants their item shared publicly, and if the contributor agrees to the linked Terms and Conditions.

Historial Archives

Referring to Our Marathon as an “archive” establishes it as a certain type of repository and highlights a scholarly interest; however, the fact that this archive relied so heavily on crowdsourcing makes it different from the digital archives Theimer questions in her article, such as those which brought together the works of prominent cultural figures like William Blake and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. Our Marathon was interested in collecting materials from any person who experienced the events.

This type of archiving is not without challenges. Our Marathon came from a line of relatively new crowdsourced archives that aim to both historicize and memorialize recent traumatic histories, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11th (2001) and the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005). As previously discussed, some librarians and archivists would resist naming such repositories archives. While other historical archives may bring together artifacts into one useable venue through specific curatorial practices, these “historial” archives aim to collect material in real time and focus on the ephemera of an event rather than on more authoritative, mediated artifacts.

Crowdsourcing, particularly in the case of Our Marathon, relies on individuals taking agency over their participation: there were no conventional expectations for public writing of this nature. Unlike a traditional archive where already-written stories might be pulled together into an historical repository, most of these stories were specifically written for the digital archive. In fact, most of the stories in Our Marathon would not exist in their current state if the archive staff had not prompted participants to share their stories. In line with its focus on collecting real-time stories specifically for the archive, the historial function gives power to those who participate. The memorial aspect invites participation that complements the philosophical approach to history the archive enacts, and the archive becomes a co-constructed space which, rather than see power remaining mostly with the archivist, grants agency through sharing personal accounts and documents.

In practice, as we were building the archive and crowdsourcing material, we were not sure what we were collecting that might be of interest to future scholars. Elizabeth Maddock-Dillon (2014), Professor of English and project co-founder, reflects, “Realizing that the archive could provide resources for multiple kinds of research was really exciting. It’s not just this is a historical record, but this gives us a whole body of material that people might use for research purposes that we haven’t even thought of yet. Nonetheless, it’s a way to create an archive/data set that will have real historical and research value.” In a way, this archive would be contributing to, if not controlling, the future historical record and public memory; however, who knows what scholars will be interested in learning from these artifacts 20, 50, or 100 years from now? For example, Dan Cohen, one of the leaders on the September 11th Digital Archive, has mentioned to us that linguists have been drawn to that archive’s collections because 2001 was about the time that “text speak”—internet shorthand like “OMG”—started to come about. At the time of collection, the archivists would not have been aware that they were capturing this linguistic moment.


At its heart, Our Marathon collects history through stories. Given the complex nature of storytelling within the discipline of history, it is helpful to think of the linguistic turn of the 1970s and 1980s marked by the work of scholars Louis Mink and Hayden White who both contend with narrative as a focus of history. Rather than relying on examples from the natural sciences to represent historical knowledge, these historians theorized that disciplinary artifacts like works of literature were also important links to historical understanding (Little 2016). Scholars like Mink and White emphasize historical narrative rather than historical causation and champion subjectivity and various interpretations over objectivity and singular truths. This falls directly in line with archives intending to capture the larger picture of something as it unfolds.

In this philosophical approach to historicizing a moment, subjectivity and its malleability are key; however, to memorialize something means to create an object that serves as a focus for the memory of an event or person(s) in a more static fashion. Memorialization becomes a shared space that necessitates more rigidity: “Memorial sites, by their very existence, create communal spaces. Although it is possible to describe an individual’s encounter with a site, it is almost always part of a collective experience” (Blair 1999, 48). Although Carol Blair (1999) writes about physical memorial sites, her attention to communal space and collective experience resonates with those who contributed their stories to Our Marathon.

Take, for example, the following story, titled “Laundry Mat” (story reprinted here with permission from the author; original contribution and photograph can be accessed in the online repository):

Following the Boston Marathon bombings, the hotel where my family and I were staying was evacuated. We passed time by grabbing a bite to eat and wandering around the surrounding neighborhoods, but as time went on, my sisters, who finished the marathon about 30 minutes before the bombs went off and were still wrapped in their foil blankets, started to get cold and all of our phones were dead or quickly running out of battery. We came across a small, underground laundry mat on Columbus Ave. called Five Star Laundry and asked the owners if we could sit inside to keep warm and use their outlets to charge our phones. The owners did not speak much English, but their little kids did, and they translated our explanation of what had happened and our request to the owners who immediately welcomed us in. The kids became increasingly curious about my sisters and the rest my family, and before we knew it, they were chatting up a storm with us, putting on my sisters’ medals, and even sitting on their laps. As a gesture of gratitude, my husband went to the convenience store down the road and came back with candy for the children. This picture shows my sisters with the children, candy in hand. During such a dark time, it was reassuring and comforting to experience the hospitality and friendliness of the people at Five Star Laundry (Katz 2013).

“Laundry Mat” represents a key moment for Our Marathon: submitted on May 22, 2013—less than a month after the archive was even conceptualized— it was the first publicly submitted artifact. More importantly, “Laundry Mat” represents a story that might be lost without an appropriate venue for safekeeping; it is part of a supplementary historical narrative about how members of a community experienced the Boston Marathon bombings. On its own, “Laundry Mat” offers one artifact of memorialization—the kindness of strangers following the events—but when also archived as part of the historical narrative of the Boston Marathon bombings, in the future this artifact may end up recontextualized among other temporally-based narratives where the focus could shift to any number of topics such as race, gender, or linguistics. As in traditional archives, in the historial archive, the meaning of such stories will shift as time moves on; however, much research can be done soon after these archives come into fruition, which means that students may be able to directly follow up with creators, builders, and contributors of such sites.

During my graduate work, I became interested in a seemingly simple question that I imagine any interested advanced undergraduate student could take up: why did people participate? In the anonymous survey data that I collected from 48 participants who contributed their stories, there were five main responses to the more specific question: “Why did you choose to share your story with Our Marathon?” In the table below I map out those five reasons—from most prevalent to least prevalent—and highlight representative responses.

Reason for Sharing Representative Responses
Closure The Boston Marathon 2013 was my 75th lifetime marathon and my 22nd consecutive Boston Marathon, however, any short lived celebration I experienced was immediately erased upon hearing the news of the bombings.  Sharing my experience was a way of dealing with the situation and moving on.

I needed to share my experience to basically clear the air so that I could move on.  I was running with two friends, and both went ahead when I stopped to talk to my daughter (a BU student) – they both finished as the 2nd bomb went off, and I was almost directly across from it at mile 26.  It could have ended a lot differently and I’m not upset by the coverage that the victims received at all, but others need to know that it touched others who were on the course as well.

I wanted to share my experience as a runner who was stopped 10k from the finish with a daughter waiting for me at the finish. I did this at the 2014 Marathon to help with closure of the 2013 experience.

It was part therapeutic and part fueled by the memories of our 2013 experience.  The Our Marathon space allowed me the chance to vocalize those feelings that I had kept bottled up for over a year.  Our daughter, the runner, was emotionally scarred by the experience as she watched the bombings from less than a block away, suffering from a leg cramp that saved her life.  She was not physically harmed but she carried the memories and carries them to this day.

Research and Historical Purposes The bombing was and is a part of history. It needs to be recorded from all who were impacted by the events of that fateful day.

I thought of this as an opportunity for my personal experience to be catalogued and capsuled in time.

I wanted people to know. It’s important for these stories to be remembered.

Particular Point of View I think that everyone’s story is important. I was the leader of the veterans group on campus and I wanted to show how veterans responded to the crisis. People usually have ideas of veterans as either being heroes or broken and I wanted to tell the real story.

Since I’m a Swede and was not in Boston during the bombing but read about it and followed the news from Sweden, I thought my views could be interesting as from someone not directly affected.

The bombings affected not only the individuals at the sites but also the community. As a community member, I wanted to share my perspective as a distant participant.

I wanted to contribute to the broad view and understanding of the impact of the marathon bombings on Boston and the surrounding community. I was fortunate not to be directly affected; a friend of a friend was injured, I was terrified for the few hours that my close friends in attendance were unreachable, and I was a part of the citywide lock down on Friday, but my life was not significantly altered by the bombings. I contributed because I thought I could add the voice of someone who as a student is not a permanent member of the community but nonetheless very involved.  

Personal Record I shared my story about the Marathon bombing because I felt deeply about the event.  I felt saddened and violated by the people who caused the bombing, and by the fact that a pall would forever be attached to what should be a joyous day.  As a Watertown resident I wanted to record my jetlag-induced confusion during a phone conversation with my son. I hoped recording that conversation would remind us that funny things still happened in the midst of deadly chaos.

I just wanted to document my story.  I was already at the hotel when I heard about the bombing, so it really didn’t affect me as much as it did to others.

For a Class (i.e. not optional) Contributed for Advanced Writing Class, had to for a grade

My English class had a project to create an archive about anything we wanted. I chose to do mine on the Boston Marathon. She showed us the Our Marathon archive and we became familiar with it. I chose to do it because I had so many connections with the marathon and because it really was so close to home, physically and mentally. My professor encouraged me to post my story on the actual archive.

I chose to share my story as a part of a classroom project.

I became interested in things like how respondents positioned themselves in relation to the archive, their verbiage, and their ideas of agency. But, as one may notice, the answers in this chart can be categorized in multiple ways and can raise different questions based on students’ interests. The temporal dimension of the historial archive offers research opportunities that are often impossible in traditional archives, particularly when it comes to understanding the motivations and considerations of both those who build such spaces and those who contribute to such spaces. In my research, I wanted to know more about who felt authorized to participate, and, in optional follow-ups from the survey, I conducted phone interviews where I could ask participants about their hesitations to participate. Here are two examples from “Dot” (2015) and “Colleen” (2015):

Interviewer: In your survey, you mentioned that you were a little concerned that your story didn’t matter since you weren’t impacted by the event. Could you say more about that?
Dot: It did have an impact to my friends, who knew I was there, but to the public I wasn’t one of the people on the streets or that got stopped by the running. I escaped pretty unscathed from the whole event. I didn’t experience the losses, or the danger, or really any of the negative effects that a lot of the other participants did.

Interviewer: In your survey you mentioned that you were hesitant to share your story because you hadn’t actually experienced physical trauma. What do you make of an archive that aims to capture all stories of different experiences?
Colleen: I think it’s valuable. I think overall we’re understanding of how different people experience things. It is helping me to come to accept the fact that there was not physical trauma, [but it] was something that I was still a part of. That’s just as valid as some other forms of trauma. I think it’s really good—it’s really good for other people who haven’t participated in experiences like that or something that can be…What am I looking for…not necessarily traumatic but challenging to understand that different people handle different things in different ways.

Interviewer: How would you describe the act of submitting your story to the archive, for you personally?
Colleen: It was hard. It was unexpected. I don’t know if I wrote this in my survey or not, but I was at the library that day for something else. Somebody had approached me and asked if I’d be willing to do it. I said, “Sure.” I had said to her the same thing, “Yes I was down there, but I wasn’t right there.” She said, “Well, that’s fine.” It started off OK, but the more writing I did, the more the emotions and the memories of the event started to come up. It was much harder for me than I thought it was going to be in the end.

Interviewer: In your survey, you mentioned that it might have been too soon to share your story and not the right environment.
Colleen: That was an afterthought. I hadn’t realized how deeply it had affected me until afterwards.

As Dot and Colleen highlight, the historial function of the archive allowed their voices to count: Dot—a lifelong marathon runner—and Colleen—someone who was clearly traumatized by the events despite not having any scars—were given a space to share for their own immediate benefit and the longer term benefit of future researchers. How might students studying Psychology analyze these responses? Or how might they follow up differently to these responses during the interviews? With proper guidance and/or ethical practices—a caveat I hope is clear to anyone working within topics of trauma—the historial archive can open up fascinating discussions and fruitful paths for researchers as long as we are mindful of our participants’ experiences and the potential benefits and drawbacks of such work.


When tragedy strikes, people often turn to digital forms to share their sentiments. While sometimes critiqued as a type of tourism wherein one’s digital actions become more of a souvenir than a true act of solidarity, these digital postings are part of a cultural moment that digital archivists remain interested in capturing. The slogan for Our Marathon—“no story too small”—represented a key motive for the creators of the archive: this site was meant to democratize. Anyone could participate and add their stories to the public history of the event; the more voices, the richer and more nuanced that formation of public memory would be. Story sharing is a legitimate form of history being born from devices every day, and this practice will continue to offer certain challenges as more and more historial archives come into fruition, but it also offers fascinating opportunities for research.

When it comes to research that followed up with Our Marathon’s story contributors, like many of the other story sharers, Dot and Colleen expressed gaining something from their experiences in contributing their stories to the archive; in fact, story sharers often expressed much gratitude to the archive’s staff in person. Even in my follow-up interviews years after the events, many expressed gratitude to me for listening to their stories and thoughts. In this way, the historial space may be reread as not just a repository for culture and memory but as an actual affirmation of self, knowledge, and worth. When thinking about the stakes involved in this historial archive through my own research lens, sharing a story was not just something nice to do: for some, it was a meaningful act of literacy and community. This is just one finding from one disciplinary lens; the historial archive can be read and reread as time goes on and continue to offer new meaning-making opportunities.


Blair, Carol. 1999. “Contemporary U.S. Memorial Sites as Exemplars of Rhetoric’s Materiality.” In Rhetorical Bodies, edited by Jack Selzer and Sharon Crowley, 16–57. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Colleen [pseud.]. 2015. “Our Marathon Contributor Interview.” Interview by Kristi Girdharry. July 1, 2015. Audio.

Dot [pseud.]. 2015. “Our Marathon Contributor Interview.” Interview by Kristi Girdharry. June 30, 2015. Audio.

Hedstrom, Margaret. 1998. “Digital Preservation: A Time Bomb for Digital Libraries.” Computers and the Humanities 31 (1): 189–202.

Katz, Jean. 2013. “Laundry Mat.” Laundry Mat. Accessed June 15, 2018. http://hdl.handle.net/2047/D20261554.

Little, Daniel. 2016. “Philosophy of History.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed June 15, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/history/.

Maddock-Dillon, Elizabeth. 2014. “Our Marathon Creator Interview.” Interview by Kristi Girdharry. September 12, 2014. Audio.

Manoff, Marlene. 2004. “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines.” Libraries and the Academy 4 (1): 9–25. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2004.0015.

McGrath, Jim, Alicia Peaker, Ryan Cordell, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, et al. 2013–2015. “Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive.” Accessed June 15, 2018. https://marathon.library.northeastern.edu/.

McGrath, Jim and Alicia Peaker. 2018. “Our Marathon: The Role of Graduate Student and Library Labor.” In Digital Humanities, Libraries, and Partnerships: A Critical Examination of Labor, Networks, and Community, edited by Robin Kear and Kate Joranson, 19–29. Cambridge: Chandos Publishing.

Pearce-Moses, Richard. 2005. “A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology.” Last modified May 20, 2016. Accessed October 14, 2018. https://www2.archivists.org/glossary.

Theimer, Kate. 2012. “Archives in Context and as Context.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1 (2). Accessed June 15, 2018. http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/archives-in-context-and-as-context-by-kate-theimer/.

About the Author

Kristi Girdharry is an Assistant Professor of English at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island where she teaches writing, research, communication, and digital literacy courses. Her research interests also include community engagement and teaching for transfer.

Student using Artec 3D scanner in engineering lab to scan football helmet from Georgia Tech Archives

Realizing the Past: Charting a Course for Sustainable Instruction and Engagement with Archival Materials Using Augmented and Virtual Reality Technologies


The role of libraries in education is evolving and we must reframe how our users engage with collections. Library services are expanding beyond simple circulation and access to include specialized resources. Librarians and archivists fulfill roles in instructional programming and provide campus support for data visualization, multimedia production, and knowledge preservation. Because preservation and access fill equally important roles in archival settings, collections use in library instructional activities presents a unique set of challenges. Creating new environments for our users to interact with archival collections opens the possibility to reach new audiences. How might we best engage students and community members with archival collections?

The authors explore the potential for using Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies with archival materials to enhance opportunities for instruction and outreach activities at a STEM-based institution. AR, VR, and archival resources support pedagogical models including constructivist learning, inquiry-based learning and game-based education. Through an analysis of the current landscape of technological requirements and educational institutions using AR/VR in conjunction with special collections, this article discusses how simulated environments can democratize archival instruction and outreach. Authors reflect on a pilot class led by librarians that invited students to design creative solutions for engaging the campus community with items from the Georgia Tech Library’s special collections through the use of AR and VR. This educational prototype demonstrates how librarians and archivists drive the research on campus by taking an active partnering and mentoring role in student research. This model of instruction informs recommendations for smart project design and future state anticipations.


Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies are becoming more prevalent in educational settings. AR and VR have been used to facilitate and enhance students’ learning in almost all disciplines, including but not limited to science, engineering, medicine, psychology, and the humanities. For example, augmented reality games have been used to create a sense of authenticity in medical training (Rosenbaum, Klopfer, and Perry 2007). The use of AR and VR in the classroom instruction has shown positive impact on increasing motivation and improving students learning outcomes for specific tasks (Di Serio, Ibáñez, and Kloos 2013, Sharma, Agada, and Ruffin 2013). One such example of a pedagogical benefit and affordance of mixed realities is the capacity to resize or manipulate objects that would be too small or too large to study in a traditional setting. Other examples include the ability to integrate and overlay contextual information alongside visual cues. AR, VR, and archival resources support pedagogical models including constructivist learning, inquiry-based learning and game-based education. Given these factors, there is potential to explore AR and VR technologies as ideal conduits for enhancing student engagement within instructional programs of library archives and special collections.

Professionals in museums and other cultural heritage institutions employ these technologies to enhance their user experience with collections. Relevant examples from these allied fields explore the basis of coupling AR and VR with archival resources to democratize instruction and outreach programs. Preservation and security concerns confine the physical manifestations of archival materials to onsite, proctored reading rooms. Archival programs, when able, offer access to digitized, born-analog records to increase discovery and use, as well as protect materials from exposure to elements that speed deterioration. When presented online, both born-digital and analog archival materials may appear static, rigid, and unable to entice contemporary learners. AR and VR not only improve access to archival materials by reducing physical proximity and capability barriers to access, but also aid in the preservation of fragile materials. AR and VR technologies enhance the archival instruction experience beyond current practices of digital presentation. Curating an interactive environment with these technologies provides contextual meaning and additional information that is important to engage students during instruction and outreach initiatives. With AR and VR technologies, instructional experience outside of the archival reading room more closely mirrors the serendipitous, real-life encounters with archival resources.

Despite being mentioned together, AR and VR are different technologies and bring distinct possibilities to instruction and outreach with archival resources. As defined by Ronald Azuma (1997), AR integrates virtual and physical information, interacts with the environment in real time, and the content is displayed in three dimensions. VR, on the other hand, typically creates a virtual scene or recreates reality in a virtual environment to offer an immersive experience. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, a STEM-focused public university, librarians and archivists are exploring the potential for using AR and VR technologies to enhance outreach experiences and facilitate educational engagement with Georgia Tech archival materials. This article discusses the potential of employing these technological tools to help improve instruction and students’ engagement with Georgia Tech’s special collections.

New Pedagogies and Methods of Student Engagement at the Georgia Tech Library

The Computational Media program at Georgia Tech is a collaborative effort by the College of Computing and the School of Literature, Media, and Communication (LMC). Students in this program specialize in areas including interactive game design, human-computer interaction, digital arts, media theory, media history, and software design. One component of this program is providing students with an opportunity to focus on their research interests in an internship-style setting mentored by Georgia Tech faculty. Through these research-for-credit course sections, students are presented with a real technology-based challenge from a campus department. The students are given a semester or two to first research the issue and then prototype potential solutions. Student findings are summarized in a report or presentation that is assessed and graded by mentoring faculty. In many cases the students’ findings or outputs are incorporated into the departmental workflow and lead to new use cases, models of service, or further research.

The Georgia Tech Special Collections and Archives have a robust teaching and outreach program. Each year more than two thousand faculty, staff, and students use the archival resources to develop lesson plans, fulfill mission critical duties, and complete course assignments. Most of the archival materials are stored in an offsite storage facility, which provides a high-capacity, state-of-the-art space with ideal climate conditions but stifles on-demand access to most of the collections. Recall from the offsite facility can take up to forty-eight hours. By implementing AR and VR technologies with archival resources, users receive immediate access to the information they need.

In recent years, Georgia Tech librarians and archivists have been serving as mentors for students participating in these research sections. In the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018, one of these special topic courses had students working with the Georgia Tech Library Instruction program and the Data Visualization Lab on how VR could be used for teaching and learning. This class was designed to be exploratory and self-directed, presenting students with fairly broad learning objectives. Outside of having the basic framework for a small educational game built, the main learning objective of the class was for the students to be able to identify the main components of the VR design and development lifecycle through hands-on experience. Additionally, the cohort was to produce a report that included a directory of campus resources and tools necessary for these types of projects. Finally, they were to explain how someone using VR for educational purposes might assess the effectiveness of these methods.

This small group of students began analyzing how VR technologies could be used to showcase, enhance, and engage other undergraduates with the library’s special collections. Students were challenged to use immersive technologies to address the issue of accessibility for these unique resources. Approaching these issues through the lens of storytelling and experiential learning, the student team first conceptualized the narrative for an educational game that would introduce other students to items within Georgia Tech’s archival collection.

The class project was initially designed to be a component of the first-year experience program on campus. First year students would be introduced to library resources in a virtual setting and quizzed on these concepts through interaction with an avatar. After storyboarding their initial ideas, the students began with an environmental scan of campus resources, partners, and technologies necessary for completion of the project.

The cohort explored the campus invention studio and tools used for 3D scanning. The Artec Spider 3D scanner was the primary tool used for capturing three-dimensional images of artifacts from Georgia Tech’s special collections. This scanning process creates a three-dimensional representation of an object that can then be imported into Unity, a cross-platform game engine the class used for developing 3D content and compiling all contents to a VR game. Therefore, the scanning process was one of the first phases in the students’ project development. The three-dimensional scanning process alone was a major challenge. The 3D scanning process presented enough hurdles and issues for an entire semester’s worth of analysis and research.


Figure 1. Student using Artec 3D scanner in engineering lab to scan football helmet from Georgia Tech Archives



Figure 2. 3D Scan of “RAT” Hat with Artec Scanner in Artec Editor


One problem facing the students was how to handle scanning complex textures and managing surface variations of the artifacts. Dark or shiny objects proved to be particularly time-consuming and problematic. For example, the students had hoped to use the archive’s prototype of the 1996 Olympic torch in their educational game but were not able to capture the texture information in a 3D scan. In some cases, objects can be greased with a developer spray which prepares the surface and creates an ideal environment for scanning, thus decreasing distortion. However, when it comes to working with rare or delicate artifacts such as the torch, these solutions are not an option. In hindsight, the librarians guiding the project determined that the 3D scanning process could and should have been a solo research project. Future iterations of this class will distill the research focus of the class into manageable components that can be built upon, combined, and eventually grown into a larger scope project over multiple semesters.


Figure 3. Unused 3D Scan of the 1996 Olympic Torch prototype from Georgia Tech Archives



Figure 4. 3D Scan of “RAT” Hat used in project Georgia Tech Space Station


Given the large scope of the topic presented, students later modified their project design to function more as an interactive campus tour that included scanned photos of campus landmarks and some historical imagery from the library archives. This late stage modification was largely a result of the issues they encountered during the 3D scanning process. The 3D scanning and subsequent attempts to import the scanned objects into the development engine Unity proved to be extremely difficult. In an attempt to narrow the focus of their project, the students collectively changed the narrative of the game allowing them to use assets, such as the photographs, that were technologically easier to work with. The substitution of photographs instead of 3D scanned objects allowed the students to focus more of the development process as a whole rather than getting hung up on isolated yet critical problems that would prevent completion of the project.


Figure 5. Hallway in Georgia Tech Space Station Game showing images from the Georgia Tech Archives hanging on the wall, detail below.



Figure 6. 2D scanned archival images hanging on the hallway wall inside of Georgia Tech Space Station Game



Figure 7. 3D Model “RAT” Hat on the Table within Georgia Tech Space Station Game

The Georgia Tech Library’s role in these for-credit research classes presents a new pedagogical model where librarians and archivists drive the research on campus by taking an active partnering and mentoring role in student research. A year of working with the students in this capacity has informed how we approach the role of an academic library and the services provided. Redesigning traditional service points in a cutting-edge way highlights the mission of the Library NEXT project (http://librarynext.gatech.edu), which is looking to reevaluate and chart the course of the library’s place in the twenty-first  century world. Library NEXT is not only a physical transformation and renovation of the Georgia Tech Library, but it is also a reimagining and reinvention of our library services.  A large part of Library NEXT is making services more visible. A new data visualization lab, classrooms, and exhibit spaces in the renovated library highlight data modeling, educational programs, and archival services providing more transparent access.  Virtual reality and multimedia labs in libraries are not uncommon on college campuses, but they are often self-directed or self-serve spaces without librarian and archivist led research or learning initiatives (Oliveira 2017, Moore et al. 2018). Georgia Tech Library faculty and staff are striving to break down these independent silos and passive spaces. This model also presents an opportunity for novel partnerships and collaboration between librarians, archivists, and technology specialists; each brings expertise to the endeavor and all work together to highlight and utilize special collections and resources while engaging our community.

Archivists work with a variety of campus partners to engage local community groups through outreach initiatives. Two times a year, the Georgia Tech Community Development Office hosts primary students from local school districts during a “Tech Discovery Day.” The archivists created sleuthing centers for visiting middle-school students to discover the history of Georgia Tech and have hands-on experience with primary source materials. The event was held in a building separate from the archives department. Had there been rain, the demonstration would have been canceled. The need to protect the rare and unique records from harm or deterioration supersedes any individual experience. Placing this demonstration in an AR or VR simulation will free the materials from the constraints of mother nature. For this particular audience, the digital simulations may also spark interest in “old stuff” presented in a novel fashion.

The Educational Landscape of VR and AR in Archival and Allied Fields

VR and AR as Access Tools

AR and VR technologies have their respective advantages and disadvantages. VR is not attached to the actual artifacts or environments, which allows VR projects to be taken off-site as the hardware permits. However, current high-end VR devices demand specific set up configurations. Major VR devices in this category like Oculus Rift, HTC VIVE, and upcoming HTC VIVE Pro require costly gaming PC to drive high-quality graphic rendering. They also come with tethered heavy headsets and powered sensors as part of the device package. There have been portable mobile VR devices, such as Google Daydream VR, Google cardboard, and Samsung Gear VR, that enable phone VR experience if the graphic quality and room scaling are not the focus of the design. The upcoming Oculus Go sits between these two categories. Different options of VR devices open up opportunities to a variety of archival instructional designs.

AR design, on the other hand, relies on and interacts with the local environments to function. Because of this criteria, some archives-related AR projects only function in close proximity to the archival materials or environments with embedded trigger information, like GIS information or QR codes. AR enhances user experience through interacting with the physical environments. The advantage of AR for archives projects is that the hardware is easy to access, most times requiring only a smartphone, and that layers of information, including text, image, audio, video, 3D scanning, as well as virtual prototype, could be projected on physical objects to enrich and expand the learning experience. When it comes to application in archival materials, it is important to keep in mind these pros and cons to help make design decisions.

The potential for teaching and outreach with archival materials using AR and VR technologies is vast but requires collaboration with partners outside of the field. Tonia Sutherland suggests that “collaborating with scholars in fields such as the digital humanities and embracing new media technologies…create new possibilities for archivists to capture and preserve performance and other traditions, practices, and events” (2016, 393). A variety of AR and VR-facilitated projects have been done in archives-like environments, primarily at museums and cultural heritage sites for educational purposes. The projects detailed below serve as inspiration for the use of these technologies and applications in an archival setting.

Instruction with archival resources lends itself to hands on teaching pedagogies like constructivism and inquiry-based learning. Silvia Vong notes “special collections and archives have great potential to nurture students’ curiosity. Therefore, the use of a learning framework in that environment could transform it from just a physical space that houses books, papers, and objects to a place filled with discussion and interaction between students and teachers” (2016, 150). VR and AR technologies explore further the applications of these frameworks in advancing pedagogies of archival instruction by making the documents and artifacts relate to one another in a way that mirrors contemporary searching styles and information presentation.

Developing VR environments and AR tools to help instruct with archival materials entices students to reconsider the relevance of past events to current issues. Barbara Rockenbach writes “…students should be exposed to a learning environment in which they ‘deal with topics that will stimulate and open intellectual horizons and allow for opportunities for learning by inquiry in a collaborative environment” (2011, 299). The multidisciplinary nature of VR and AR projects using archival materials necessitates an environment where people with different skill sets work towards an end goal. Instructional faculty are also key stakeholders in this scenario. Again, Rockenbach recommends that “nstead of contacting professors with a plan that sounds overly programmatic (a mistake made by librarians trying to shoehorn faculty needs into the strictures of the Information Literacy Competency Standards), we’ve had some success…by listening to faculty and trying to understand their specific objectives and suggesting some creative collaborations based on learning theory” (2011, 302). VR and AR systems using archival materials have a variety of lesson plan and learning objective crosswalks that can increase the usability of the archives by a broad audience.

Technology Applications

In the archival context, the use of new media technologies is a dream hoped for by many but obtained by only a few. Depending on size, budget, and distinction, archival repositories provide inconsistent virtual access to materials. Online descriptions of archival collections displayed by electronic finding aids give minimal awareness of archival content. A more robust digital presence displays actual archival materials at the item level (ie a letter, a photograph, or a map). This access is achieved through digitization projects or links to born-digital records. The potential of AR and VR technologies to create interactive digital experiences lies partly in its ability to empower students and teachers to access and use archival records. Duff and Haskel note that “[a]rchives need to embrace archival 2.0 programs that extend archival access and facilitate open-ended conversations with their communities if archival records are to be exposed to new contexts and new uses” (2015, 42). Archival institutions have been employing mobile apps, social media crowdsourcing, GIS interactives, and gamification projects to reach out to users on their own terms and stimulate virtual learning.

VR and AR technologies are less pervasive in archival instruction and outreach applications thus far. The US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) launched a do-it-yourself augmented reality initiative in 2010 known as “History Happens Here”. The project is a low-tech contest where users snap a picture of an historic photo from the NARA holdings using its geotagged location to create a mash-up of past and present (NARA 2010). Remix techniques such as these are creative and provide a different type of access to archival records, but they do not meet the rigor of archival authenticity standards which can limit their usefulness in instructional settings. However, librarians and archivists guiding students through VR or AR interactions with archival materials may use this opportunity to discuss elements of information and archival literacy.

Major AR techniques detect target items based on location or trigger objects, such as images, artifacts or simple QR codes, and then project digital content on these items to improve user interaction and enhance their experience with the environments. The trigger object technique has been utilized with both real objects and in virtual reproductions, such as an image or drawing of an artifact. AR allows users to interact with an overlay of related digital content on top of physical objects. The Playing with the Artwork project applied such a design approach. Users first color digital representations of artwork without knowing anything about them. Then they go out on a scavenger hunt to find these pieces in the museum and compare their coloring with the actual artworks. When users point their app at a matching artwork, it triggers the app to display contextual information about that piece (Pucihars, Klijun, and Coulton 2016). The idea of learning while playing with technology is the highlight of this approach. The Playing with the Artwork project study proves effective among children.

In addition to the rich information AR adds for learners to understand the objects or environments, some designs break spatial boundaries by adding virtual avatars and thus bringing the interaction opportunities to users. Chen’s study designed a museum guidance system offering visitors the ability to interact with 3D scanned items at access points. Additionally, the access point provides contextual information about the artifact. If browsing triggers visitors’ interests, they will be guided to the location of the item within the museum (Chen, Chang, and Huang 2014). This helps visitors curate their own experience at the museum, leading them to the most relevant information for their interests before going to see the item in the exhibit. This prototype could be deployed in schools and other spaces to display educational content. Similar to museums, archives could benefit from such a mechanism for distilling information in a way that is relevant and approachable.

Another category of AR design integrates multimedia content with the actual artifact or environment and enables visitor-object interaction with AR control. One merit of this approach lies in exploring extra information about an object that is not visible to human eyes. The Revealing Flashlight project overlays 3D scanning and visualization of an object’s surface geometry. Users can use AR control to interact with the object and explore its properties by projecting the information of 3D layers instead of directly touching the objects (Ridel et al 2014). This design is of particular value for interacting with fragile materials with which the archives prohibit direct human contact for preservation purposes.

Different from AR, VR typically does not rely on actual objects or environments. Instead, it creates a virtual environment that replicates the reality and offers an immersive experience. The Virtual Experience on an Aircraft Carrier project in China creates a virtual flight experience where visitors interact with other players in the scene (Lu and Zhou 2016). Most VR initiatives to improve and enhance user experience with historical environments and artifacts are designed as games. In Spain, the PLAYHIST experiment used VR recreation of historical events with 3D artifact models to test users’ learning effectiveness through playing historical characters and reliving the historical moments (Aguirrezabal 2014).

In 1994, the National Science Foundation (NSF) implemented a grant program called the Digital Libraries Initiative. Through this program and cooperation with the National Initiative for Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH), the NSF sought ways technology could address needs in the humanities fields. The Virtual Vaudeville Prototype received funding through the Phase II cycle of the Digital Libraries Initiative to explore ways “to use digital technology to address a problem fundamental to performance scholarship and pedagogy: how to represent and communicate the phenomenon of live performance (Sutherland 2016, 393). Project manager, David Saltz a performance scholar at the University of Georgia headed a national team of computer scientists, 3D modelers and animators, professional actors, and subject matter historians. The group set out to create “an archives of experience” that could recreate a dynamic sense of place with on-stage, backstage and audience activity presented in an interactive virtual environment (Saltz 2001). The prototype as written was not fully attained due to time and funding limitations and the work silos created by different institutional teams. The Virtual Vaudeville Prototype launched in 2004 and was last updated in 2005. It has since gone dormant, but the animations are available through YouTube.

VR, AR, and Archives: Techniques, Applications and Hurdles

VR creates a labyrinth of possible connections and deep explorations when incorporating archival materials in teaching and outreach settings. Total immersion allows for documents, photographs, drawings, and other artifacts to be understood in context (Craig and Georgieva 2017). The objects that tell the story of a person’s life or a business’ creative output are seen in a more organic than hierarchical order. For instance, the scrapbooks of H. Wayne Patterson, class of 1912, provide a snapshot of what student life on the Georgia Tech campus was like in the early 20th century. Combining historic documents, photographs, audio, and visual materials into a VR project would allow students to walk through a virtual timeline, learn about major changes in Georgia Tech policy, solve equations with a slide rule, and get a sports lesson from legendary Coach John Heisman. Through such an experience different audiences see the evolution of the school and community.

VR immersive qualities are ideal for instruction of technical and detailed lessons. When combined with archival records, solutions to current challenges could be tried without fear of failure. The Guggenheim Building at Georgia Tech houses a wind tunnel used to test numerous products including fighter planes, radar antennae, and the soil scoop arm for NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover. Since the wind tunnel’s initial construction in 1929, the station has undergone several modifications and upgrades to keep up with the technology. Using blueprints, drawings, and photographs of the iterations of the wind tunnel system, aerospace engineers are able to see the building blocks of their current tool. Incorporating these records into a virtual reality environment would allow current aerospace engineers to peel back the layers of information. This illustration also has the effect of transforming archival materials into an interactive game allowing for meaningful connections with a non-traditional audience.

With its advantage of interacting with the physical environment, AR technologies could be applied to archival materials to facilitate instruction and student engagement in various projects. The virtual-real interactive capacity of AR enables loading multiple attributes including surface geometry, inside structure, and extra metadata. With AR, users can explore attributes that are not visible to them in traditional archival display and instruction. One possible application is to scan archival records documenting the 1996 Summer Olympic Games hosted in Atlanta with a number of events held on Georgia Tech’s campus. Currently, archives users cannot interact with some items for preservation purposes, like Olympic hats and shirts. This barrier prevents them from gaining an experience beyond just seeing these items. In an AR design, the hats and shirts could be reproduced with 3D scanning. Users would be able to pick them up and put them on virtually during archival instruction without damaging the originals. AR-facilitated interactions could change archival instruction from traditional lecture to more active learning.

In addition to enhancing user experience in an instruction setting, AR also brings archival experience out of a restricted space into a larger community. One possible application would be to scan historical images around campus. These images could be embedded at their original location based on the geo-information in metadata. Students and visitors could use an AR phone app to find these images around campus, read the history and compare the change of campus over time. This design not only breaks the physical boundary of archival materials, but more importantly, it also reaches out to a community that typically would not come into the archives to explore the collection. The enriched information and interactive experience of AR engages users and students in the classroom to learn about archival materials and inspires deeper and wider discussions.

AR and VR present a wide array of potential educational uses. However, compared to these hypothetical scenarios, there have been few applications of these technologies in archival settings or even in the college classroom environment (Johnson, Adams, and Cummins  2012). This disparity between the hypotheticals and the implementation is typical of early adoption with new technologies but also speaks to the steep learning curve and technological support necessary to develop these kinds of projects. Such hurdles include having access to necessary computing power such as gaming computers with high-end video cards and the high cost of 3D scanners. For effective implementation of educational methods utilizing technology, instructors need assurance it can enhance the learning experience. Without more practical examples in place, educators will be unable to develop a conceptual framework for how best to integrate AR or VR and archival resources.

Other hurdles librarians and archivists will need to address are long-term support, infrastructure, and preservation. This may be one of the more daunting aspects of working with AR and VR presently. However, archivists working with librarians are poised to address this issue as they regularly work to assist users with access to outdated media, digital repositories, and historical documents, while preserving access over time. As mentioned earlier, even with sizable funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and multiple institutions involved in development, Virtual Vaudeville went dormant and is no longer supported (Sutherland 2016). Long term preservation, access, and support need to be addressed early in the development process. This includes adequate publication platforms for these types of projects. Without a robust plan for sustainability and thorough documentation outlining how a project will be maintained moving forward, any changes in personnel or organizational adjustments could derail these technology-rich projects.

Unique to archival collections are issues related to donor privacy and the validity of historical records or artifacts. With AR and VR as a channel for user interaction in the archives, there is the potential to radically change the context in which an artifact or document is presented. This aspect opens discussion around authenticity in information sources and the role technology plays in disrupting. The importance of exact replication hinges on the design intention of the AR or VR project. If the end goal of the project is engagement and enticement of new users with the archival materials, then dependency on the virtual item as the absolute authority is unnecessary. However, in a VR or AR project that intends to contribute to scholarly research, the virtual representation of the archival object must capture all of the information content conveyed in the physical resource.

Even then, in the material transformation, digital surrogates cannot completely convey the aura of the physical resource or replace the original artifact. Walter Benjamin’s theory regarding mass reproductions of original art works in his 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is relevant when grappling with the concept of authenticity in reproductions of original materials in VR/AR environments. Benjamin writes, “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity…The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated” (1968, 3-4). A replica of an original object is at best a mirrored representation, but it lacks the presence of the original that extends from its creative context and subsequent journey. Therefore, the reproduction is of lesser value than the original item. Interacting with a reproduction of an original object is not the complete experience for researchers, but where it lacks aura, duplications provide increased access to the object.

This article does not judge the socio-economic ramifications of reproducing archival resources but suggests that the reproduction should be specifically presented as such to promote transparency of the information object. Librarians and archivists in instructor roles may use the topic of reproductions in the archives to discuss scholarly interpretation and analysis of original sources. The authenticity of the rendered copy in virtual or augmented reality supports the development of information and archival literacy. For example, the Association of College Research Libraries’ Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education instructs the information literate student to “use research tools and indicators of authority to determine the credibility of sources, understanding the elements that might temper this credibility” (American Library Association 2015). The additional VR or AR access point to the archival record encourages discoverability. The student may then do a comparison of the physical object to the digital surrogate if and when the project demands that verification.

Applications of VR and AR with archival materials come with need to evaluate donor consent to these types of uses, copyright restrictions, and other sensitivities before including the materials in outreach and instruction efforts. Duff and Haskel note how “Eliminating all control, or opening up the archives to all uses, may not be appropriate or acceptable when dealing with sensitive records that can distress, dismay or impinge on a person’s most private moments” (2015, 54). To this end the collective archival thought is barely brewing and there will be a need for revised policy or statement of principles to help guide archivists through the new realities of teaching, outreach, and instruction with VR and AR tools. Ultimately, using these types of technologies will “engage more participants and more collaborators, but archivists will need to consider how these changes will affect their archives” (Duff and Haskel 2015, 55).

Future State Applications

Archivists and Librarians at the Georgia Tech Library are sensitive to the known hurdles and challenges to instruction with AR and VR technologies. To achieve long-term success, our future implementation of AR and VR project design takes consideration of available resources and parses the process into manageable components. Campus partners fill gaps and create a wide base of support for and use of the instruction designs.

Digital preservation, rapidly changing media, and ongoing technological support is a universal problem in a number of industries and educational fields. This issue spills over into potential scenarios and uses for VR and AR with archival materials. Georgia Tech Library recognizes the need to address this overarching challenge by designing and prototyping smart solutions with multidisciplinary partners. Librarians with functional expertise provide specialized technical skills and instructional design. Tonia Sutherland proposes that virtual reality technologies play a role not only in capturing the essence of archival materials but also in redressing silences in the archival record. The promulgation of VR and AR arenas using primary source materials explores the past and itself becomes a record of enduring value. Archivists play a significant role in guiding sustainable design of such projects, not only from a short-term service perspective but also with an eye towards creating new archival collections. With the guidance of Library Next’s project goals, the stage is set for librarians and archivists to explore radical, cutting edge service changes for teaching and engaging users in innovative ways.


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About the Authors

Amanda G. Pellerin is the Access Archivist in the Georgia Tech Library’s Special Collections and Archives Department. In this role, she promotes the archival holdings at Georgia Tech through new acquisitions, collection processing, descriptive records, and class instruction. Amanda is particularly interested in supporting access to archival holdings through archival advocacy, teaching with primary resources, and oral histories.

Ximin Mi is the Data Visualization Librarian at the Georgia Tech Library. She operates the Data Visualization services in the library to offer research support and related workshops to students, faculty and staff. Ximin also initiates Georgia Tech library’s VR services by managing the hardware, organizing student Interest Group, and co-leading the Undergraduate VR Research Section with colleague Alison Valk.

Alison Valk is the Instructional Coordinator and Multimedia Librarian for the Georgia Tech Library. She is the program manager for the Georgia Tech Library’s instruction program and has been researching the benefits of embedded librarians in college-level courses. She leads numerous specialized educational programs including an IMLS grant funded program that integrates arts-based projects and library resources into the curriculum.

A stack of rolled drawings, viewed in profile.

Roundup: Community, Scholarship, and Digital Archives

Each Roundup, a member of the JITP Editorial Collective assembles and shares the news items, ongoing discussions, and upcoming events of interest to us (and hopefully you). This week’s installment is edited by Anne Donlon.

Reminder: Submissions for short, blog-length sections in The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy are open year-round on a rolling basis. If you would like to share a teaching fail, an opinion, a project blueprint, a tech tool, an assignment, or a review of a book or event, please see the short section submission guidelines.

I find myself re-reading Jerry Watts’s Open Letter to My Students and Anyone Else seeking a way to get unstuck. He first sent it out via the Africana Studies listserv at CUNY in 2010 and it was published soon after in the Graduate Center Advocate. Since his death from a stroke a few weeks ago, the letter has recirculated and was republished in Warscapes. Jerry was a mentor from my first days of graduate school, a member of my dissertation committee, and a person I expected to be in my life for a long time to come. As I struggle through processing the loss while trying to keep up with work I’ve committed to, I keep returning to Jerry’s letter for guidance, mostly ruminating on “The reasons why we become stuck are numerous and vary in complexities […] IN THE MEANTIME HOWEVER, WE NEED TO GET SOME WORK DONE!!!” I’m living in that balance between exploring the psychic roots of my relative stuck-ness and the more urgent directive to get down to the real intellectual work.

Jerry’s commentary on navigating academia and sustaining the life of the mind transcends discipline, and I’ve tried to suggest some through lines below for digital humanities and digital libraries. Thinking about his role as an advisor (formal and informal) to so many black students at the Graduate Center, and his scholarship on black intellectuals, I’m thinking about how to work for digital humanities that sustain scholars of color, refuse racism, and address intellectual questions that affect African American life. The demands of black student activists, initiatives to archive student activism such as this new project at Princeton, and this compilation of Chicago police disciplinary information suggest some recent contributions to this conversation.

“Any and all graduate students need support communities”

While the following resources won’t provide every kind of support a person needs, I’ve found they are good places to find community and learn about current digital humanities goings-on.

  • The Digital Humanities on Slack offers a venue to pose questions, ask for help, and share lessons learned. I’ve learned about a number of tools, publications, and DH projects in the few weeks I’ve been a member.
  • The just-launched Digital Library Federation Digital Library Pedagogy group promises to be a meeting place to ask for help and share knowledge. The group will host a #DLFteach Twitter chat on January 12, 2016, at 8 PM EST.

Newsletters offer a way to “plug in” to various conversations happening in online fora and on the ground conferences, helpfully curated by knowledgeable colleagues and arriving to your inbox.

  • I learned about Miriam Posner’s newsletter on the DH Slack. If you want incisive information about projects and tools arriving in your inbox, you can subscribe or browse the archive of previous newsletters. Miriam Posner’s students’ DH101 projects were also making appearances on my social media feeds this week, which are worth checking out for a model of assignment design as well as impressive examples of undergraduate student DH work.
  • I also recently learned about the HASTAC newsletter, which sends monthly updates about HASTAC initiatives, upcoming events, projects that have launched, as well as upcoming opportunities for employment, publication, or presentations.
  • I’ve been subscribed to the MIT Hyperstudio newsletter for a while. It includes links to recent publications, upcoming conferences, jobs, and publication opportunities, as well as recently launched project.

“the productive/creative scholar must immerse himself/herself in a body of literature”

Jerry was a seriously well- and widely-read scholar. I aspire to the scholarly immersion he urged in his letter (and embodied in his life). Instead, lately, my own immersion takes the form of fifty browser tabs open for days at a time. You may have a better system for managing your readings (feel free to add your tips in the comments), or undertaking immersive study, but in the mean time here are some recent readings I’ve found thought provoking:

I have also had a cluster of readings related to digital archives at hand. I realized, while attending Modernist Studies’ Association conference in November, that despite being on the Digital Archives team at the Rose Library, I am not always sure what “digital archives” means. In the archives world, I understood it to mean born-digital material (for instance, the contents of Alice Walker’s hard drives) or digitized materials belonging to a certain collection–photographs, digitized videotapes or records, or texts digitized for access in the reading room, and, when possible, to a wider community, with deliberate standards for security, access, and preservation. However, I picked up that “digital archives” is a term used more loosely in humanities contexts, to mean, seemingly, any collection of digitized materials.

Trevor Owens shared a draft of a forthcoming book chapter on Digital Sources & Digital Archives; the section “What are Digital Archives?” offers some clarity on “what the term means in different contexts.” Charlotte Nunes led a post-conference workshop on Modernism & Digital Archives at MSA, and the participant-annotated google doc is a rich collection of links to digital collections, tools, projects, and readings related to digital archives. In a pre-conference workshop, Shawna Ross shared a helpful workflow, “Archive by Smartphone: From Book to OCR with ScannerPro and Google Drive,” for creating digital OCR-ed texts from physical paper materials.

For the longer term aspirations of being productive, creative, and immersed in scholarship, I’m eyeing the playlists for focusing and meditation app recommended in ProfHacker’s 2015 gift guide; working on a simple daily routine; growing trees on the Forest app; and making time for reading in quiet and solitude. Here’s to resolutions.

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