100,000 Digitized Objects… So What?: Adding Context Online
The Henry Ford reached a digitization milestone recently, adding the 100,000th artifact to its Digital Collections website. The digitization team at The Henry Ford began a little over ten years ago to update and add to this site. Early on, we developed data standards that guided our progress. Certain required information -- a title, an object name, dimensions, creator, and searchable keywords, to name a few -- accompanies each object record. And every object that goes online must have an image that meets our standards.
This graphic shows the various tasks in The Henry Ford's digitization workflow, and where writing a summary fits in.
But have you noticed that many of The Henry Ford’s online collections records have a small label-like paragraph -- something called "Summary"? As staff at The Henry Ford looked at other institutions' collections webpages, we noticed many contained standard descriptive information, but few explained the importance of the object. Some collections webpages added a detailed (sometimes dry) physical description, or maybe text from an old exhibit label, or sometimes long academic articles. The digital collections staff at The Henry Ford wanted something more reader-friendly, something informative, and perhaps even enjoyable. After a series of discussions, we decided that a short 60-word paragraph -- a Summary -- was the solution. A Summary would answer the question, “So what?” -- why is this object important for The Henry Ford to collect and preserve? -- and hopefully spur viewers to explore our digital collections more deeply.
A Summary is one of the first things you see when you go to a Digital Collections record page. This GIF shows the Summary for Mustang serial number one, along with much other information about the car.
When staff originally conceived of the idea, a Summary was viewed as a vital part of the online data, but not a requirement. Finding the right words for some object Summaries takes time, and the 60-word limit is constricting -- though we do allow a few more words when needed. An object usually can tell multiple “So what?” stories, and curators -- the primary authors of a Summary -- would like to share them all. What one “So what?” story would you choose to tell if you were writing a Summary about the rocking chair used by President Lincoln on the night of his assassination, a Ford Model T, or the home (or cycle shop) of Orville and Wilbur Wright?
Even seemingly mundane objects offer interesting insights. Curators thoroughly research these objects then carefully choose words that will convey a coherent idea--while at the same time working within the prescribed word limits. Our research into an object's history and use provides viewers with a deeper understanding of our online collections.
What could be more mundane than a wattmeter -- a device used to measure electricity usage? Learn more about how electric companies found ways to measure electricity usage and charge customers appropriately in the Summary for this c.1907 Type C Wattmeter. / THF168572
The man in this carte-de-visite was originally identified as an acrobat in our collection records. But while researching the image to write the Summary, the curator discovered that this "acrobat" was Henry Brown, a well-known long-distance walker. / THF210533
Though a Summary may not be perfect, we hope that it gives viewers an insight into our collections that will spark an "a-ha" moment. And staff at The Henry Ford have created well-researched blog posts, Expert Sets, What If stories, and Connect 3 and other videos for those viewers who want more in-depth stories about our collection.
So, how are we doing? Currently, more than 65,000 of the 100,000 Digital Collections objects have a Summary, and curators continue to add more. We have plenty of work in the future.
Do you want to give it a try?
Find an object in your home (or go to our Digital Collections website and find an object without a Summary) and write a 60-word Summary to answer the question, "So what?" -- why is this object important? Some objects may be easy to write about; others, not so much. Remember that readers should understand the concept you are trying to convey, and perhaps be inspired to want to know more.
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Andy Stupperich is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. He has shepherded Summaries through the digitization process for the last 10 years.
#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digitization, research, digital collections, by Andy Stupperich