For this grant, we have two professors at the Miller Center who are acting as Research Advisers. They are providing perspective on how academics approach research collections and how they search and use research materials. They are representing the needs of the scholarly community, which is one of the main audiences we have envisioned for this product.
On Monday, I sat down with Brian Balogh, who is a history professor at UVA, to discuss the grant and get his input on important elements of the beta product. He stressed the issue of comprehensiveness. The more collections that are included in the resource, the more useful the resource will be to scholars. If they know that searching materials in the resource will cover a large majority of presidential collections, then they will use the resource. If it is just adding to the already expansive universe of presidential materials, it will be less useful. But if it can truly aggregate a majority of the materials, then it will be very useful. He also pointed out that searchability is important. The more ways that scholars can cut across various materials using search criteria, the more likely they will be to find items that are useful to them.
Brian also suggested approaching the question of collection boundaries by considering priorities in the stages of the project. So for this, the first stage of the project, the collection could be bounded by years of presidential administrations. Then in the next stage, perhaps the collection could be expanded to include materials about cabinet members or the president’s whole life. While I agree that this is a good way to approach collection boundaries, one of the problems is that collections are not usually organized in this fashion. Collections are usually organized in larger swaths. For example, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center has a collection called “Rutherford B. Hayes Collection” which includes many different objects from his lifetime. It would be too onerous to go through that collection piece by piece to limit to those associated with his years in the White House. Still it might be useful to narrow collections in this first stage by presidential years as best we can.
Then I met with Sidney Milkis, who is a politics professor at UVA. Like Brian, he stressed the importance of comprehensiveness and also suggested that including finding aids would be a good idea. He noted that he often began his research by looking through finding aids to get a sense of the materials in a collection. It might be useful to include in the beta a summary of the participating organizations that would provide a brief glance of the materials in a specific collection. That might be useful to users if they are looking for something very specific.
Sid also stressed the importance of thematic approaches to the collections. If a scholar is researching a specific president, then she might go to one presidential library and have more materials than she needs. However, if she is studying a theme or event across presidents, such as the evolution of political parties or presidential power, then searching across collections for that theme would be very helpful and give her a good idea of what is available and where it is located. We also discussed the need for the non-scholarly community to provide curated exhibits that take slices of the materials and organize them in a more manageable fashion.
One major piece of this project that will not be resolved in this stage is the sheer mass of materials that will need to be incorporated into the product to make it useful. My mind blurs at the thought of the millions and millions of documents, photographs, letters, speeches, etc. that exist in the presidential universe and the metadata for each one. I am just hoping that taking this one step at a time will help to make it manageable.