Jeffrey Edelstein 2016-03-14 15:41:31
One of the most significant collections in the world for the study of modern Jewish history can be found in the archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which was founded in 1914 as a humanitarian organization with a mission of rescue, relief, and renewal throughout the world. Given the nature of JDC’s work and the role it has played for more than a century of activity, the JDC Archives is a major source of information for genealogists and family historians. In 2007, the JDC Archives initiated a digitization program to put its collections online and make them fully accessible to the public at archives.jdc.org. Work began with the earliest collections and continues today. By the end of last year, more than 2.6 million pages of documents and 67,000 photographs had been digitized. A Names Indexing project has created a database of a half-million names, searchable via a separate interface on the JDC Archives website. Although site usage statistics indicated a strong level of activity and consistent increase during the website’s first years, traffic began to level off. This prompted the JDC Archives to embark on a campaign to increase awareness of the existence of the site and the nature of its contents in order to encourage greater use of the online collections. One major facet of this effort has been participation in data-sharing collaborations, portals, and platforms. However, contributing to these projects has presented a number of challenges and issues to consider. Sharing Text Collections The first data-sharing project we joined was Judaica Europeana, a network of institutions working to integrate access to European Jewish cultural heritage collections, primarily by uploading digital assets to Europeana (europeana.eu/portal). We decided to share the records of our earliest text collection, the records of our New York headquarters from 1914 to 1918. Our collections management database is structured according to the EAD standard, intended to allow our collections to be interoperable with other systems. The initial step was to map our EAD-based record format to the Europeana Data Model. We then worked with our database provider to develop an XML output that the project’s developers could work with. Several rounds of trial and error were necessary—we learned that such sharing can require more than just pushing a button. Another technical issue that emerged was related to the organizational structure of our collections. Europeana was not able to accommodate the hierarchical arrangement of our files into record groups and series. Ultimately, our material was ingested as flat file records, without the context and grouping the higher-level records provide. We hope that this will ultimately have a positive result, encouraging users to follow the link to the record on our site, where they can not only browse hierarchically but also view PDFs of the individual documents within each file. Our experience with Judaica Europeana has informed subsequent text-collection collaborations and has streamlined the process. We were able to use the same XML export format we had developed to contribute our World War I-era collections to the Collaborative European Digital Archive Infrastructure (cendari.eu) and our Dominican Republic Settlement Association collection to the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dloc.com). Sharing Photographs As we explored other portals and platforms to seek new sharing opportunities, we came to better understand the kinds of assets institutions typically provide. Instead of contributing the records of an entire collection, it seemed that it might be preferable to select individual items that would highlight JDC’s work; photographs, rather than documents, would also be more visually appealing and work better as standalone offerings. The first site to which we contributed photographs was the World Digital Library (WDL) (wdl.org), a project of the Library of Congress and UNESCO. In order to participate, we submitted an application and awaited formal approval. A major lesson learned from all of the projects we have participated in is that the early phases—including the initial communication, any application process, and the review and signing of legal agreements—take time. In the case of the WDL, the length of time from initial contact through formal approval of our partnership request was five months. In selecting the photographs we would submit to the project, one factor we took into consideration was copyright. We decided that the most expedient approach would be to limit ourselves to items dated prior to 1923 and therefore in the public domain. Although this significantly reduced the pool of available photos from which to make our selections, we still had many good options that represented an array of JDC activity and the geographical locations where it worked in the interwar period, primarily Eastern Europe and Palestine. Although the photos we chose were fully cataloged, considerable in-house staff time was required to prepare the items for submission. The bulk of the work related to updating and expanding our descriptive metadata and conforming it to the project’s requirements. Both our description field data (captions) and subject terms have been developed with an assumption of JDC’s history as a context. For access via our own website, it is not necessary to define the organization or explain the historical background (e.g., the disruption and dislocation of Jewish community life as a result of World War I and its aftermath); general subject terms such as “Jews” and “humanitarian assistance” are also superfluous. When presenting these images in the broad, general context of WDL or the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) (dp.la), to which we also submitted a number of our early photographs, the descriptions and subject terms for each item needed to be independent and inclusive. A particular requirement of the WDL is the inclusion, as the primary set of subject headings, of Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) codes. JDC Archives staff had to familiarize themselves with the DDC categories and subcategories to assign the most appropriate codes to each item; staff worked together to review the choices and debate the merits of the various possibilities and our understanding of what some of the headings represent. For additional subject terms, we often had to replace our existing terms, which are drawn from our locally developed vocabulary based on an authority list in use at the United Nations, with more universally accepted terms from the Library of Congress Subject Headings. As noted above, we also added broader, more general subject terms. Gathering Usage Statistics Given that one of the JDC Archives’ goals in contributing to these data-sharing collaborations has been to increase our visibility and the use of our materials, it is important to us to receive usage statistics from each project. Ideally, the project has developed a dashboard so we can view the data ourselves. The Digital Library of the Caribbean has such a tool; Europeana is currently in a second stage of development of its dashboard. With other projects, such as the WDL and DPLA, we will have to request statistics periodically as needed. Each project may not report precisely the same categories of data, making it difficult to compare results. Lessons Learned Although it is too soon to evaluate the effects of our data-sharing initiative, we believe that it is a worthwhile effort, and we continue to seek relevant and appropriate portals and platforms to which we can contribute. We have learned that participation in these projects can be a slow process, requiring patience. It is not unusual for a year or more to lapse from initial contact until our material goes live. We have found that it may be better to contribute a small selection of individual items as highlights than the metadata for entire text collections. One of the advantages is the ability to include a thumbnail image of the photo or document, making the record more visually appealing. Finally, even if your records are well cataloged and suit your own needs, preparing them for sharing will require additional staff effort to bring the data into conformity with the project’s technical requirements as well as to maximize accessibility via descriptive metadata.
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