Voinovich Archive

This week marks the official opening of one of our latest projects, the Voinovich Collection.  The Center’s team–the “Marks” (both Mark Souther and Mark Tebeau) and Erin Bell–collaborated with Cleveland State University’s Levin College of Urban Affairs, as well as Ohio University (its Library and Voinovich School for Leadership & Public Affairs) on this collaborative project.

The Voinovich Collection is a hybrid project that includes many different partners, draws upon the Senators papers, now available at the Ohio University Libraries. It has a front-facing public archive, with the goal of creating an ongoing and dynamic collection of digital exhibitions for use in university and K-12 classrooms.

The project developed from a series of meetings between scholars, archivists, and Senator Voinovich, seeking to find ways to transform his archival record into a resource for use in a variety of different classrooms. Our team at the Center considered how we could use digital tools to add value to a physical collection that exists in a couple different places–OU as well as the Western Reserve Historical Society. We asked if it was possible to build something that could be interpretive and community oriented, perhaps reaching  wider audiences. Could the practices of interpretive public history, digital, and teaching projects be applied to a digital archive of a United States Senator? How could we create a resource that unified different types of materials and made them easily available in classrooms throughout Ohio? More to the point, could we create a source that would engage students in a dynamic learner-centered fashion? How could the tools and techniques of the digital humanities be applied in the domain of political archive or collection?

As we cast about for models, we quickly discovered there were few, if any, richly cataloged digital collections devoted to American political figures who were not Presidents. Indeed, Presidential archives provided many great examples of digital collection and exhibition, but still varied in their completeness, sophistication, and presentation. Beyond Presidential collections, however, we could find relatively few digital projects related to Senators or Congressional leaders. Of course, that is not saying that we could not find the papers of elected officials–past and present–that were deposited in libraries nationwide. Surely, hese are available for physical use, but rarely in an easily accessible well-cataloged digital archive.

We found many projects that were essentially websites devoted to a political life. Even our favorites among these, such as the website of Senator Edward Kennedy, tend to have a lots of random pieces of information, presented in a rather uncontrolled fashion. Indeed, in many such sites you might find lots of information. However, that data–photos and primary sources–is disconnected from historical context or other content, usually lacks metadata,  and has no real structure connecting objects, records, and interpretive content.  What we discovered was that we have relatively sparse digital archival collections or exhibits that explore the lives of our national and regional political leaders–the men and women elected to the United States Senate and House of Representative.

With this in mind, we set out to apply some of the best practices in digital archival preservation and presentation to the archival collections of a United States Senator, and to explore how to make those collections more fully and richly available to the public in interpretive archival exhibitions–and perhaps even through learner-centered or developed historical exhibits. We wanted to create a site that used dedicated archival metadata records for each object in the collection. We wanted these records to be able to be re-used and re-contextualized, without altering the original object. In the digital humanities endeavor, this approach is not very sexy, but surprisingly rare in the domain of “politician collections,” or whatever the proper term might be.

Toward that end, we have used Omeka because it allows us to easily separate content from design (this is a well-known web design convention). We have separated archival items (and their metadata) from their use in interpretive pieces (exhibits). So each item is fully catalogued as it would be in a museum, library, or archive. But when we want to make an interpretive statement (for example, with the “Career” exhibit), we have utilized those catalogued objects, creating a real connection that is structured without altering the original object. Even better yet, Erin made this website mobile friendly, optimized for performance on a variety of mobile browsers–from those on your phone to your iPad.

Importantly, we also chose Omeka because it is an open-source tool. As with many of the Center’s projects, we have employed open-source solutions because open source projects can be easily and efficiently replicated.  Building projects with open-source tools, communities, and experts results in more richly developed projects. Open source is especially important for academic digital humanities endeavors because of the iterative way scholarship both moves forward and extends the historical record. In this instance, our hope is that other communities and institutions will move to document and interpret the work and lives of political leaders in digital projects. Not only would this enhance our ability to explore American political history but it would expand the scope of our research to include a wider variety of elected officials than is possible now because so many collections are so widely dispersed.

As a result, we are proud to claim that the Voinovich Collection may very well be the first open-source archive devoted to an American political leader.



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Mark Tebeau is a co-founder of the Center for Public History + Digital Humanities at Cleveland State University and currently serves as a Professor of History at Arizona State University.