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According to the first reading (Lee 2000), it would appear that one of my favorite sites to use with students who are writing research papers on medieval history does indeed qualify as a collection: Internet Medieval Sourcebook. This site collects many medieval texts, mostly short selections in translation, mostly from public-domain works and occasionally donated by contributors. The texts are organized thematically (with sidebar links to each of these general topics), and then either topically and/or chronologically within the theme. The collection is aimed at a user group of students studying this general topic, and indirectly at the instructors teaching them. Although the website resides on the servers of Fordham University, it is freely accessible to outsiders and also incorporates links to additional online sites and resources. One neat thing about this site is that it has been around since 1996 (so it’s positively ancient in web terms) and was created by someone who at that time was a graduate student in history, rather making it up as he went along. So in itself it’s kind of a historical artifact as a collection.

I don’t have a lot of experience finding online digital collections, so I decided I’d take a look at the library website for the University of Minnesota, where I did my PhD in history. I know that they have a number of special collections and I wondered if they’d have digitized some of them. I found out that there’s a really nifty collection of posters and postcards from WWI and WWII that has been put online, as a cooperative project between the university and the Minneapolis Public Library which also owns many of these items: “A Summons to Comradeship” – World War I and II Posters and Postcards. Each image is identified with a set of metadata, which can then be used to search the whole collection. One drawback I see is that there appears to be no way to simply browse at random except by doing a search for all the items.  A search results in a page with thumbnails of the found items, each with a truncated title as caption, so a user can’t just flip through readable-sized images and see what might be interesting; you have to click on the thumbnails one at a time to get a larger image. Nevertheless this is a fabulous and well-organized resource.

Clearly historical collections are the ones that I’m most directly interested in. A friend pointed me at the Bethlehem Digital History Project, which has digitized images of primary source materials (texts, art, etc.) also transcriptions and translations, and some information on the context, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from 1741-1844. There are also some more modern items. From an educational perspective, the fact that there are transcriptions/translations of the older documents is very helpful, since students might find it difficult to cope with the original paleography and orthography; but having the photographs of the originals makes it useful for more professional-level researchers as well. The items are reasonably well identified (even including the locations of the original documents) but the collection is not searchable in the way that the WWI and II poster collection is; one has to basically browse through, with the documents divided by general content and then subdivided by type.

Lee, Hur-Li. 2000. What is a collection? Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51 (12): 1106-13.