Records go visual: Digitizing, exhibiting, and contextualizing archives from the House of Representatives
AbstractIn 2015 the Office of Art and Archives focused on adding more art and archival content to the History, Art & Archives website (http://history.house.gov/). The website is a collaborative effort: curators and archivists in the Office of Art and Archives and Office of the Historian staff work on and contribute content. The Office of Art and Archives created a digital mission statement and produced two new major Web resources, one of which focused on archival records, called Records Search. This paper discusses the preparation and integration of Records Search within the House History, Art & Archives website. It presents findings from both the archivist and digital content specialist about their work process, choices made, and lessons learned throughout the project. It showcases specific technological, visual, and content choices the creators made not only to digitize but also exhibit and contextualize House Records.
Keywords: archives, collaboration, online context, project management
Within the House of Representatives two offices exist that are responsible for preserving, collecting, and interpreting the heritage of the institution: The Office of the Historian and the Office of Art and Archives. Composed of historians, political scientists, curators, and archivists, this group of scholars writes publications and creates digital projects about House history.
In 2012 the two offices collaborated to create History, Art & Archives (http://history.house.gov/), a website that displays institutional memory through digital resources such as scholarly publications, oral histories, and collection objects. In 2015 the Office of Art and Archives focused heavily on adding more art and archival content to the collaborative website. The office created a digital mission statement and produced two new major Web resources, one of which focused on archival records, Records Search (http://history.house.gov/HouseRecord/Search/).
This paper focuses specifically on the preparation and integration of Records Search within the House History, Art & Archives website. It presents findings from both the archivist and digital content specialist about their work process, choices made, and lessons learned throughout the project. It showcases specific technological, visual, and content choices the creators made not only to digitize but also exhibit and contextualize House Records.
Composed of more than 100 House records for its launch, Records Search presents correspondence, photographs, maps, charts, and documents from the 1780s to the 1980s. As the first major archival addition to the website, the creators wanted to build something that would draw on the rich historical content found within House Records, emphasizing that these documents reflect how citizens and their elected representatives address, advocate, and legislate for important issues. They also wanted to blend Records Search cohesively with the rest of the website, utilizing the rich historical information already available to contextualize individual documents.
2. Creating the content
The official records of the U.S. House of Representatives are generated by committees and officers of the House dating to 1789. The Office of the Clerk is responsible for these records and has a staff of four full-time archivists (http://clerk.house.gov/about/offices.aspx). The records are physically stored at the Center for Legislative Archives of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) (https://www.archives.gov/legislative/cla) in downtown Washington, D.C., and archivists there preserve and make the records accessible to researchers. Because of both the physical separation of House archivists from the records and their sheer volume, it was daunting to consider developing an online presence for House records to educate users about those records and demonstrate their value to the history of the institution and the country.
The History, Art & Archives website launched in 2012. At the time of launch, the website was sparsely populated with archival material because no Web presence for it existed previously to incorporate into the new site. On the new website, archives fell under the bucket of “Records and Research” (http://history.house.gov/Records-and-Research/) and was combined with bibliographies for researchers. The small size of the archival staff and day-to-day job demands left little time to engage in a large-scale digital project. Various ideas were presented and considered, with no real follow-through. Nonetheless, the Archives staff were committed to finding a way to represent the work of the House through its records on the shared website.
An advantage we had over other archives was the ability to focus on context for and selection of the records for a digital project. Even though the Center for Legislative Archives, a separate unit at NARA, maintains the records of Congress, it shares an online catalog with other units at NARA, which include presidential libraries and executive branch agencies. The Center for Legislative Archives recently implemented a new research portal (https://www.archives.gov/legislative/research) on their homepage that takes users directly to House and Senate records in NARA’s catalog, and there is a detailed archival description for House records and an ever-increasing number of digitized House records in NARA’s catalog. However, the volume of the records that NARA is responsible for as an agency means that House records can be lost in the catalog, except to those who know to look for them as a resource or to go to the Center’s homepage. Volume also makes it impossible for detailed item-level descriptions of digitized records.
As an untraditional archive, the responsibility of House archivists was not simply a mass digitization of all the records of the House of Representatives. Rather, we could take a deliberate approach, selecting historical records that illuminated the often complicated and opaque process of legislating, the committee system, and the institution of the House of Representatives. We could also choose records that added context and made direct links to the existing content on the website. For example, the publication Women in Congress discusses the historic election of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress. Records Search features Rankin’s election credentials, as well as legislation she sponsored to protect mothers and infants in rural areas. When connections are made between the “buckets” of information on the website, the records are given a voice and a conversation is started (Jones, 2016). We chose to add to the conversation by focusing time and effort on research and writing; finding records in the House’s holdings that may not have been seen since the records were archived and processed, sometimes more than a 100 years before; linking the records within Records Search using controlled subject headings as access points; and creating a rich list of related links to other resources on the website (see figure 2).
Creating content that added context to the records also helped demonstrate the value of the records and of recordkeeping to internal stakeholders. Working in an unconventional archive meant that Archives staff also needed unconventional approaches to raise awareness of the importance of maintaining records and transferring them when they were no longer actively being used. During strategic planning for the department, Archives staff prioritized outreach and raising awareness among record creators and managers (House committees and officers) about the importance of recordkeeping, as well as the expertise of the Archives staff. Records Search provided a tangible resource to demonstrate this value, both to record creators and to the wider institution. Records Search could be leveraged as both the carrot and the stick: record creators could visualize the importance of their work and be motivated to save and transfer better records.
In April 2015, Archives staff started selecting records from the more than 83,395 cubic feet of records dating to 1789 that comprise the holdings of the U.S. House of Representatives at the Center for Legislative Archives (Center for Legislative Archives, 2016). The bounty was a blessing and a curse. Unlike most archives and special collections, with smaller, finite collections of personal or organizational papers that have a built-in theme or subject, the nature and volume of House records meant that we literally had the entire scope of the history of the United States from which to choose. This made conceptualizing the project a challenge, and we put it off because there was no urgency at the time. Although we had not solidified the concept, we forged ahead with creating content that would fulfill the following goals:
- Use House records to provide additional context for other information on the website (exhibitions, collection objects, oral histories, and education resources);
- Use House records to demonstrate the value of records and recordkeeping to internal users of the website, particularly House committees;
- Use House records to educate and engage all users of the website;
- Create a digital project that was in line with the recently developed mission, vision, and value statements for archives that emphasized outreach, collaboration, and telling the story of Congress through its records.
At the point that Archives staff started selecting, researching, and writing the content, we were largely operating on our own, unsure of what form it would take on the website. We were developing content, but without consistent input or direction from other staff who worked on the website. In February 2016, a quick decision was made that the digital project should be launched by October 2016 to coincide with the start of the school year, in order to capitalize on promotional opportunities with schools and students. A project for Archives staff that was “work on it when you have time” rapidly transitioned to the front burner. We scrambled into the implementation phase, skipping over much initial planning. Archives staff knew the theoretical underpinnings for the project, but translating them into a fully formed and functioning digital project was terra incognita.
Lessons learned from Archives staff
Articulate the thought process
Because the development of the content began before the concept for the digital project was fully formed, backing the content into the available design template required revisions toward the end of the project to make sure that metadata and text were formatted in ways compatible with the technology. Late-stage input from internal reviewers about what types of content needed to be included and represented in the project meant that additional content had to be researched and written on the fly. At each point that additional changes were made to the content after it was finalized, the potential for introducing errors increased. Creating an established set of guidelines for content at the beginning of the project that covered scope, style, and review process would have smoothed out the process.
In addition to guidelines, think about why the project is important and what you want it to achieve. Overarching goals and an understanding among all staff who are contributing content guides the content creation along a similar thought process. This makes the content cohesive and ultimately more valuable to the user.
In addition to lacking a complete conception for the digital project, Archives staff started developing content with no assigned project leader. The informal nature of the project management solidified at the midway point, but this initial rudderless approach had lasting effects, making decision-making more complicated and confusing the lines of communication between Archives staff and other teams.
Affect on staffing
Digital projects such as Records Search are not listed in the job description of any Archives staff. Formalizing roles and responsibilities related to the project for each person at the outset and accepting, understanding, and accounting for the potential affects on other work, especially during crunch periods of the project, is necessary. An open discussion of priorities and time management should be a part of the project launch meeting.
3. The digital process
Describing Records Search
Records Search combines high-resolution scans, searchable metadata, historical descriptions, and downloadable PDFs for each archival record. The resource was created using a combination of existing templates and new features customized to display archival records. For example, the main Search page is influenced by the Historic Highlights section of the website:
Viewers are greeted with a brief description of the importance of House Records and invited to explore a selection to “see how the everyday becomes the extraordinary.”
The appealing use of cropped thumbnail images allows users to visually scan the scope of records and click on what they find appealing. They can also sort records by their title or by what is most recommended among peers. For the more direct user, a dynamic search box is included for both free text and subject headings. There is also the ability to filter documents by their categories—Communications, Elections and Credentials, Hearings and Investigations, Legislation and Floor Proceedings, and Petitions and Memorials—as well as by State or Territory and Congress.
After selecting a thumbnail image the viewer is taken to the detail page. This template was influenced by the Collections Search detail page:
The engaging cropped image appears on the left with a plus sign on the lower right hand corner signaling to the viewer to click on the image to view the full page. If there is more than one page for the selected document, users can toggle to the next page by clicking on the accompanying pages sitting below the featured page.
To the immediate right there is consistent metadata and a thorough description with hyperlinks to Members of Congress to contextualize the document.
The far right side of the page includes interactive features that both connect the document with the rest of the site and provide additional tools for users. This includes text-searchable PDFs that are available for download and print, historical highlights, oral histories, and collection objects related to the document and found on the History, Art & Archives website, and a congressional profile for each document.
At the bottom of the page viewers can click on the Related Subjects to find more documents similar to the one they just learned about.
In January 2016 meetings started between the technologists and the archivists. With the selection of archival records already chosen and most of the content finalized, a launch date of early October 2016 was chosen to appeal to educators. Although the content was already created, understanding how it would be presented and how it would fit into the website had not been discussed. For this reason, the Digital Content Specialist and Archives staff met for a full-day workshop to discuss the project’s purpose, categorize the documents, and make decisions about how the content would be presented.
Following this meeting a series of mockups were created for the Archivists to review and approve. During this time specific choices were made such as cropping each record for the thumbnail image, providing a downloadable text-searchable PDF, customizing the search functions, and determining the position of text and image on the detail page.
On approval by the content experts, supporting digital features (cropped and tiled images, PDFs, and additional text documents) were prepared while the framework for Records Search was built into the website. Once Records Search was built, the supporting features and text were input into the content management system (CMS). The design and content went through a final review process and new implementations were added. This includes the hyperlinks to Members of Congress mentioned earlier in the description section, and a congressional profile summarizing legislative events that happened during the time of the record’s creation.
Once final changes were made, Records Search launched on time in early October and is currently being promoted.
Preparing without a DAM
Behind the scenes, Records Search is composed of more than 1,100 files. Every record presented in this resource contains text, multiple images, a PDF, and links—each a critical piece for the project. We did not have a digital asset management (DAM) system to handle these files. Instead, we plotted out a file-naming scheme, organized shared folders, and tracked progress with spreadsheets as we input each supporting feature into the website’s CMS.
Three significant strategies were used to organize the workflow:
- Assigning file names
- Organizing content
- Tracking progress
Assigning file names
With the exception of a few that were scanned by staff at the Center for Legislative Archives and e-mailed individually, most of the House Records were downloaded from the National Archives’ website as hi-res JPEGs. Each page was an individual image, so, for example, if a House Record was five pages long there were five individual images associated with this record. In addition, once specific online features were decided, it became clear that each record would have a PDF component, a cropped image, a tiled image, and a description. As a result we were looking at the potential of almost 20 individual documents associated with one record.
To maintain clarity we used Excel to generate accession numbers for each record and its accompanying features (text, PDF, images) and relied on this structure when creating preservation copies of the records, cropped images, titled images, PDFs, and Word documents.
Once we had a handle on file naming we had to determine where the different files would live before being input into the CMS. We created a “Web Prep Folder” with individual folders for each record. The folder titles are as follows:
- New Scans
- Preservation Copies
- PDF of Records
- Cropped Photos
- Tiled Photos
- Record Word Docs
Within these folders we organized the individual documents into five folders based on the record’s assigned category:
- Elections and Credentials
- Hearings and Investigations
- Legislation and Floor Proceedings
- Petitions and Memorials
This organizational structure helped us efficiently locate the multitude of individual documents that needed to be input into the CMS.
To keep from repeating steps and to track our progress, we created a detailed Excel spreadsheet outlining what needed to be done for each record. This also helped to ensure that we accounted for every detail that made up a record.
Lastly, once Records Search was close to launch we created a user-testing worksheet and selected colleagues not involved in the project to test the functionality of the site and to check for human error.
Lessons learned from technology staff
You speak both languages, so prepare to mediate!
There is a specific breed of museum technologist appearing today, who have a hand in both the content being presented and the tools used to present the content. While many content experts are accustomed to working in silos, as the bilingual professional, mediation and communication often comes down to the digital content specialist. For example, when deciding on the title of Records Search, the archivists were justifiably not impressed with the prosaic title. The title stuck, however, because the website already had a Collections Search and a People Search. The title Records Search identified the digital resource as a part of the website, and as similar to other rich resources already available on the site.
Another compromise arose from the template that was re-purposed for Records Search. The template was created for the Historical Highlights section of the website, which features content with exact dates and uses a calendar as one of its search methods (see left side of figure 1). Unfortunately, this could not function correctly in Records Search because the dates for many records were ranges or “circa,” not specific days. Maintaining the integrity of the information provided to users was critical to Archives staff. Retaining a calendar feature that could potentially provide misleading or even incorrect search results was not an option, despite the “value add” of the feature to the search page. With reluctance, the decision was made to drop the calendar feature. This compromise was a useful lesson in the perils of a one-size-fits-all approach to designing a website featuring content from across professional disciplines.
Complications WILL arise; be flexible and be prepared
Unforeseen circumstances involving staff working on the project are inevitable. During the project, a key person was unexpectedly out of the office for an extended period. This brought a number of essential moving parts to a quick halt for an unknown amount of time. The team came together to determine what could be done in the interim. By having a clear list and process for digital preparations that still had to be done, it was easy to prepare certain aspects of Records Search in advance (like cropping and tiling images, creating PDFs, and inputting these features into the CMS). With all of our prep work done, once the individual was back at work, it took almost no time to finish the rest of the project.
What is approved in Microsoft Word is not approved online
The written content for each individual record went through an extensive review process. Once the project was online and ready for a final review, we were caught by surprise by all the questions and comments of the review board. Looking back, their questions make complete sense. It is one thing to read and approve content in a Word document; it is an entirely different matter to see how this content is publicly exhibited and relates to existing work. Provide time to present and explain digital choices to the review board, as well as individual time for them to review the content. Understand that changes will be made after this review period and prepare both the technology and content team with enough time to implement those changes.
Overall lessons learned
The lessons learned, described in the following sections, seem obvious in hindsight. Nonetheless, the experience is likely familiar to staff in cultural institutions with separate offices for each professional discipline, wanting to share their collections with a wide audience and take advantage of technology available to them, but also bearing immense day-to-day workloads caring for and managing those collections. Building digital projects is a full-time job, yet it often necessarily falls to the bottom of an already long list of “other duties as assigned” for the staff tasked with creating them (Linz, 2014). The particular lessons learned for the Archives staff and digital content specialist aim to help others in similar situations avoid some of the pitfalls of building a digital project for the first time, with a short-time frame, limited resources, and segregated stakeholders who were not always on the same page. The primary lessons learned make plain the importance of starting the project on the right foot, with a solid concept and thorough planning. Ensure that all the details of the project, from start to finish, are worked out to the fullest extent possible at the beginning of the project, and just as important, that they are communicated to all stakeholders involved in bringing the project to fruition.
Define the project’s concept before starting to implement it. Both the Archives and digital staff were developing content before the concept for the project existed. This meant that when the project was suddenly kick-started, we moved directly into implementation and ended up conceptualizing and implementing the project simultaneously, discovering that not having one makes it harder to do the other. Having a clear and easily communicated concept before a launch meeting would have guided all the steps of the process, from developing content to implementing the technology and the user experience.
In a digital project the content and technology are deeply intertwined, so the teams and individuals responsible for them should begin the project with a shared understanding of goals and expectations, as well as limitations. A launch meeting to kick-off the project that involves all the stakeholders helps achieve this.
The launch meeting should include the following:
- A project charter that includes goals and objectives and identifies risks and stakeholders. It should be endorsed by a project sponsor that is invested in the project’s success and can advocate for its importance.
- A communication plan. Lay out who, how, and when the project’s status will be communicated.
- All staff and stakeholders for the project. Formal roles and responsibilities should be determined. Build in redundancy, so if there are unforeseen absences or circumstances, the project does not stall.
- A timeline that is agreed on by all stakeholders and accounts for potential delays as much as possible.
- A thorough discussion and understanding of the technology being used for the project. Know what it can and cannot accomplish and how this affects the concept and content.
- A frank discussion of workloads and realistic time commitments for staff involved with the project.
High-level support is critical
Finally, as the first records-based digital project on the website, it was critical that we had high-level support. The chief of the Office of Art and Archives and the Archivist of the House of Representatives both supported the project and recognized its importance. The House Historian also served as an important advocate, voicing the broad appeal of the project, in particular to those interested in studying the history of the institution and to teachers and students using primary sources in the classroom. In addition, the Clerk of the House, whose office Art and Archives falls under, supported the project and was invested in its success, continued development, and promotion. The Clerk was able to leverage the weight of the office to signal the value and significance of the project to the House community. High-level support also allowed Archives staff to make time in their schedules to continue to work on, contribute content to, and improve Records Search as the project moves into its next phase.
Immediately after Records Search launch, the team was admittedly exhausted and needed a well-deserved break. Gradually we began to organize presentations, submit paper proposals, and consider ways to improve on what we had created. One of the most fulfilling moments came when we presented to a room full of teachers and heard their “oohs and ahhs” over text searchable PDFs and hyperlinks to Members of Congress, as well as their suggestions for a timeline tool and more records for school-age children to make the resource relatable to their students. As a resource that continues to grow based on feedback we receive from our users, we strive to treat Records Search as a dialogue, not a statement. With that being said, here are our next steps for Records Search:
- Making it a sustainable, long-term project:
- Creating teams and formalizing roles and responsibilities
- Identifying a system to manage images and text, with a possible API to import directly to the website
- Documenting procedures and style
- Instituting project management techniques for content development, in review process, and input into the CMS, including a project charter, communication plan, and kickoff meeting
- Continuing to promote Records Search to internal and external users
- Presenting to our professional colleagues at conferences
- Presenting the tool to specific users such as Capitol Visitor Center tour guides and educators to expose the resource and receive feedback on ways to improve
- Gathering more user feedback and identifying specific audiences, and applying both content and digital changes based on feedback
- Adding more archival records based on suggestions and feedback
- Creating digital tweaks within the existing framework
We would like to thank all our colleagues involved in the project whose dedication and support made it possible to share the amazing resource of House records with the world: Office of the Clerk, Office of Art and Archives, Office of the House Historian, Legislative Computer Systems, and the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives.
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