The Promise and Peril of using Commercial Sites for Historical Materials

Tom at FoundHistory recently posted on the layoff of one of the architects of Flickr Commons, that incredibly useful source for materials from a number of major archives and museums. Tom sees this as a moment to discuss some of his own concerns about the promise and peril of using commercial sites like Yahoo, Flickr, Second Life, and others for publishing cultural and academic resources online.

This debate is one that I’ve had both internally with myself and externally with my colleagues for several years now. No one wants to think that the time, energy, money, and resources invested in placing something valuable online is just going to go away, but the benefits of a ready-made location and user base are also clear.

It seems to me this is about balancing the ability to reach more people, often with a more polished and supported interface, with the need to protect against the risks of commercial failure and potential loss of access to data. [Although we also need to remember that just because something is hosted on the servers of an educational or cultural institution doesn’t mean it is always going to be there. “Forever” is a long time in the era of government budget cuts and rapid software change.]

Still, in the end for me it comes down to a question of whether or not an institution can get data placed in repositories like Flickr Commons back out with some relative ease (both technically and in terms of copyright).

Mary Washington Alum and the Holocaust Museum

In today’s New York Times, there’s an article about a collection of photographs from a Nazi concentration camp. What makes these pictures unusual is that they’re of the camp’s SS officers relaxing in various ways which seemingly ignore the atrocities of which they’re a significant part. The contrast is chilling and alludes directly to what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil.” The US Holocaust Memorial Museum has an online exhibit dedicated to the images here.

I bring this up on this blog because I wanted to share these striking images, but also because the first name mentioned in the story is a former star student from MW, Rebecca Erbelding, a History and American Studies double major who did her senior thesis with me several years ago. [It was a fascinating exploration of the role that an American, Varian Fry, played in getting people out of Nazi Germany.] She interned with the Holocaust Museum, which turned into a full-time job there. She’s now an archivist at that incredible institution. I suppose one of the positive counters to getting older is that you have more chances to see your students succeed. That’s pretty cool indeed.

Rebecca narrates a slideshow of the images here.

UPDATE: She can also be heard on NPR’s Talk of the Nation here.