My dissertation research contributes to the ongoing discussion about the pervasiveness of digital technologies in the creation, management, preservation, interpretation, and use of heritage and archival records. Virtual reunification offers new possibilities for heritage institutions to recombine digital versions of archives, artifacts, rare books, manuscripts, and other literary or artistic works of common origin that have been geographically dispersed for historical, political, or cultural reasons. My dissertation investigates the implications of online reunification as a strategy to re-integrate digitized archival collections. The overall goal of the research is to: 1) identify the issues that come up as institutions consider the possibility of virtual reunification; 2) explore how these existing issues are considered and negotiated by institutions in light of their differing values, varying priorities, and divergent practices; 3) discuss how these considerations might influence their decisions to digitize and reunify collections; and 4) propose common ways to frame these issues and suggest ways to address them. The research project will ultimately produce a model that can help assess institutional readiness, viability, and suitability to embark on digital reunification.
What does it take to pursue a multi-institutional, cooperative digital edition that will provide comprehensive access to a dispersed collection of archival photographs? Currently, organizations interested in pursuing online reunification projects might find guidance by examining extant reunification projects as exemplars or consult the small, but steadily growing, literature that reports the details of project implementations. While these resources can undoubtedly provide general guidance regarding resource allocation and expertise requirements, adequate understanding of the factors that can help organizations assess their own readiness and suitability to pursue virtual reunification is still lacking. It is also unclear whether the factors identified in existing reports adequately capture the institutional concerns surrounding virtual reunification projects. In this regard, what is needed is a better characterization of how these concerns come into play in the context of institutions contemplating whether or not reunification is attainable, worthwhile, and productive to undertake. In addition, the factor of inter-institutional cooperation, beyond the decisions made in a single organization, provides significant challenges that are not well understood.
As my case study, I will consider the dispersed ethnographic photographs of Dean C. Worcester (1866–1924). Worcester, a zoologist and naturalist by academic training, was a U.S. colonial administrator who served in the Philippines from 1899 to 1913, a period when the islands were a territory of the United States. The Worcester images are currently distributed among several libraries, archives and museums. Three of these sites are located at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor: the Museum of Anthropology, the Bentley Historical Library and the Special Collections Library. Two are in Chicago: the Newberry Library and the Field Museum of Natural History. Another set is at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives (which is under the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum of Natural History) in Suitland, Maryland. Another site is the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A set is also found at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, an anthropological museum in Cologne, Germany. These institutions vary greatly in terms of the overall nature of their main collections, their practices of collecting, and the way they facilitate access to their holdings. The table below shows the various institutions that hold the Worcester images, including their location and repository type.
This research will provide a rich description of the important considerations that a group of institutions face and the decisions that they must make so that the images they hold in common can be virtually reunified. The ways that institutions with varying digitization programs, priorities, and strategies negotiate this highly cooperative endeavor remain largely unexamined. I aim to understand the conditions that need to be in place for online reunification to succeed, including the factors that complicate this process. The Worcester collection is chosen as the specific focus of the study given the its suitability for virtual reunification based on several factors; to wit, the dispersed nature of the collection, its various levels and stages of digitization progress, prior interest in reunification as indicated by curators and archivists in charge of the collection, previous efforts to provide a unified catalog, and a definable group of stakeholders.
The project is a qualitative study following a grounded theory approach in data gathering, analysis, and interpretation. The study draws from what key decision-makers and stakeholders express as important considerations when virtual reunification is offered as a strategy to reintegrate a common collection. Participants in the study are heritage professionals responsible for the Worcester photographs across the nine repositories, scholarly researchers who access, consult and use the collections, and funding institutions that support digitization projects. Data gathering will be done using semi-structured interview protocols designed to elicit responses from each of the identified stakeholders. With permission from the nine institutions, copies of relevant documentations such as policies, reports, and guidelines will also be analyzed to provide additional insight into the processes involved in considering the viability of virtual reunification. Examples of relevant documentations are in-house digitization guidelines and protocols, including samples of collections-based online projects readily available on the institution’s website. Other documentation includes organizational charts, existing memoranda of agreements with other collaborating institutions for digitization programs, and grant proposals for digitization and online projects.
The potential contributions of this study are both practice- and theory-oriented. On the theory side, this study aims to provide a model to appropriately contextualize the issues and concerns surrounding virtual reunification projects. On the practice side, this study will present detailed cases of considerations and concerns related to virtual reunification across a variety of heritage repositories. The research will provide valuable contributions to archival, museum, and heritage studies, primarily in the underexplored area of understanding the impact of digitization and virtual reunification in both inter-institutional and intra-institutional contexts.