Navigating metadata and information in ruins


The average visitor clicking through an online exhibit or browsing an online collection probably does not care to know where that artifact came from, who took that photo, or when that document was written. However this information is invaluable to anyone hoping to conduct research using the exhibit or collection or learn more about its content. Metadata tells us the who, what, where,when, and how of artifacts, documents, books, and many more resources utilized in exhibits and stored in databases.

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s onliCapturene exhibit Time and Navigation: The untold story of getting from here to there apply utilizes metadata for the content of the exhibit.  In the Multimedia Gallery each resources has its own page. For every artifact, document, map, photo, and illustration seven categories of metadata are included: caption, type, image date, credit, origin, creator, and call number.
All of the information is unobtrusive and clearly labeled in a column to the left of the image. A direct link to the Smithsonian’s catalog entry, where users can find more complete metadata, is also provided.  Users can also add social metadata via social media links at the bottom of each page.

In contrast to the clarity and consistency of the Smithsonian’s exhibit the metadata for the Chicago History Museum’s online exhibit The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory is ambiguous and sporadic.  To view the metadata of a specific photo or document the user has to click on the photo, which pops to the center of the screen, and the metadata is then listed underneath the photo without any categories or explanation. CaptureAlso, not every photo has the same amount of metadata. Some documents have three or four categories while others only have one. The user can also choose to view the resources in list view where the metadata is listed to the right of the photo, but it still lacks categories. Luckily, the call number CHM uses is listed, so users can fill in the missing data using CHM’s online database.

Properly formatting the metadata is just as important as much you include choose to include. For our final project the metadata will be consistent and clearly categorized. It’s more important to have some metadata that is clearly organized and useful and having more information that is confusing and frustrating to users. We will need to decide which categories to use, but including what institution the content came from and its call number will are essential since we have used resources from multiple institutions.

Fake artifacts acquire real meaning

counterfeitauthenticmagn_158687Since beginning my internship at the Chicago History Museum I have had many interesting and informational discussions with my supervisor, the chief historian and executive vice president. One of the most memorable conversations we had took place during a tour of the museum’s collection areas. Russell was showing myself and some new staff members interesting items CHM has in it’s collection. Such as Lincoln’s moccasins, display dolls from Marshall Field’s windows, and the skin from the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. The provenance on that last artifact is tenuous at best.

The skin was purchased by Charles Gunther in France for his museum in Chicago. Eventually CHM purchased Gunther’s collection, including the snake skin. According to a herpetologist at the Field Museum the skin appears to be from an anaconda or python. It’s mounted on a plaque with hieroglyphic markings, which after consultation with a calligrapher, were determined to be gibberish.

As it happens CHM has a few possible “fake” artifacts in their collection, including a possible fake of the wooden gun that John Dillinger used to break out of jail and supposedly preserved tea from the Boston Tea Party. Russell said he enjoys having these “fake” artifacts in the collection because they not only make for good stories, but they reveal more about the past than the existence of swindlers. These “fake” artifacts illustrate the objects that people thought held great value, monetarily and historically. Most of the supposed replicas or fakes are so old and their histories so intertwined with Chicago’s that they have acquired value in their own right. Even the fakes have meaning to them now.

Encyclopedia of Chicago: indispensable resource or burdensome responsibility?


The digital edition of the Encyclopedia of Chicago is a virtual gateway into the vast history of the city. Through thousands of entries, images, maps, and other historical sources the history of Chicago can be explored. The online encyclopedia is a combination of an archive, a museum exhibit, and a historical narrative. The site is free to use and without advertisements. It is sponsored by the Chicago History Museum, the Newberry Library, and Northwestern University.

The digital Encyclopedia of Chicago is fairly unique. A quick Google search revealed other major American cities (New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, Washington D.C.) do not have online encyclopedias dedicated to their urban history.

Nearly every conceivable topic has been covered by the two types of entries in the encyclopedia. Schools, organizations, people, places, events, businesses, teams, concepts, ideas, movements and much more are covered by the authored entries. These entries are written by professionally trained historians and scholars, none of the encyclopedia is crowd-sourced. Most of these entries attempt to remain purely factual, however some more complex topics require interpretation, such as politics and the police. These lengthier entries usually contain a short bibliography at the bottom of the article.

The other type of entry are the historical sources, such as maps, images, tables and graphs, and documents. The historical sources are used to support the authored entries, but some sources stand independently. Each primary source is referenced to the contributing institution with a accession/call number making the original easy to find.

CcAQVFzWIAEIWitThe encyclopedia is highly accessible. Users can search every entry, you are able to browse alphabetically through the authored entries, historical sources or both, and nearly every article contains links to other relevant articles within the site. This is one of the largest advantages the digital edition has over the print edition.

The site has a “Special Features” section that contains interpretive essays, interactive maps, galleries, indices, and tables, and an informative users guide.

This digital encyclopedia is an invaluable resource for both professional historians and urban history buffs. However, the site does have troubling drawbacks. There are multiple inaccuracies throughout the encyclopedia that are difficult to correct. The site is currently housed on servers at Northwestern and its current technology will not allow the entries to be updated.  Over the next year the site will be transferred from Northwestern’s care to a cloud based platform. It is during this transition that updates can be made. However, combing through all of the entries and choosing which ones need to be updated is a monumental task that will be executed in several phases. I guess that’s why museums have interns.

This move highlights multiple issues that arise when maintaining a free online history site. The site has become a fantastic resource for the public, but it has also become a burden on Northwestern and its partners. For whatever reason the university has decided it no longer wants to maintain the site in its servers (lack of resources, technology, or will power).  The site has not been updated since 2004. This is almost entirely due to the limited nature of the outdated technology, the technology simply will not allow the site to be updated in its current form. The transition to the new cloud based technology should allow for easier updates.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago is a fantastic resource that the public will continue to use due to its high degree of accessibility and the breadth of its content.  This site illustrates a success of the history web and the great amount of resources and effort it requires to maintain such a site.