First Monday

Collaboration and the Cyberinfrastructure: Academic Collaboration with Museums and Libraries in the Digital Era by Roy Rosenzweig

This talk, which was presented at the 2007 WebWise conference in Washington, DC, argues for the importance of collaboration between scholars in the humanities and museums, libraries, and archives, especially in the digital era. It is illustrated with examples drawn from the work of the Center for History and New Media, which the author directs.



Beginning a talk by quoting yourself seems a bit self–indulgent, but I ask your understanding because I want to quote some words I wrote collaboratively about collaboration, and that seems a fitting start for this talk. The quote is from Our Cultural Commonwealth, the Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences, on which I served, and appears in a section in which we present five necessary characteristics of a robust cyberinfrastructure in the humanities and social sciences. The fourth characteristic we announce is that “It will facilitate collaboration.” “Digital technology,” we say further, “favors openness and collaboration. Defining and building the cyberinfrastructure should be a collaborative undertaking involving the humanities and social sciences communities in the broadest sense.” [1]

Talk of collaboration suffuses the entire report; I count 39 instances of the word or some variation of it in a 63–page report. This was a conscious decision by the collaborators behind the report, but one that swims against prevailing tides in the humanities disciplines in which most of us work. Take my own deeply individualistic field of history. The singly authored work is the standard for the profession; between 2000 and 2006 only about six percent of the more than 32,000 scholarly works indexed in the Journal of American History’s comprehensive bibliographic guide, “Recent Scholarship,” have more than one author. Works with several authors — common in the sciences — are even harder to find. Fewer than 500 (under two percent) have three or more authors (Rosenzweig, 2006).

Work in the digital humanities could not be more different. I would be hard pressed to come up with a digital work of any significance that is the product of a single scholar. At the Center for History and New Media (CHNM), which I direct, our collaborators over the past dozen years have numbered more than 350 individuals and more than 55 institutions, including 22 libraries, museums, and archives.

These latter collaborations are particularly important to our work and are what I want to describe in this talk. I want to emphasize the potential of such collaborations because, academic historians have — unfortunately — grown distant from librarians, archivists, and museum professionals since World War II, a reversal of the close association that existed in the first half century of professional history in the United States.

For example, in the late nineteenth– and early twentieth–century archival concerns found a regular place in the American Historical Association (AHA), which led the fight to establish the National Archives. One of the leaders of that campaign, Waldo Leland Gifford, served both as Secretary of the AHA and president of the Society of American Archivists. Librarians also played key roles in the early AHA. Justin Winsor, the head of the Boston Public Library and the Harvard Library, served as president of both the American Library Association and the AHA. J. Franklin Jameson, another early AHA president as well as the long time editor of the American Historical Review, later served as head of the Division of Manuscripts at the Library of Congress. Herbert Putnam, head of the Library of Congress from 1899 to 1939, was a charter member of the AHA and served on its governing Council from 1901 to 1904. Similarly, A. Howard Clark, who worked at the U.S. National Museum, was an early Assistant Secretary of the AHA. In fact, close to one–tenth of the leaders of the AHA before World War II came from the worlds of museums, archives, and libraries [2].

But even by 1930s, the divorce of academic history from these other parts of the historical enterprise was well underway. In 1936, the Conference of Archivists left the AHA to create the Society of American Archivists. Four years later, the Conference on State and Local History quit the AHA and created the American Association for State and Local History. Today, only two percent of the AHA’s membership identifies with museums, libraries, and archives and its officers almost exclusively come from universities.

But the digital era is creating and will continue to create further imperatives for collaboration between academic historians and museums, libraries, and archives — a development that has also been encouraged by the rise of public history. That certainly has been my own experience, and I want to review four key reasons why historians and other scholars should work with libraries and museums in the digital era and to illustrate those points with some of CHNM’s projects.

That museums, libraries, and archives have custody of the “stuff” of the past provides the first most important reason for such collaboration. Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks, and he replied, “that’s where the money is.” Similarly, one could answer the question of why historians should work with museums and libraries by saying “that’s where the past is.”

Consider, for example, The Object of History: Behind the Scenes with the Curators of the National Museum of American History, a cooperative project and Web site between the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and CHNM, which is funded by IMLS. We developed the project in order to find a low–cost way for students and teachers of U.S. History to have access to the museum’s collections and the expertise of its curators. We designed the Web site to improve students’ content knowledge of standard topics in U.S. History and to improve their ability to understand material culture as historical evidence. A second goal of the project is to provide smaller museums and historical societies with a model for creating similar materials using their own collections and expertise.

In the Object of History, then, we draw on the unparalleled artifactual and intellectual resources of America’s museums to teach U.S. history, in this case including such gems as the desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the short–handled hoe used by Cesar Chavez’s family to work in the fields, and the lunch counter from the Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth’s where the civil rights sit–ins of the 1960s began. For each object, we offer an introductory movie, QuickTime VR (i.e., 360–degree interactive panoramas) of the object, interviews with Smithsonian curators, associated historical documents, the opportunity for live chats with curators, and an interactive exercise for students.

CHNM has many other projects that involve bringing the riches of museums, libraries, and archives to the online audience. In Probing the Past: Virginia and Maryland Probate Inventories, 1740–1810, for instance, we have worked with Gunston Hall Plantation, the home of George Mason, to make available information from 325 eighteenth–century probate inventories from Virginia and Maryland. Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, still in progress and supported by NEH, puts us in an alliance with a rather remote museum, one that doesn’t get much walk–in traffic, the Gulag Museum in Perm, Russia, the gateway to Siberia.

A second reason for digital collaboration is that museums and libraries began thinking about digital preservation way before most scholars. It was only after CHNM had begun to accumulate a considerable archive of digital assets that we started to think seriously about digital preservation and at that point we turned to librarians — particularly leaders of the Council of Library and Information Resources such as Abby Smith and Deanna Marcum — to give us a crash course in the issues. Out of that came one an important collaboration with the Library of Congress to preserve the 150,000 digital objects that we had collected through our September 11 Digital Archive. It also led us to work closely with our own George Mason University library and their DSpace repository to preserve the results of other collecting projects such as ECHO: Exploring and Collecting History Online — Science, Technology, Industry and the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.

A third reason for such collaboration has to do with audiences. The Web has opened all of us to much more heterogeneous audiences, and museums and libraries generally have more experience dealing with diverse audiences than scholars. Thus, for our September 11th project, an alliance with the Smithsonian was crucial in building an audience and encouraging online collections. Fourth, museums and libraries have expertise that complements that of scholars. In the Object of History, that is the curatorial knowledge of the museum’s collection. In another IMLS–funded project, we are building Zotero, an open source and free, easy–to–use research tool that helps you gather and organize resources, and then allows you to annotate, organize, and share the results of your research. In order for CHNM to work in the realm of reference management, we have needed to draw on the accumulated expertise of librarians, both from our formal partner, VIVA, the Virtual Library of Virginia, and numerous consultants. More generally, the project has made us avid readers of library blogs, which has emerged as the fastest way to track the rapidly changing world of digital libraries. Another area where libraries have accumulated huge expertise is in digitization projects, and any scholar who wants to launch such a project would be foolish not to turn to his or her library for help. Certainly, when Dan Cohen and I wrote the chapter on digitization in Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, such advice was indispensable (Cohen and Rosenzweig, 2006).

These collaborations are not just a one–way street; university–based scholars also bring complimentary expertise to the table. Most obviously, that comes from our work as scholars. The Gulag Web site offers another convenient example. Our most important asset on this project is that our department is the home to Steve Barnes, the leading younger scholar of the history of the Soviet Gulag. But in some cases, it is not particular subject matter expertise, but our familiarity with the research process itself. One of the strengths of Zotero is that it is a research tool developed by people who have spent years doing scholarly research and wanted to develop a tool that they would use ourselves. Similarly, we have begun working on text mining and text analysis with digital libraries and data content providers, and what we most bring to the table is our awareness of the kinds of historical questions that scholars will want to ask about the collections.

In some other cases, CHNM brings technical expertise to the collaboration. This is more likely true in working with museums, especially smaller museums, which often lack the staff and budget to carry out digital projects. Thus, we have built the infrastructure for museums such as the National Museum of American Jewish History and Jewish Women’s Archive. For the Jewish Women’s Archive, we drew on our expertise in online collecting to create Katrina’s Jewish Voices, which is collecting stories and materials about the Jewish community of New Orleans. Now we are working on generalizing the software we have developed for a number of these projects into a free open source tool for museums called Omeka.

Another expertise comes from the experience of CHNM’s historians as teachers. Underlying projects like the Object of History, for example, is our long–term work on the teaching of historical thinking skills that comes out of the classroom but also out of other online projects such as History Matters, World History Matters, and Historical Thinking Matters. Finally, although CHNM cannot match the long experience of museums in reaching public audiences, we also have some of our own expertise in reaching the specifically online audience, which comes out of more than a dozen years of online work and having a website that attracts more than 10 million unique visitors per year.

Although I advocate collaboration and closer ties between academic scholars and museums, libraries, and archives, I also want to acknowledge some cautions. Inter–institutional collaboration brings with it some tough problems of joining groups with different work and professional cultures, of working together across distances, and insuring that each side does its fair share of the work; such cultural and spatial distances sometimes breed distrust and conflict. Collaboration, to put it simply, is very hard work — work not just on the joint project but also on the process of collaboration. The second biggest mistake after ignoring the possibilities of collaboration is to assume that it will be less work. I have written three books with collaborators. (Rosenzweig and Blackmar, 1992; Rosenzweig and Thelen, 2000; Rosenzweig and Cohen, 2006). The hope is that it will be half the work, but it generally turns out to take twice as much time. Despite that, the collaborations have been worth it because the final product has been enriched by the complementarities, the differences, and even the conflicts.

My experience over the past fifteen years of working in the digital humanities is that they have often had their most salutary effects in simply getting us to think about the most basic questions about our practice as scholars and cultural workers. Several years ago I participated in a conference of history journal editors considering what the digital revolution would mean for them. The goal was to explore largely technical and legal issues, but within the first hour the discussion immediately began to focus on questions about the fundamental nature of scholarly journals — why do they exist? Whom do they serve? Who should control them? That experience has been repeated over and over in the past 15 years. Meetings and panels about digital history routinely confront the most profound questions about why historians do what we do. What is the purpose of a scholarly article? What constitutes good teaching? How student learning best measured? What kind of work merits tenure? What evidence of the past should be preserved and who is “responsible” for preserving the past?

The engagement in digital work not only leads to such basic questions about the goals and premises of historical work, it also raises questions about the structure of that work. How should work in the humanities be carried out? By solitary scholars? Or — as I would argue — more fruitfully, as part of a web of collaborators that involves academics, archivists, librarians, and museum professionals? It is only in such collaborative efforts, I believe, that we can fulfill our shared mission of preserving, interpreting, and presenting what the ACLS Report calls “our cultural commonwealth.” End of article


About the author

Roy Rosenzweig is the founder and Director of CHNM and Mark and Barbara Fried Professor of History and New Media at George Mason University. He is the co–author of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).



1. Our Cultural Commonwealth, 2006, p. 28.

2. I am indebted to Robert Townsend, Assistant Director of the AHA, for this material on the early history of the AHA. It draws upon his important, forthcoming dissertation (at George Mason University) on the historical profession before World War II.



Center for History and New Media, at, all Web references accessed 4 May 2007.

Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, 2006. Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, and at

Our Cultural Commonwealth: The final report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities & Social Sciences. New York: ACLS, 2006 and at

ECHO, at

Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, at

Historical Thinking Matters, at

History Matters, at

Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, at

The Object of History, at

Omeka, at

Probing the Past: Virginia and Maryland Probate Inventories, 1740–1810, at

Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, 1992. The Park and the People: A History of Central Park. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, 2000. The Presence of the Past. New York: Columbia University Press.

Roy Rosenzweig, 2006. “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History, volume 93, number 1, and at

September 11 Digital Archive, at

World History Matters, at

Zotero, at



Contents Index

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Collaboration and the Cyberinfrastructure: Academic Collaboration with Museums and Libraries in the Digital Era by Roy Rosenzweig
First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July 2007),