On activating digital collections

I was on the verge of crafting a blog entry expressing fears and reservations about Second Life when it occurred to me that skepticism has gotten too much play here of late. I’m really not so grumpy. To try to prove that, I’ll slap down here a few paragraphs from a mini-manifesto I’ve been working on lately. It’s lumpy and unfinished — but it’s hopeful.


The digitization of learning objects does not, in itself, foster study of them. Even the richest digital library teaches little if it is not selectively engaged by pedagogical context and activity. Conversely, a learning environment that fails to incorporate available resources best suited to its purposes courts hermeticism and limitation. We should be committed to activating digital collections — exploring mutually beneficial relationships between collections and learning environments — through the integration of digitized material with new modes of study and dissemination.

The best digital learning tools may well draw on discrete digital collections in different ways — often within the same environment. This is no surprise: just as no one pedagogical application could exhaust the possibilities of a robust digital library, it is often the case that no one collection satisfies the evolving or multiple purposes of a sophisticated learning environment.

At a university, such tools should be conceptualized in consultation with faculty, consultations that focus on teaching methods and goals. Identification of relevant collections to draw upon (at an institution’s library and from the wider world) is an important follow-up to this impetus, akin to identification of the software that will run the project. Just as some innovative projects now run on proprietary as well as open source software, and may mix a number of microapps into one environment, so should we draw on a range of collections that best engage the purpose of a given project.

Existing digital collections, more often than not, consist of material restricted for certain uses or limited to certain audiences, in compliance with licensing and codification. Projects that engage diverse existing collections are likely to require special permissions and/or an access architecture of no little complexity (material variously available to various populations): negotiating this variety can be difficult, but it nevertheless ensures that pedagogical goals, and not the restrictions of any one collection, shape a learning environment.

In addition to existing digital collections, heretofore unpublished or uncollected assets may vastly improve and distinguish learning environments. This ‘dark’ material may be created and owned by individual faculty members, or held in reserve by public or private enterprises; its use may be open to negotiation, which takes no small amount of time and effort. In some cases, onerous restrictions or the simple lack of relevant material may drive the crafters of educational environments into active production of new assets for a given project: videotaping new interviews, recording new performances, capturing new creations. This active creation also requires a lot of resources, but the advantage here is that content can be produced with permissions and licensing optimal for a learning environment.

The heterogeneous provenance of collections means that any producer of digital learning tools has an active interest in understanding and promoting standards of interoperability. We also have a stake in open access movements: a collections landscape less hedged by restriction is a landscape that will offer a fuller array of elements for the tools we build. Whenever possible, our projects should be made open for access and use beyond any conceptualized engagement; this maximizes the often extensive investment of an organization in any given project, and inspires the holders of potentially useful collections to match our lead.

Finally, the fungible quality of digital material means that it is often transformed through incorporation into a learning environment. As it is used, it changes– through recontextualization, annotation, or other user modifications. A project that begins by drawing on discreet collections may thus become a unique collection itself, reflective of assignment-related engagements of a given community. Instructors may shape materials in a certain way, or supplement it over the course of a term. Student work may be archived in the project and in turn made available for future iterations of the project or outside use of it. Evidence of active study may thus consist of transformation of material in the environment; it could also be fresh material generated or uploaded by students. Many of the most interesting educational environments will in this way prove to be ‘two-way’ collection areans, necessitating thoughtful policies about ‘outputs’ as well as ‘inputs.’


For an exemplification of some of these points, I invite you to take a little tour of the Havel at Columbia site. Here is a digital melange of:

  • Columbia University Libraries holdings (special collections, institutional archive, media holdings)
  • Donated commercial material (documentary film selections, CNN news archives)
  • Donated privately owned material
  • Material purchased for the project (CORBIS & Getty images, video archives)
  • Material created for the project (video interviews conducted with Lou Reed, George Soros, et. al.)
  • Campus events videotaped during Havel’s residency
  • User ‘notebooks’ used to assemble and annotate assets into multimedia essays and demonstrations

Unavoidably, some of this material is restricted to students and instructors at Columbia. But whenever possible, we’ve opened things up for universal access, and encouraged those participating in this project to do the same.

The next step, I can almost hear you thinking, would be to release the collection of publicly accessible material on this site under a CC license. We’ll get there, I’m sure of it. See? Hopeful!

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