Steven D'Avria Presidential Collections

Digital projects available on the web come in a variety of forms and cover a wide range of topics. They are judged, among other things, by their ease of use, their presentation, their capabilities, and the information they provide to their users. The three projects examined here all deal with presidential records over a wide range of time, enabling comparison and contrast. The three projects are the Diaries of John Quincy Adams, the Abraham Lincoln Papers, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum On-Line Documents. While none of the projects were perfect, certain features made some more useful than others. Common problems included the usability of a search engine and the availability of transcriptions with guidelines. In general, the John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln sites both provided a useful interface with considerable information and metadata, whereas the Franklin D. Roosevelt project fell short in these areas.

The first website is titled the Diaries of John Quincy Adams, and is presented as part of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Its aims, reasonably enough, were to present the diaries of John Quincy Adams in an effort to improve public knowledge about him, history in general, and the history of Massachusetts. It is open to everyone, and the website does not mention that it focuses on a particular type of user. However, due to the subject matter, the level of accuracy, and the amount of metadata, it is most likely meant for mature audiences, particularly researchers interested in the subject or time period. The available search tools are both useful and problematic. The primary method of searching is by date, either by choosing a specific moment in time or a range of possible dates. This function is available on almost every page, making it easy for users to begin a new search regardless of their location on the site. This method may cause difficulty for users who do not know the date of the material they are interested in, as they will be unable to narrow their search in any meaningful way. However, if one knows the date they are searching for, this function is more useful. Fortunately, a fairly detailed timeline of John Quincy Adam’s life is available, which may help a user if their subject is relevant enough to be included on it. A major problem with this site as a whole and its search capabilities in particular is a complete lack of transcriptions. Text-based searches are impossible, and users may not be able to read the handwritten passages, despite the high quality of the scan.

The documents are displayed in a helpful, consistent manner. The title or identifying information for each page is located at the top of the screen. Links to the preceding or next page of a diary entry are located at the top of the page only, which is undoubtedly useful, but could also be placed at the bottom for more convenient use. Each page of the diary is given a webpage for itself, with the date and type of document listed to the side. Also, each page includes citation information and the location of the original document. Finally, each page can be clicked to view the full sized scan, which can be blown-up or minimized to allow in depth examination. Every page of the documents can be printed, although it is not clear how useful this version will be to users.

Other useful parts of this site are the “Getting Started” page, located off of the main or home page. It provides definitions for terms and abbreviations, such as long or short entries. Unfortunately, links to other pages within the site are somewhat difficult to locate, placed at the bottom of this page which may not be the most obvious location for them. The menu at the top of every page, with the search function and a link to the Massachusetts Historical Society homepage, is somewhat distracting. It is important to note that, starting from the main page of the Historical Society website, it is not necessarily easy to find the diaries of John Quincy Adams. This may affect the use of the site. Overall the site looks clean and modern, and with the addition of a more useful search engine, transcriptions, and better link position, it could improve considerably from an already good position.

The second site examined was the Abraham Lincoln Papers from the Library of Congress. Like with the Diaries of John Quincy Adams, this site wants to present and make available the papers of Abraham Lincoln in an attempt to sustain and preserver knowledge for the future, as well as to increase awareness of Lincoln and his times. Again, although anyone can use this site, it is most likely geared towards more mature audiences, probably with an academic inclination. The search tools are available immediately on the main page, and consist of two different functions. Searching by Keyword lets the user write what they are interested in, which allows individualized, customized searching, but which will not necessarily return what the user is seeking. Users are also able to browse by series, but these are series are based on when the LOC acquired the material, and may have gaps and overlaps. The site has two “Special Presentations,” dealing with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Lincoln Assassination which are informative but which do not use documentation from the site. This seems odd, as the material is almost definitely available.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of this site is the presentation of documents. In general, it is similar to the previous site but with important improvements. Links to previous or next pages are provided both on the top and bottom of each page, and a search bar lets users select specific page numbers to jump to. This enables users to search their documents in a rather open manner for a digital setting, which is useful. In addition, users are able to see the archival color or grayscale JPEG, complete with zoom, and with the size of the file listed. This can help users with slow computers to decide whether or not it is worth the time and effort of opening the file, and once opened, allows the user to see great detail. Transcriptions are not provided for every document, but are available for many. Standardized dating and writing systems change the nature of the document somewhat, but the information seems to be maintained in full. Some transcriptions are annotated, but not all of the notes are fully filled out. A page, titled Editor’s Preface, mentions the methods and policies used for transcription, which any user can check. Overall, it seems that they follow their guidelines.

One problem with this site is the inability for users to print – this selection is not provided for users. However, contact and ordering information is provided to allow users to acquire copies in another manner, which seems to imply that this site was not created to be used as a primary source of information, but as a stepping stone to acquisition. Citation information, or information pertaining to the collection location, is not available. Two pages, one titled “Understanding the Collection” and the other “Working with the Collection,” are available from the main page, and are very useful to helping a user understand how to use the site and read the documents. Information about the history of the digital project, copyright information, and meta-data is also easy to find, clearly written, and useful. A link to a page on the LOC website provides standard information about the use of items and can link users to other projects and collections available there. Overall, however, it may be difficult or even impossible to easily locate this particular project. It is part of American Memory, which is large and part of the even larger LOC website. This is unfortunate, because with the exception of some small problems with searching, printing, and annotation, this project is quite well done and presented.

The last page explored was the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum On-Line Documents. Unlike the other sites, which discussed history in general and explored the whole of their subjects lives, the goal of this project is to provide information about FDR’s presidency. Although it is not mentioned specifically, some of the text seems to indicate that this site is meant for people interested in FDR personally. The language on a page dealing with British Diplomacy, for example, describes how FDR and Winston Churchill were close friends, setting a tone that is different from the other projects. Researchers will certainly find the site useful, but the site is not necessarily geared towards them. The search functions for the site are somewhat difficult to use – although a search page is provided, it has few options, and will not necessarily return the results a user wants. Also, the organization of the site is somewhat confusing, and seems to be structured based on how materials were acquired by the library and museum. This is not especially helpful for researchers who know little to nothing about how this occurred. Browsing the site is useful although somewhat slow, and allows a manual search through items divided into smaller collections.

This project provides written documents as well as photographs and video clips, which is different from the other sites which are entirely text based. However, this is probably due to the availability of these materials during Roosevelt’s life, which were not present during the lives of the others, rather than the choice of each project. In addition, the audio and video files are available in multiple formats, which is useful for users with different systems. Written documents are displayed to take up an entire, single webpage, with a menu bar at the bottom. This menu contains links to previous or following pages, the transcription, and to the main page for the collection. Dates and metadata are not provided, aside from what is present in the document and its transcription. Transcriptions are provided for each page of material. When selected, the transcription opens in the same page, so to view the original at the same time, users must open a separate window by themselves. In addition, no guidelines or policies were located, which is problematic for those curious about transcription methods.

Citation information is not provided for each document, but an example is provided on the main page to allow users to follow this method if desired. No clear mission statement or statement of purpose was located. It is fairly easy to navigate to this digital collection from the main page for the FDR library, which should permit quick access to potential users. In terms of appearance, the presentation for the site is somewhat old, and it is not clear when it was last updated. Although this is not stated, it seems that the site was created some time ago and then left alone with little additional maintenance. Overall, the site provides the documents and transcriptions in a straightforward manner with little spectacle, which is good as it eliminates distractions, but the project as a whole needs to improve its search engine, its supply of metadata, and its overall organization.

Digital projects vary in both content and quality, and the sites examined here are no exception. All three projects – The Diaries of John Quincy Adams, The Abraham Lincoln Papers, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum On-Line Documents – had positive and negative elements. The former two sites had various minor problems, whereas the latter seemed to need additions and updates more urgently. The need for reliable search engines and transcriptions was ubiquitous, and matters such as metadata and presentation caused varying level of problems on each of the three sites. Unfortunately, there is no clear explanation for the varying quality of the sites - presumably, all three projects have access to similar resources, and their documentation does not seem to vary enough to explain the presence or absence of features between sites. With some minor changes, these sites and others like them can be made more fully useable and helpful for those interested in researching history.

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