Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A new approach to local history, part two: History 2.0 and the “Long Tail”

Chris Anderson’s new book, The Long Tail, explores the nearly-forgotten commercial products that don’t receive the air play and shelf space of hit songs, books, films and other items overlooked by major retailers, who are constrained by space limitations and notions of rapid turnover of stock. The prevailing idea that “20% of your products account for 80% of your sales” has relegated the remaining 80% of commercial products to an oblivion that is now being mined by Web-based players, who have discovered its substantial economic potential. Free to virtually stock anything, vendors like iTunes and can make most anything available and are finding that sales in this neglected area can rival those of the traditional blockbusters. Anderson calls this overlooked 80% “the long tail”. In an earlier Wired Magazine article and now in his book of that name, he is uncovering this fascinating phenomenon that has application to many non-commercial organizations, too, such as local history repositories.

Beyond a superficial level, the study of local history has always been a bit labor-intensive and sometimes expensive. Most libraries, historical societies and individual historians have the more popular printed works on local history, such as the wonderful Encyclopedia of Cleveland History and a handful of books that are either recently published or readily available through used book outlets. But the heavy lifting of historical research, both intellectually and physically, has been the huge body of records, photographs, maps, books, manuscripts and other materials that are filed away in the back rooms of archives and historical societies.

“Serious” research in Cleveland history requires trips to the Western Reserve Historical Society, the Cuyahoga County Archives, the City of Cleveland City Council Archives and the many archival repositories of local academic and public libraries. Also, it often requires expenditures for research fees, photocopying and parking which, when combined with the limited hours of operation and staff available for assistance, means that there are not-insubstantial barriers to accessing historical documents. That the process of pursuing such information serves to damped the enthusiasm of the casual student of history and thereby acts as a means of limiting access and preserving the material has not been unwelcomed by under funded and undermanned repositories.

A downside of this is the loss of potential support from a wider segment of the community who can afford neither the time nor money to pursue research on-site at the relevant archival institution, particularly when they are often only open during normal business hours. Some patrons view such policies as deliberately secretive or elitist and are put off enough that they complain to friends and colleagues about those institutions.

If we view this body of rarely-trafficked historical documentation as the “long tail” of traditional history, then the new Web-based approach championed by the Cleveland Memory Project and a few others locally, offers increasing access to this huge, rarely-used body of esoteric material, provided it can be scanned and mounted.

This come home to me a couple of years ago when a lady in California wrote to say how happy she was with our Cleveland Union Terminal Construction Photography Collection on-line. She was researching information on her grandfather, who’d owned the Chamberlain-Haber Chemical Company in Cleveland. She “Googled” the company’s name and got two hits. One was her own family genealogy page and the other was Cleveland Memory’s CUT photo site, which included a picture of the storefront office of her grandfather’s firm! In the process of mounting this collection of over 5,000 images we created an index that included the names from business signs shown in the pictures of the buildings scheduled to be demolished for the Terminal Tower complex. This is where the lady found the photo, something that she couldn’t have done easily from California and would have taken a bit of doing in person. Keyword searching of voluminous pages of data can uncover much of value to somebody and even the low levels of traffic for any one item is offset by the sheer volume of material that is thereby opened up for remote access, 24/7.

All of this will continue to have serious implications for the way we’ve normally do business. Institutions with nineteenth-century business models, based on traditional modes of access at centralized archival repositories, are already finding a marked drop in walk-in traffic and associated user fees and will continue to be challenged to remain relevant in a networked environment. I think the future will still favor content providers and there will always be something of a demand for certain irreplaceable historical resources. But with many people finding most of what they want on-line, the level of support for these repositories may diminish to the point where those critical few unique resources may prove insufficient to sustain the institution housing them. At some point – probably better sooner than later – all archival institutions catering to a public user base will have to make their materials available on-line. Anything less would be irresponsible, as there’s no longer any question in which way lies the future.

This is the second blog post on local history and the web (first one). I want to keep exploring the virtual revolution in information represented by the web and will discuss other aspects in future blogs. Please post any comments you may have below.


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