Aug 22 2008

Breaking Into the Digital Vault

Making historical documents an everyday part of class.

Early last year, Glenn Wiebe, a social studies curriculum specialist with the Educational Services & Staff Development Association of Central Kansas in Hutchinson, learned that the National Archives was launching an interactive website that would let students and teachers explore almost 1,200 of that federal repository’s more than 10 billion documents spanning hundreds of years.

An inspection of the Digital Vaults — and a test run by his own 10-year-old and 14-year-old children — convinced Wiebe, who works with educators around his state, that the site matched his mission of changing teaching as usual. “A lot of teachers are textual, concrete and nonrandom, and that makes them good teachers in the system that we have and that they came from,” he explains. “My job is figuring out how to get them to [become] visual, nonconcrete and nonlinear.”

The catchy approach and nonlinear architecture of the new site, Wiebe adds, also works well with the way today’s students navigate the web and get their information. “It’s designed to really focus on the way today’s students think,” he says. “This is social networking for documents.”

From Elvis to the Ingalls

The Digital Vaults ( presents a collection of pictures, letters and records in more than 500 categories on such topics as the Constitution of the United States, Little House on the Prairie, and the King (Elvis Presley) Meets the President (Richard Nixon). More important than the content, however, is how it invites users to engage with the records. An opening Flash presentation offers a sample of these categories, which materialize as thumbnail images of documents, records and photographs that swirl into place from the edge of the screen. Scrolling over an individual thumbnail provides users with a description of the collection. A mouse click reshuffles the thumbnails for a new random sample.

A click on one of the images — for example, the photograph of Elvis standing next to Nixon in 1970 (the most requested photo in the entire archives) — produces another screen on which dozens of additional thumbnails float into place around a larger version of the Elvis photo, which moves to the center of the screen where it can be enlarged further. Only one of the new thumbnails connects directly to Elvis: a handwritten note to President Dwight Eisenhower from three Elvis fans protesting his conscription into the Army in the 1950s.

The rest — indicated through the “Tags” tab on the left — are tied to the categories Famous People, Presidents, Richard M. Nixon and White House. A click on the “Filter” tab lets users sort related contents by media type, timeframe and relevance. Clicking “Find a Tag” brings up more than 60 additional tags that link to dozens of new categories, including the original five. Selecting an image from among these not only reshuffles the thumbnails but changes the categories as well, essentially starting the process anew.

And that’s what sets this site apart from other social studies resources, says Wiebe, who emphasizes that many of today’s students are comfortable with that format, having used it regularly on popular sites from YouTube to Wikipedia. “Everything is based on keywords or tags. That’s not the traditional way that archivists work,” he explains. “If you’re looking for a photo of Apollo 11, there’s also a ‘space’ tag and a ‘NASA’ tag, so one document can lead to another. It gives you the chance to access other connections you may not have thought of.”

“It’s a new look at what a record tells you — not one story, but connections to others,” adds Marvin Pinkert, the executive director for the National Archives Experience. Pinkert says his team created the Digital Vaults with an eye to “demonstrating just how intriguing government records can be and the surprises they contain.” The Digital Vaults permits more methodical searches using keywords or the category index. “They make it really easy to get started and get far enough along to do the heavy lifting of research,” Pinkert points out. Users can also navigate to the Archival Research Catalogue, the National Archives online collection of more than 250,000 items.

Students Can Collaborate Easily

So far, Wiebe has introduced teachers to the site through workshops and a few study groups and has received a positive response. “We’ve had great feedback from teachers that this makes records really cool,” he notes. Wiebe adds the site works well for grades five through 12, although he recommends more hands-on help for younger students. “There are some pretty complex documents here,” he points out.

Wiebe also sees group activities as a prime way of exploring the Digital Vaults. “I would plug into a projector and let the class break into sections to discuss the individual documents and what they mean,” he says. Because users can create accounts to store their search results, he says, “I can see this being used by groups of kids working together to build collections of related documents [by dragging them onscreen to a “Collection” tray]. Even if the students are physically apart, they can add to a collection via e-mail.”

Students can also make more creative forays into the past. The site lets them create posters or movie clips, and a “pan and scan” device lets them move across documents and pictures in the way that historical documentary producer Ken Burns has made famous. “One teacher had students work with the documents on three levels,” Wiebe points out, “First analyzing the document, comparing it to other documents, then creating posters or movie clips, and sending them in e-mail to friends.”

“Typically, when you go to a museum, someone else decides what you see in the collection. But it’s especially important for young people today to have a sense of ‘my space,’” says the National Archives’ Pinkert, who adds that applying such creativity to the records “makes them much more than pieces of parchment.”

Pinkert also has developed a series of activities dubbed “Pathways,” in which users follow clues to figure out the connections between various records, in the spirit of the movie National Treasure. That feature has already made an impression on sixth-grade teacher Lori Drouhard, from the Harper Elementary School in Harper, Kan. “My students loved it,” she says. “When one would find the right picture, you would hear, ‘I found it!’ But instead of telling the others where the photo was, they would give them clues about the picture, which I thought was fabulous.” Students also can create original Pathways searches by collecting records and adding their own clues.

Wiebe cautions that it may take time for some teachers to warm to the Digital Vaults approach. “This is the kind of site that ‘digital natives’ will be comfortable with,” he says, but less so those teachers who are “digital immigrants.” He recommends letting the digitally savvy students in a class demonstrate the site’s tools. “Don’t be afraid to try it because you don’t fully understand it,” urges Wiebe, who also suggests using the tabs in Wikipedia to practice for navigating the National Archives site. Pinkert, who plans to increase the number of files to 2,000, says his National Archives Experience group may offer teacher training via teleconferencing later this year.