Last fall I had the opportunity to visit both Harvard and Boston University. While at Harvard I attended a showcase of digital projects titled Digital Futures: The NOW edition. Sponsored by Harvard’s Digital Futures Consortium the program consisted of three presentations: “Curated by the Crowd: Collections, Data and Platforms for Participation in Museums and Other Institutions,”HarvardX, and Interactive Map of the Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1760-61. I was intrigued by the quality and diversity of the projects. More importantly, I was taken by what they tell us about the future of libraries and collections.
Curated by the Crowd centered on the creation and maintenance of Curarium, a collection of collections designed to serve as a model for crowdsourcing annotation, curation, and augmentation of works within and beyond their respective collections. The Curarium first project is the Villa I Tatti’s Homeless Paintings of the Italian Renaissance. This collection consists of a unique archive of photographs of “homeless” paintings assembled by art historian Bernard Berenson. The transfer of the collection and its metadata into the Curarium will allow audiences to identify, classify, describe, and analyze the objects in the collection, as well as reconstruct the stories of objects that have either disappeared or been destroyed.
The faculty-led, HarvardX initiative aims to develop and distribute online learning objects and tools, conduct research on pedagogical and technological innovations and learning outcomes, and adapt these innovations to enhance the on-campus experience of Harvard students. HarvardX integrates the development of instructional approaches and digital tools across Harvard’s campus by providing faculty with pedagogical and research support.
As an historian, I found Vincent Brown’s project uniquely appealing. A professor of African and African-American History at Harvard, Brown has made study of the Transatlantic Slave Trade accessible in a new way. He created an interactive map that brings to life the spatial history of the greatest slave insurrection in eighteenth century England. Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative is an “alliance between historians and mapmakers” that offers a carefully curated archive of documentary evidence and presents arguments about strategies, tactics, and landscape. More importantly, the cartographic evidence uncovered by the project shows that, contrary to previous interpretations, the rebellion was a well-planned affair that posed a genuine strategic threat and not a spontaneous rebellion.
Thematically speaking these projects have little in common. They cover history, art, online learning, educational technology, and myriad other disciplines. For librarians and curators this diversity of disciplines and approaches resting under the digital umbrella is precisely where the rubber meets the road. The future, these projects clearly show, is characterized by wider distribution, uncommon openness, and nerve-wrecking disintermediation. The question is: are we ready for it? The future is now.