“Leaving Europe” and Digital Learning Tools

“Leaving Europe” and Digital Learning Tools

Posted by Carly B. Boxer on December 20, 2012 in Blog.

From political cartoons to firsthand accounts of the trip across the Atlantic, “Leaving Europe: A New Life in America,” the new joint exhibition by Europeana and the DPLA, contains a broad range of documents relating to the experience of European immigration to the US in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the exhibition launched this past Tuesday, I’ve spent a bit of time looking at documents and reading through the exhibition’s narrative of different moments emblematic of the experience of those immigrating to the US.

One of the things that interests me about the exhibition is the extent to which reading through it feels like viewing an exhibition. When I’m not blogging, I spend a lot of time working with digitized versions of art objects — the virtual versions of 12th century manuscripts and 19th century photo archives take up a surprising proportion of the time I spend online. These resources, however, are often presented as free-standing objects. The difference between a stand-alone resource and an exhibition is a big one; being handed 900 year-old Latin manuscript feels very different than having someone tells you what it says and why it matters.

[This doesn’t mean that excellent digital resources for medieval texts don’t exist. They do! The Cambridge Digital Library added a host of treasures with helpful additional information just this week, and the still-in-development Digital Mappaemundi project will be annotating and linking medieval maps and texts with lots of multimedia content. But back to the DPLA…]

Spending time looking at “Leaving Europe” serves as an excellent reminder of the value of presentation in turning archived documents into learning tools. The inherent selectivity of archival and curatorial practices can seem limiting at times, but having a larger set of related but hard to navigate data pales in comparison to seeing a well-curated collection of texts and images working together to present a specific comprehensive narrative. Clicking through the exhibit is like reading through a story — it’s a very different experience from diving headfirst into a pile of data and documents.

That’s not to say that the whole “diving headfirst” thing isn’t still an option. If anything, “Leaving Europe” testifies to the sheer breadth and quality of digital resources available from Europeana and DPLA content providers. “Leaving Europe” serves as an introduction, but also provides the information necessary to know where to find further information, and sparks our curiosity in seeking out those additional resources. “Leaving Europe” is a learning tool, but it’s also a gateway to accessing the wealth of digital documents that its host organizations have to offer.

Image: Ferry boat, the Ellis Island, which is also marked Department of Commerce and Labor, U.S. Immigration Service. (1902-1913), Courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery

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