Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Valley of the Shadow

The Valley of the Shadow is quite possibly the coolest website I have ever visited (and I am not just saying that because I grew up in The South and have an m.a. in American history.) The Valley of the Shadow describes itself as a digital archive depicting the experiences of two Shenandoah Valley communities, one Northern and one Southern, through the Civil War era. The site truly accomplishes this goal.

The Valley of the Shadow makes use of an excellent collection plan. By focusing on two specific communities, the site can achieve a lot of breadth in its collection without sacrificing depth, as the geographic concentration serves as triage. The collection is organized in to three wings, the buildup to the war, the war itself, and the aftermath. Each of these subdivisions of the collection is represented by building with separate rooms. For instance, the Eve to War building has a room for maps and images. Clicking on this room will allow you to browse maps of each of the two counties covered by the collection as well as through various collections of relevant images, such as a collection of quilt images from the Shenandoah Valley. The collection is obviously well curated and great for browsing. There are also search functions for many of the sub-collections, though these are sometimes mildly difficult to get to. The sheer thoroughness of the collection, however, (including newspapers, images, letters, diaries, official records, maps, church records, etc.) more than makes up for any mild difficulty.

The Valley of the Shadow provides adequate metadata on most of its objects. For instance, newspaper articles have titles, dates, creators/places of publication and topic fields. Even more data is provided for images, as those generally include size and descriptions. What the objects do not include is metadata on the digital object as opposed to its physical subject, which is why I describe the metadata as adequate and not great. This poses a particular problem in that a lot of the text-based objects, such as official records and ndwspapers, come up as transcripts. Yet, no info is provided as to when, how, or by whom, the transcript was done for specific objects (there is a list of transcribors on the "about the archive" page.) Nonetheless, the Valley of the Shadow digital archive does contain the basic, essential metadata on its objects.

This brings me to the objects themselves. Of course, it is hard not to be biased when the objects cover such an interesting subject area, but generally I found them to be quite good. The official records, newspapers, letters, etc. all have transcripts with links to images of the page in question. As such, they are clearly intended for use in a scholarly context as well as in a curiosity/browsing sort of way. All of the objects are under copyright, but the site explicitly allows their use for research and educational purposes. Though the individual objects do not possess any indications of digital provenance, there is a description of the process for the collection as a whole. My main critique, as far as the objects go, is that there seems not to be a naming convention or standardization of file type for the objects. I encountered jpeg's, gif's, and pdf's.

The site is pretty clearly intended primarily for researchers. Besides the allusion to research in the copyright statement, following links to text documents automatically brings up a transcript first and then an image of the actual object. This would aid researchers immenseley, yet sort of detracts from the neatness of the collection if you are just browsing. The site certainly does consider casual browsers as a secondary audience as seen through the inclusion of the Animated Battle Map, which basically traces local units through the various theater-level campaigns. This feature is really cool, but somewhow I don't see it as a scholarly tool. It appears that the Valley of the Shadow also considered geneologists as potential users, as the search functions (for both records and images) allow you to search by family name (which is also how I found the pictures of C.S. Lieutenant General T. J. "Stonewall" Jackson and U.S. Major General P. Sheridan above.)

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the Valley of the Shadow digital archive!

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