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published: March 2004
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Museums and the Web 2003 Papers

Reconstructing History On-line — The Digital Decades On-line Exhibit

Hansel Cook, Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada



The Digital Decades on-line exhibition is a series of Web sites developed by the Saint Mary's University Archives. Development began as part of the institution's 200th Anniversary, both as an attempt to present historical information on the Web and as a way of reconnecting with Alumni and others associated with the institution. This paper discusses some of the background of Saint Mary's University, the set of circumstances that highlighted the need for more on-line historical information, an examination of some of the theory of on-line exhibits and use of the Web to reconnect with alumni, and finally the development and launch of the Digital Decades site. It concludes with a discussion of the success of the site and future plans for development.

Keywords: university alumni relations, on-line exhibits, oral histories


In March, 2003, the Saint Mary's University Archives launched its Digital Decades Web site. This site is both an on-line exhibition of items related to the institutions history and a reference tool for information seekers. The site is a key part in our plan to expand the Archive's services and presence in the University community and beyond. This paper will give some background on the University's history and look at the development of the site in reference to modern theory on the creation of on-line exhibits and using the Web to make connections with Alumni.


Saint Mary's University is a moderate-sized institution (7,000 students) located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In addition to a strong undergraduate program in a number of subjects, the University is well known for its MBA program, as well as graduate programs in other areas.

The University was founded by Bishop Edmund Burke in 1802, originally as an institution to educate the Catholic youth of Halifax, as well as to provide religious training. The University went through many ups and downs during its early years, with levels of support from the community and government varying over time. There were several gaps in its operations when funds or support dried up, and the University changed location several times. It was given temporary degree granting status in 1841, made permanent in 1852.

A number of different groups and religious orders were involved in operating the University during this period. In 1868, teaching duties were taken over by the Christian Brothers of Saint John the Baptist de la Salle. They left in 1876 when the local archdiocese took over operations. In 1802, a new campus was opened after several years of non-operation, and in 1913 the Irish Christian Brothers took over the teaching duties. The last religious order to take control of the school was the Jesuits, who arrived in 1940.

In 1970, control was officially handed over to the Board of Governors, and Saint Mary's became a secular institution, with more than 2000 students enrolled at this time. Unfortunately, many of the records of the University's operations for the previous 170 years were not available. As control passed from one religious order to another, the documents related to the University's activities often stayed with those groups, and when they left, so did the record of their activities.

During the 1970's, the first formal attempts to document and control the history of the institution began with the creation of an archives in the university library. For years this archives was nothing more than a shelf in the library, and later a room, but at least the official record of the University's activities were being kept. During the 1990's a variety of persons served as part- or full-time archives managers, and the first attempt to collect and document the university's history in a formal manner began in earnest.

Celebrations of the University's 200th Anniversary began in early 2002, and were scheduled to continue well into 2003. As part of the master plan during the course of the celebration, a permanent professional archivist position was created and filled in September 2002. A key duty of this position was to use the 200th Anniversary events to help promote the University's history, to fill in as many gaps as possible, and to reconnect with Alumni. A 200th Anniversary History Committee was also formed to help promote these goals. The committee included several staff and librarians from the University Library as well as interested alumni, members of the University's history faculty, and representatives of the administration.

One key idea developed in the History Committee was using the Archives Web site to promote the University's history. One of the first tasks of the new archivist was updating the Web site and creating new on-line resources. A selected number of University photos became the first on-line exhibition when the SMU Photo Gallery was added to the site. Development of an expanded site, focused on providing historical information, began in late 2002.

On-line Exhibits

In developing the Digital Decades Web site, some research was done on the various approaches to take. On-line information can take many forms, and it is worth examining the different types. Some (Kalfatovic, 2002) have broken down the types of sites possible into two categories: on-line exhibitions and digital collections. When attempting to classify sites from more of a library/archives perspective, perhaps it is better to use three different classifications: digital collections, on-line reference material, and on-line exhibits.

Digital collections

Digital collections are sets of information that were either purely digital when originally created, or have been translated into a digital source with a desire to replicate their original medium as much as possible. They are organized and listed in some comprehensive and complete manner. They are the equivalent of the books on a library shelf or the boxed collections in the archival stacks — primary sources to be accessed as needed, or a comprehensive catalogue that indexes those sources. A Web site that archives Web sites (e.g. the Internet Archive) is an example of an on-line collection where the item being collected originally existed in a digital form (i.e. the individual Web sites being catalogued). A more common example is the collections transferred from another format, such as sets of scanned photos, original correspondence marked up in an XML database, etc. In this case, the original primary source is replicated as much as possible (with or without value added features) in order to provide access to the raw material. Catalogues of scanned photos, often stored in a database, are a good example of this type of digital collection. A good example is the W.R. MacAskill fonds at the Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management Web site.

On-Line Reference Material

When the information being presented on-line is mediated, filtered, or collated in such a way as not to present the primary source as purely as possible, but instead to enhance access to the information contained in the collection itself, it falls into the category of on-line reference material. In these situations the emphasis is not on replicating the primary source, but instead on collecting selections of information (perhaps from many sources, which might not even be attributed) and presenting them for the user. Information might be presented as lists or encyclopedia-type entries

On-line Exhibits

On-line Exhibits share some of the characteristics of both digital collections and on-line reference material. Like the collections, they may present on-line representations of artifacts, photos, or other replicated primary source items for the user. Likewise, they may collate information from several sources in a way that resembles on-line reference material. What makes on-line exhibits unique (as identified by Kalfatovic) from collections or reference material is the same thing that makes real-world exhibits unique — they are united by a theme, and are not constrained by the necessity to be comprehensive. A visitor does not visit an exhibit in a museum expecting to see a complete collection of all materials on one subject, but instead to see selections that are representative. Like real-world exhibits, they are displayed for a variety of purposes, including the desire to educate and entertain. Because these are virtual exhibits, they have one other characteristic that typical physical exhibits do not: the desire to use the site to lure people into the archives' real world facilities. Many virtual exhibits are advertisements for the services or collections offered by the institution, and there is often the expectation that the virtual visitor will become a real one.

Reconnecting with Alumni On-line

There were a number of audiences we were hoping our Web site would reach. Current and former faculty; potential, current and former students; and some members of the general public all would be possible audiences for the Digital Decades Web site. Since a key goal of the 200th Anniversary History Committee and the University Archivist was rebuilding some of our institution's history, it was the former members of the University community that we were particularly interested in reaching. While it is too late to connect with Alumni from the University's earliest years, there are still many active and interested former students, staff, and faculty who can help us rebuild the history of the last sixty years or more. Considering the gaps in the University's history before secularization in 1970, there is a large audience of people out there who could be of great benefit to us.

Research into Alumni involvement in universities has shown that making the campus more accessible is a key part of alumni relationships (Stoner, 1997) and that the more Alumni are engaged with the University after graduation, the more satisfied they are (Pearson, 1999). From a purely financial perspective, that engagement may mean more monetary donations to the University from Alumni. For the Archives, however, the engagement is not a means, but an end. An obvious method of enhancing that engagement is by using on-line resources such as Web sites and e-mail lists. Pearson identified several benefits Alumni hope to receive through on-line resources from their University. Two of them are directly related to services the Archives can offer: a sense of connectedness, and access to university resources.

Alumni hope to achieve a degree of connectedness, or community, through a University's on-line resources. Not only do they want to feel that they still belong to the institution, but they also want to keep in touch with other alumni. Contact information for former Alumni, news articles on services available to them, and notices of upcoming events are all the types of content that can enhance connectedness. The Archives, as the primary source of historical information related to an institution's graduates, can play a key part in enhancing this connectedness.

Access to university resources is another desired benefit identified by Pearson that Alumni hope to achieve. The one on-line resource that Alumni and former faculty want access to most is the library catalogues and databases. It is safe to assume that on-line archival collections or reference material would also fall into this category.

Developing the Digital Decades

Development of the Digital Decades site began with an awareness of these various approaches we could use and audiences we wanted to reach. We quickly realized that an on-line exhibition would be the best way to format the site. We did want to include a fair bit of practical information as well, and we knew there would be some elements of an on-line reference collection included. It would not be a digital collection, as we knew it would include only samples of information from our physical collection. The closest our existing Web site came to having an on-line digital collection was our photo gallery, and we knew we would link the appropriate sections in the site to this gallery.

The approach of using “digital decades” as a way to organize information on this site was a suggestion by the chair of the History Committee. Each Web page would give a selection of different types of information from a particular decade. It would allow alumni who attended the school in a particular time period to easily find information related to them. But dividing the early years of the University into decades would not be easy. For the first hundred years there are essentially no photos available, and little or no primary source material exists. Even the timeline of events for that period was woefully brief. We decided that the first 130 years would be represented by one page, with the following decades each having its own page. It is of course our strong desire to collect enough information that we can break down the earlier decades into their own pages. However, since a key goal of the site was to reconnect with living alumni, the lack of information for this early period was not a critical failing.


Early site design began with an evaluation of the types of resources available in order to determine just what would appear on the individual pages. Since the beginning of the 200th celebrations, a key job of Archives staff had been to expand and clarify the timeline of events in the University's history; this would be a centerpiece of the site. An edited version of the timeline was designed to highlight the key events without overwhelming the visitor to the site.

In order to recapture a feeling of the era and to present information that we knew would be of interest to alumni, we decided the exhibit had to include something from the student newspapers of the time. While a complete digital collection of the papers would have been wonderful, we limited ourselves to scanning the covers and occasionally a few subsequent pages from three newspapers in each decade. We chose papers whose cover stories seemed to represent the highlights of those particular decades. They were just teasers, designed to lure alumni and others into the archives itself to see the originals.

One of the key resources in reconstructing the university's history has been the various Oral History Projects conducted over the last 10 years. About 60 former students, faculty, and staff had been interviewed, and these interviews have proven a gold mine when it comes to examining the University's history. We knew we wanted to highlight this resource and at the same time try to draw in new potential interviewees. We went through the transcripts to identify prominent alumni and interesting subjects. Short clips (approx 2 minutes) were selected, and MP3s were created.

To these core sections of the Web pages we added several smaller resources. Each decade would contain a link to the appropriate chronological section in our on-line photo gallery. A feedback form was created so that visitors to the site could provide their own memories of their time at Saint Mary's.

Set-up, Testing, and Launch

The first prototype Web pages were finished in late February 2003. Design of the site largely conformed to Jakob Neilson's usability characteristics. The site was tested with most current browsers and at various screen resolutions. User testing was largely done internally with librarians and staff at the Saint Mary's University Library. Corrections and changes were based on these suggestions.

One major addition at this time was the addition of separate pages for the various campuses the university has inhabited. While Saint Mary's changed locations several times over 200 years, there were three major campuses that were identified as significant to the institution's history. During the 200th Anniversary, each of these sites was the focus of an event to unveil a stone marker at the school's location. The Archives was heavily involved in planning these events, and it was a natural extension to have three Web pages to represent the three campuses. Each campus page contains a schematic of the site, photos, lists of all the buildings on that site with their dates of construction, and a link to the text of the markers dedicated at each location.

By early March ,2003, the site design was completed, and it went live. As it was partly a marketing tool to highlight the Archives' work and make connections with the University community, we organized a launch ceremony. This was also an opportunity to hold an Archives open house. A number of visitors came in to see our collection and hear about the Digital Decades project. Members of the administration and the history faculty spoke about the 200th Anniversary celebrations, and the Web site in particular. Archives staff demonstrated the site and its features. All in all it, was a highly successful event.

Use of the Site, and its Future

Since the Digital Decades site was launched, feedback has been good. Alumni have submitted memories about their time at the school through our on-line form, and a new section has been added to the Website to post these memories. During the summer of 2003, a number of new Oral History interviews were conducted. Through to the end of the 200th Anniversary celebrations, the site was marketed at a variety of events.

In early 2004, work began on improving access to the information contained in the Oral History Interviews. Uncompleted transcriptions were finished, and subject indexing has begun. A database has been designed and will eventually be mounted on-line and linked with the Digital Decades. In our preliminary redesigns, visitors to the Web site will be able to click on a link that will bring up a list of all interviews relevant to the particular decade they were visiting. Alumni will be able to read a transcript or (ideally) listen to the actual interview, and then indicate their own interest in being interviewed. When this is completed, we believe it will be a valuable resource and of great interest to former Saint Mary's students and faculty.


Thanks are due to the members of the Saint Mary's University Administration, the 200th Anniversary History Committee, and the librarians of Patrick Power Library for their support of this project. Special thanks go to Fiona Marshall, the 200th Anniversary Archives Assistant.


Internet Archive. http://www.archive.org

Jakob Nielson's Usability Website http://www.useit.com

Kalfatovic, M.R. (2002). Creating a Winning Online Exhibition: A Guide for Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Chicago: American Library Association.

Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management, W.R. MacAskill virtual archive http://www.gov.ns.ca/nsarm/virtual/macaskill/

Pearson, J. (1999). Comprehensive research on alumni relationships: Four years of market research at Stanford University. New Directions for Institutional Research 101, 5-13.

Saint Mary's University Archives, Digital Decades. http://www.stmarys.ca/administration/archives/decades.html

Stoner, M. and Cartwright, G.P. (1997). Alumni, public relations, admissions — and technology. Change 29 (3), 50.