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Business ‘Collections as Data’?

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In July 2017, I attended the second Collections as Data event hosted by National Digital Initiatives/LC Labs at the Library of Congress. The event featured speakers who are using digital collections and data to work in their communities. Kate Zwaard gave an opening talk that deftly describes “computation applied to library collections when computers were people doing the calculating.”

She begins with a story about the effort to determine the authorship of disputed Federalist Papers, which is an illuminating example of what collections as data can mean. I encourage you to click through to the talk, read the story (the whole talk is excellent), and then return here.

Computer data storage in a modern office building. Highsmith, Carol M., photographer. between 1980 and 1990. Carol M. Highsmith Archive.

Thomas Padilla’s “On a Collections as Data Imperative” white paper offers a more academic definition: ‘collections as data’ refers to the “reframing all digital objects as data. Data are defined as ordered information, stored digitally, that are amenable to computation.”

I take ‘collections as data’ to mean that people are using computers to ask questions and explore digital information about library collections. Digital information could be the MARC (Machine-Readable Catalog) records for innumerable books, or the caption of an old photograph typed and displayed next to the image on a website. The concept of ‘collections as data’ is related to the digital humanities (DH) and digital scholarship.

In business information, ‘data’ has a different meaning than in the ‘collections as data’ sense. Business data commonly means things like statistics (e.g. U.S. census data), company financials, stock prices, and charts of numbers and ratios. The collections of business libraries tend to include items such as glossy annual reports, daily stock prices in the Wall Street Journal, and high-powered electronic databases that provide up-to-the-minute financial and industry information. Our business collections at the Library of Congress include this type of information and much more. It is this more that approaches the ‘collections as data’ sense that I turn to in pondering Library business collections as data.

As our blog indicates (especially highlights in the “Favorites from the Fifth Floor” category), the Library’s collections for business research are exceptionally strong in historical resources and information. See the post on the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, a post about a list of post offices, two posts about resources on historical African American businesses and statistics, and a post about special collections in business research for a few examples. These posts barely scratch the surface of the our collections’ riches! I see a great deal of possibility for Library business collections as data just starting here, much less diving deep into the stacks inside Adams. Imagine the questions that could be asked about these collections or the subjects they cover, and how those questions might be answered using computational and digital tools.

I am interested in what’s happening in the world of business/economics history research, especially that which lives in the digital world. What does it mean for business collections, business history collections, to be ‘as data’? What research are people doing? What is possible? I plan to explore these questions in context of our delightful collections inside Adams. What might it mean for the Library’s business collections to be data, and how broad might the possibilities be for new discoveries?

Join me on the journey of exploring these questions—and if you are aware of anything related in any way, do leave a comment! I’m looking forward to this.

This is the first post in a series addressing digital scholarship in business and economic history related to Library of Congress collections.

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