CIW Q&A: HistoryIT’s Kristen Gwinn-Becker

HistoryIT is the archival system for the modern, tech-savvy museum and library.  The Chicago-based company strategizes, digitizes and makes historical collections accessible to the public, turning many documents that were once available to historians into primary sources that can be cited—as Founder and CEO Kristen Gwinn-Becker explained—in fifth-grade history reports.  We talked to Gwinn-Becker about HistoryIT’s goals, ambitions and the projects the company has tackled so far.

Kristen Gwinn-Becker.

In many ways, HistoryIT is a marriage of your background as an academic historian and as a computer programmer.  Can you tell us more about how HistoryIT came about?
My journey to founding the company is both rooted in my experiences both in technology and as a humanities scholar.  I have a Ph.D. in U.S. History, and before that I spent the better part of a decade as a database developer…. When I finished my doctoral work, I had the opportunity through graduate school and the research years following to spend an extraordinary amount of time in archives as a researcher.  I was always awed by the amount of material I encountered. 
And what was your take away from that experience?
The vast majority of the information that tells us who we are as people is hidden away, quite literally locked away.  If you don’t have the necessary training, and certainly a whole lot of time, then that information is inaccessible to you.  I set about looking for ways to help our clients create digital collections that are fully searchable, fully accessible, that really harness technology to make the bulk of our historical record available in a meaningful away.
So just what does that process of taking largely inaccessible historical records and turning them into easily searchable artifacts look like?
We work with our clients to design and deliver custom web-based solutions for the entirety of their collection….  We build a short-term tactical plan and a long-term strategic plan to organize and digitize their entire collection.  We…subject tag every single item in a collection, so that even if a collection is two, three million items, we can turn that around in less than a year.  Every letter, every image is tagged so that it is findable by different audiences and whatever words they use when searching for material in a Google-like environment.
And do you find that many individuals are using these tagging services to search historical collections that previously may not have been available to them?
One of the great ways that HistoryIT has benefited and one of the reasons for our enormous growth is because of the public’s experience with [sites like].  They’ve created a public expectation to be able to find information like this.  That doesn’t exist for the vast majority of historical collections that aren’t related to genealogy.
We know one collection you’ve tackled at HistoryIT is the University of Indianapolis MayoralCollection.  How did you approach that task?  And what in that collection is of interest to the everyday individual?
It’s one of the [projects] we’re really excited about right now…. It’s a really powerful example of what we do.  They have a collection of about 2.5 million items.  In a collection that…is a municipal collection, do we have information here that the broader public really wants?  When we performed our assessment, we said, “Absolutely, there is so much here.”  The information, the materials that are in this archive tell many, many stories, one of which is the deliberate, political effort to build Indianapolis into a sports capital. 
We digitized a lot of the materials related to the efforts to create a sports capital.   If those materials were catalogued only in a library or archival environment, they might be indexed under “professional sports development.”  That does nothing to get to the fifth grader who Googles “Colts history.”  All they [would] get is Wikipedia and not archival primary sources.
What’s up next for HistoryIT?  Do you have any Chicago collections in the works?
We’re focusing a lot on implementing a national sales plan; we’re really looking at national growth.  That said, Chicago is absolutely rich with cultural institutions and so we’re doing a pretty broad outreach among organizations of all sizes in Chicago.  We’ve worked for many years on the north shore [including with Francis Willard House and the Evanston History Center, among others].   We’re continuing this deep networking into Chicago institutions, but it’s one leg of many at the moment.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.