Miller Center

Why should we prioritize Digital Development?


My name is Amber Lautigar Reichert and I work with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

For the past several years we’ve been working with partner organizations to test and build a website aggregating information about digital collections. is our site and, while our subject matter is limited to the American presidency, the content of this video is relevant to any organization who is considering putting more content online.

We’ve spent a lot of time in the course of this project talking to organizations of various sizes about their barriers when it comes to digital development. And a recurring question we’ve encountered is, basically, “Why should I care?”

I wanted to use this video to outline not only a few reasons to prioritize digital development, but also to identify a few ways that digital development benefits you.

Why bother with good web presence?
Increasingly, your website is your most discoverable face to the rest of the world. If your site is hard to use or doesn’t do justice to your holdings, your users can walk away with a disproportionally negative view of your organization. 

The most important thing to know when it comes to web development is to focus on user experience-centered design. What does that mean? Well, when you’re developing a site, you probably have a bunch of interested parties… like your boss, your colleagues, your funders, and even yourself!

One of the most challenging parts of communicating online is balancing the needs of those stakeholders because, in the end, only one group matters to the popularity and success of your site: your web users. How can we be sure they walk away with a positive view of your site and your organization as a whole?

What should I put online?
So we want to encourage prioritizing good web development. But we also want to go one step further and encourage something a little radical: projects like Connecting Presidential Collections, alongside the Digital Public Library of America and countless others want you to put your “stuff” online in addition to just information about your organization. This comes up for us since, in order to include a partner in our aggregator, their collection needs to be online. But that’s not the only reason to post collections online. Making your collections available online facilitates collaboration, increases visibility, and widens your organizational footprint in a way that’s truer to your holdings than any descriptive page ever could.

We encounter a lot of understandable hesitation about this—people say, “Won’t that make me obsolete?” or “Why would anyone visit if we put all of our content online?” The bottom line is that you always have human assets beyond the raw data… whether it’s experts, volunteers, or other proprietary content that’s only available in-person.

So we want to encourage you to put your collection online because it benefits the community: making your assets available broad and wide for the purposes of discovery or education… but it also benefits YOU.

How does open data benefit me and my organization?

Let’s say you have a collection of papers from a local business person. If I’m researching constituent letters sent from the White House to individuals, and you haven’t posted metadata about your collection online, how will I know to consult you? I probably wouldn’t even know your collection existed, much less that it was relevant to my interests.

There’s so much competition for attention online. Small organizations often need every “leg up” they can get to capture the attention of their target audiences. Making your content clear and discoverable is one of the best things you can do. It saves time for you, it lets other people collaborate and discover your material, and it brings them directly to your door when they want more information about your subject area.

This doesn’t mean that you have to put everything online—we recommend starting small and seeing what happens. Don’t worry about perfection… just start where you are!

Making descriptive information about your collections available online can be a stellar public relations move. It shows you have confidence in your content and a dedication to making it available to the public. In the internet age, people are hungry for trustworthy sources. Building a site that’s pleasant to interact with and clear about its holdings is the quickest way to establish yourself as a trustworthy authority.

Most importantly? Start where you are! Try a few small changes, or posting a small collection. If the world doesn’t end… try another one! You might surprise yourself with the good things that result.