My first impression of the assigned digital archives was that they were designed for three different audiences. I’d imagine these archives were chosen for this very reason, and it seems as good a place as any to start looking into the uses of each.
Starting off with Ancestry.ca, the most obvious user for this service is the amateur historian looking to fill out their family’s genealogy. Without any significant curation, or an area of focus, this site is designed to store as much data as it can find, and then offer it to the user in the hopes that it will be useful to them. The ways they find this data is also quite interesting, as it relies off of a combination of user-submitted records and in-house mass digitization of census records, etc… The use of user-submitted records should make any historian wary, as these records can be just about anything. While much of it likely well-sourced and insightful, other users may have submitted that Einstein was the third cousin of Queen Victoria.
The in-house records promise to be much more reliable, and could actually serve as an invaluable starting point for research into the lives of people throughout the last few hundred years. It would be somewhat foolish for professional historians to brush off a company that is investing millions into digitizing as many obscure records as they can find, just because they aren’t an “academic focused” database. It’s probably best to view Ancestry.ca as the genealogical equivalent of Wikipedia. You should double check anything you find there, but it’s a great place to get a general overview of a subject before going deep into your research. While it’s role will be fairly limited in most historical research, this archive is a useful resource to begin with.
I’ll admit, of the three, the Darwin Correspondence project was the one I found least intriguing. This is admittedly due to it’s scope. If you want an in-depth look at the life of one of the most important scientists in all of history, it’s excellent and should be a primary source of knowledge, regardless of whether you’re an academic or an enthusiast. However, that’s essentially all it does. They have curated lessons for various age groups, and extensive records on the subject, but that subject is always Darwin, or one of his close associates. It’s an archive that is incredibly useful in one or two fields, but practically useless beyond that. It’s roots as a small project for Cambridge are apparent.
One potential issue of having many small, specialized archives is a lack of centralization. This requires those who manage the archives to constantly maintain them, when a centralized resource would be more likely to continue and keep everything up to date format-wise (servers keep running, websites weren’t designed 30 years ago, etc…).
I like the format of the Medici Archive Project better, as it strikes a balance between specialization and size. It focuses on one subject, but a much wider one that incorporates many areas of research. The focus seems to be squarely on academics, with conference listings, new books in the area, and new projects from various universities. By serving as a centralized resource for many different academic projects, this archive can contain curated and reliable information on a wide variety of subjects, making it useful to more scholars who study the area. Also, due to the way exhibits on the site are set up, you could potentially have many different “sub-sites” that would function very similarly to the Darwin Correspondence project, but at the same time being much more centralized. However, right now it’s a little hard to judge the full experience, as their archive project still seems to be under development, and is not readily available.
Just as a technical note though, I know it’s a flashy, modern, media-heavy website, but are the constant loading screens really necessary?