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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · September 18, 2019

A symposium on digitizing #VastEarlyAmerica

digital projects 7 min read

by Molly O’Hagan Hardy

Next week, The Omohundro Institute will host a group of scholars working in special collections, academia, and grant funding agencies to discuss the past, present, and future of the digitization of the vast early American record. Specifically, the group will focus on the  Lapidus Initiative Digital Collections Fellowships, an effort the OI launched three years ago that has met with considerable success. Since 2017, the OI has awarded eight fellowships to scholars who have worked collaboratively with archival institutions to make collections available for digital scholarship. Successful applicants have persuaded the fellowship selection committee that the materials proposed for digitization serve not only a vital role both in furthering their own research agenda but also would be relevant to scholars working in similar areas of research and adjacent disciplinary fields.

The OI initially launched the fellowship to meet two needs perceived by its digital projects advisory group. To foster communities of practice in early American scholarship, the OI has recognized the necessity for collaboration between researchers and librarians to make the historical record more accessible as well as to encourage its analysis and interpretation. Through digitized archival materials, scholars have become increasingly aware of what is possible when new methods are applied to old records. With this awareness comes demand for open access collections that have hitherto escaped large-scale digitization projects or are locked behind paywalls.

The OI Digital Collections Fellowships also offer scholars a chance to work with special collections institutions that more often than not desperately want to have their collections digitized and thus shared more widely, but do not have the resources available. Equipped with a cellphone or a camera in the library, scholars can be, in a sense, one-person digitizers, but the images they produce, as well as the accompanying descriptions of the content, seldom meet the standards required to integrate their production into institutions’ existing digital asset management systems or online catalogs. On the other hand, special collections libraries can apply for grants to digitize materials that meet their image quality and metadata standards, but their institutional demands are not always the same as scholarly needs. The OI Digital Collections Fellowship program offers a bridge by fostering collaboration between librarians and academics from the inception of a digitization project, thereby funding the creation of content that is mutually beneficial, as well as content that can be used, because it is open access, by others. A singular need for the materials to be human-readable online has been sufficient raison d’etre for the fellowships thus far, but the OI is now exploring other possibilities to maximize the potential benefits of digitizing this content.

And so, the OI is now convening a symposium to review the structure and impact of the OI’s digital collections fellowships to date, to look at similar programs and their efficacy, and most importantly, to develop a strategic plan to expand and enhance the program.

To reach these objectives, the OI is organizing the symposium with the following aims:

  • To understand obstacles to digitization at different scales from the perspective of academic scholars and public historians working in special collections and of special collections libraries and archives working with these content specialists.
  • To identify priorities for furthering collaboration between scholars and librarians within and across institutions.
  • To identify priorities for increasing outreach to other institutions beyond just the award recipients, including smaller, local history organizations.
  • To define more precisely what expectations the OI has for the uses of the funded digitization, and relatedly, what the needs of users of the content might be.
  • To strategize how best to share the newly created digital content and the scholarship that accompanies it to support maximum engagement with the digitized content produced by the fellowships.

The symposium will consist of four panels, lots of discussion, and a keynote presentation. Former fellowship recipients will comprise two of the panels, as they report on the scholarly and institutional negotiations that went into the creation of the “back end” of the digital projects, and then on the intended as well as the unexpected audiences and impacts of their work. Special collections representatives from public libraries, historical societies, universities, and independent research libraries comprise a third panel, and they will present on the opportunities and obstacles to digitization, aggregation, and access at their respective institutions. Finally, the OI’s Lapidus Initiative Advisory Group (LIAG) will present on like-minded collaborative digitization models. In the midst of these presentations and discussions, Trevor Owens, Head of Digital Content Management at the Library of Congress, will present the keynote lecture “Sustaining Digital Collections: Principles for Enduring and Multimodal Access to Digitized Collections.”

Please stay tuned for the fruits of this labor as the OI expects it to yield more exciting opportunities for all of us working to organize, describe, digitize, aggregate, and access the vast early American record. In the meantime, please consider applying to be a 2020 digital collections fellow.



Thanks very much for your comments here, Ken. The fellowship was in part created to make digital content that is open access. How best to continue this mission will be a key part of the conversation at the symposium, to be sure.
Molly O Hardy  •  September 19, 2019
I assume that you now understand that many research topics require access to virtually all databases. Thus, in abook about ten years ago, one prominent early Americanist said explicity that if he had not been employed at a rich university, he could never have done the research required. Another specialist in Native American studies, this one in the 19th century, worked for years by hook and crook to get access toe ery digitalized provincial newspaper in the US circa 1870-2050. He was essentially doing a biography of a much- neglectedsouthern Sioux chief by searching for articles by and obituaries of the dozens of white officialy and ranchers who had known this chief briefly but well during their trajectories over the North American continent. He found an astonishing amount in "obscure" digital collections, and this chief became the focus of a magnificent article on an horrible and dramatic encounter between the southern Sioux and Pawnees who thought the US authorities would intervene to save them. This scholar was at a poor university, but he worked ferociously and for years, pulling every string and plea he could, to tell an otherwise impossible-to-discover story. Other, especially younger scholars would never have been able to assemble this context or probably these events. Unless all digitalizations of historical records are available to all scholars, preferably at their home universities or at least in their regions , wealth will begin to tell.Even years ago, I worried that established scholars at rich universities were too optimistic when they called the digitalization of early American imprints "democratizing." But I assume that you are well ahead of my retired bones on such questions, and so simply wish you luck with the conference.
ken lockridge  •  September 18, 2019

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