Archivists at Wilson Library’s Southern Historical Collection like to say that you can’t study the South without making a trip to Chapel Hill. It’s a point of archival pride. But if those same archivists have their way, UNC’s archives may one day be available online to anyone, anywhere.
In 2009, the Southern Historical Collection (SHC) took the first steps toward an audacious idea: putting every one of its 26 million items online as part of a “Digital Southern Historical Collection.”
Seven years later, the staff had made such steady progress that a major milestone snuck up on them. In late 2016, librarians realized that more than one million scans are now online and ready for use by researchers and students anywhere.
“It’s the most immense digital project that we’ve ever done,” says archivist Matt Turi about the project to scan and share one-of-a-kind letters, diaries, photographs, business records, and more.
In addition to materials from the SHC, the grand total includes items from Wilson Library’s North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, the Southern Folklife Collection, and the University Archives.
“What’s there is the raw stuff, just as you’d see it in the reading room,” says archivist Laura Hart.
Scholars and students have found many ways to use the digital collections. For example, Courtney Rivard, an instructor in UNC’s department of English and comparative literature, asks her first-year students to analyze personal narratives of Americans from the Great Depression using scanned items from the Federal Writers’ Project Papers.
“Students absolutely love the project because there is such richness in the collections,” says Rivard. They like to look through the entire digital collection and “choose a life history that they connect with,” she says.
Hart was part of the project’s early phases and says that the inspiration was a question from a representative of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: What would truly transform the library and the work of the people who use it? University Librarian Sarah Michalak and Director of Wilson Library Rich Szary—both now retired—immediately hit upon the mass digitization project.
Up to that point, the Library’s digital efforts had consisted of highly curated projects, such as Documenting the American South, which made history when it launched in 1994. Those projects assembled limited selections of items and surrounded them with scholarly essays and interpretive research.
With the Digital SHC, archivists at UNC committed themselves to a new model—a true online research collection with the scope and heft for meaningful discoveries. Turi and Hart are not aware of other libraries that have made the same commitment to such large-scale scanning of archival documents.
A 2007 grant from the Mellon Foundation, “Extending the Reach of Southern Sources: Proceeding to Large-Scale Digitization of Manuscript Collections,” let the SHC hear directly from researchers via surveys, focus groups, and a major two-day workshop.
“They told us, ‘We want it all. Don’t pre-select things for us,’” recalls Hart. As a result, she says, the SHC decided from the beginning only to scan entire folders. “We want someone to feel as certain as they can be that what they see online is exactly what they’d see if they came here and looked in the folder,” she says.
Over time, decisions about what to scan have settled into two main streams. Archivists choose about 30 percent of the materials for curatorial or instructional needs; the remainder comes directly from patron requests, primarily scholars working at a distance.
For those far from Chapel Hill, the deal is a good one that can help advance their work, says Turi. “Flying here just to look at three folders is hard to justify, but many researchers gladly pay a small fee to have them digitized.” The fees cover a portion of the cost of equipment and staff time.
Digitization offers additional benefits when it comes to materials such as photographic negatives. Traditional photographic research can be complicated, says North Carolina Collection photographic archivist Stephen Fletcher. “Users had to come to the library, examine negatives on a light box, interpret content from reversed images, and use a hand-held loupe to magnify details.” With digitized negatives, the viewer can see an enlarged positive image right away. Digitization also eliminates damage from accidental scratches or fingerprints.
Users seeking digitized content from Wilson Library uncover it in a variety of ways. The staff integrates scanned items into the online finding aids that summarize and describe each collection. UNC also adds finding aids to the online catalog. (“If you are searching the catalog, you are also searching the finding aids,” says Turi.) Finally, the Library exposes the scans to the web via Google. In fact, the vast majority of users find digitized items via a web search.
For Turi, Hart, and the staff of Wilson Library, this is business as usual, and the way it should be. One of the biggest successes of the project, they say, is how well integrated the workflow is with the other work they do—from cataloging and describing materials behind the scenes, to assisting students and researchers.
“That was the idea from the beginning,” says Hart. “We do what we’ve always done: Process the material, arrange and describe it, and get it out there for people to use.”
Story by Judy Panitch. Photograph by Aleah Howell.