Collecting Pennsylvania

How is digital scholarship charting new prospects for our view of early America? Cathleen Lu, Digital Conversion & Bibliographic Specialist and Dana Dorman, Digital Projects Manager, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, kindly described how HSP produces and presents new digital content that’s open for research (along with the library) while renovations continue at 1300 Locust Street throughout early autumn 2013.

JUNTO: Can you describe how you select collections for digital exhibits, and your workflow in creating these resources and the accompanying metadata?

 HSP’s digital library currently has over 70,000 images of graphics, manuscripts, and other materials from our collections. Selection of items and collections is usually based on a combination of preservation, reproduction, and research needs. The workflow for getting a typical item online is pretty straightforward. Once we’ve pulled an item and determined that it’s suitable for digitization (in terms of condition of material and copyright), we create a digital record for the object and populate it with metadata and description. Digitization and upload are usually the last steps.

On occasion, HSP also creates digital history exhibits that provide additional interpretive content. These projects are selected in line with larger institutional priorities, and completed as funding and staffing allow.

JUNTO: What are some of the challenges and opportunities of doing digital projects at historical societies? Is there a digital tool that you’d like to use, but it doesn’t exist yet?

Thanks to HSP’s unparalleled collection, we have the opportunity to work with materials that encompass more than 350 years of American history, from William Penn to its most recent immigrants. Our work helps to support and extend HSP’s mission to preserve and provide access to some 21 million manuscript items; 600,000 books, pamphlets, and serials; and 300,000 graphics items. If only we had the time and resources to complete all the digital projects we could dream up! As for a new digital tool, we’d love for someone to develop a reliable tool for conducting OCR on handwritten text.

JUNTO: Can you preview the William Still/Underground Railroad project? How did it come about, and how can researchers engage with it?

We’re excited to be working on a new digital history project that will weave new connections between the manuscript journal and published book of William Still, known as the “Father of the Underground Railroad.” This effort will provide extraordinary insight into the experiences of enslaved individuals and families who passed through Philadelphia between 1852 and 1857 and the covert networks that aided their escape.

As chairman of Philadelphia’s Vigilance Committee, Still recorded the personal accounts of fugitives who arrived in Philadelphia, an essential hub of antislavery activity. The details recorded in Still’s “Journal C”— held in trust by HSP on behalf of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society—provide rich content for discussion about slavery and escape. Twenty years after he began work for the Vigilance Committee, William Still published The Underground Rail Road (1872), the most extensive contemporary compendium of the Underground Railroad’s workings in this region.

HSP posted a transcription of Still’s “Journal C” online several years ago, and his published book is available through the Internet Archive and other digital sources. But our project will link these texts for the first time using XML text encoding. We will also provide digital facsimiles of the documents, research and write brief biographies of some of the people featured in Still’s works, and create additional annotation and contextual resources to support educators who plan to use these resources in the classroom. We’ll also be testing out how to incorporate mapping tools to further explore the movement and network connections of the people profiled in Still’s texts. The initial prototype for this long-term project will launch in January 2014, and researchers can follow our progress here.

JUNTO: How are digital resources changing historical scholarship?

For one thing, we are able to provide access to HSP’s historical materials on a much broader scale. Scholars across the U.S., not to mention in Europe, Africa and Asia, can now browse items from our collections without leaving their home institutions, allowing them to be more efficient in determining where further research is warranted. In terms of our digital exhibits, we hope that scholars will use these digital tools to ask new historical questions of the materials we’re posting online, to dig deeper into topics that they have previously explored, and to see new connections between people, events, and topics.

JUNTO: What’s next for digital projects at the HSP?

Later this year, we’ll be launching the Preserving American Freedom digital history project, which explores the complicated history of American freedom through 50 documents in the collections of HSP. We also have a few other projects in the works, so stay tuned!

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