All posts by Meghan Lyon

The ABCs of Digitizing Section A

I’m not sure anyone who currently works in the library has any idea when the phrase “Section A” was first coined as a call number for small manuscript collections. Before the library’s renovation, before we barcoded all our books and boxes — back when the Rubenstein was still RBMSCL, and our reading room carpet was a very bright blue — there was a range of boxes holding single-folder manuscript collections, arranged alphabetically by collection creator. And this range was called Section A.

Box 175 of Section A
Box 175 of Section A

Presumably there used to be a Section B, Section C, and so on — and it could be that the old shelf ranges were tracked this way, I’m not sure — but the only one that has persisted through all our subsequent stacks moves and barcoding projects has been Section A. Today there are about 3900 small collections held in 175 boxes that make up the Section A call number. We continue to add new single-folder collections to this call number, although thanks to the miracle of barcodes in the catalog, we no longer have to shift files to keep things in perfect alphabetical order. The collections themselves have no relationship to one another except that they are all small. Each collection has a distinct provenance, and the range of topics and time periods is enormous — we have everything from the 17th to the 21st century filed in Section A boxes. Small manuscript collections can also contain a variety of formats: correspondence, writings, receipts, diaries or other volumes, accounts, some photographs, drawings, printed ephemera, and so on. The bang-for-your-buck ratio is pretty high in Section A: though small, the collections tend to be well-described, meaning that there are regular reproduction and reference requests. Section A is used so often that in 2016, Rubenstein Research Services staff approached Digital Collections to propose a mass digitization project, re-purposing the existing catalog description into digital collections within our repository. This will allow remote researchers to browse all the collections easily, and also reduce repetitive reproduction requests.

This project has been met with enthusiasm and trepidation from staff since last summer, when we began to develop a cross-departmental plan to appraise, enhance description, and digitize the 3900 small manuscript collections that are housed in Section A. It took us a bit of time, partially due to the migration and other pressing IT priorities, but this month we are celebrating a major milestone: we have finally launched our first 2 Section A collections, meant to serve as a proof of concept, as well as a chance for us to firmly define the project’s goals and scope. Check them out: Abolitionist Speech, approximately 1850, and the A. Brouseau and Co. Records, 1864-1866. (Appropriately, we started by digitizing the collections that began with the letter A.)

A. Brouseau & Co. Records carpet receipts, 1865

Why has it been so complicated? First, the sheer number of collections is daunting; while there are plenty of digital collections with huge item counts already in the repository, they tend to come from a single or a few archival collections. Each newly-digitized Section A collection will be a new collection in the repository, which has significant workflow repercussions for the Digital Collections team. There is no unifying thread for Section A collections, so we are not able to apply metadata in batch like we would normally do for outdoor advertising or women’s diaries. Rubenstein Research Services and Library Conservation Department staff have been going box by box through the collections (there are about 25 collections per box) to identify out-of-scope collections (typically reference material, not primary sources), preservation concerns, and copyright concerns. These are excluded from the digitization process. Technical Services staff are also reviewing and editing the Section A collections’ description. This project has led to our enhancing some of our oldest catalog records — updating titles, adding subject or name access, and upgrading the records to RDA, a relatively new standard. Using scripts and batch processes (details on GitHub), the refreshed MARC records are converted to EAD files for each collection, and the digitized folder is linked through ArchivesSpace, our collection management system. We crosswalk the catalog’s name and subject access data to both the finding aid and the repository’s metadata fields, allowing the collection to be discoverable through the Rubenstein finding aid portal, the Duke Libraries catalog, and the Duke Digital Repository.

It has been really exciting to see the first two collections go live, and there are many more already digitized and just waiting in the wings for us to automate some of our linking and publishing processes. Another future development that we expect will speed up the project is a batch ingest feature for collections entering the repository. With over 3000 collections to ingest, we are eager to streamline our processes and make things as efficient as possible. Stay tuned here for more updates on the Section A project, and keep an eye on Digital Collections if you’d like to explore some of these newly-digitized collections.

Rediscovering the Tuscarora Indians through The Trinity Archive

This is a story about how our own digital collections program led us to rediscover an amazing manuscript collection that has been at Duke since at least 1896. The Trinity Archive, now published as The Archive, is a Duke University student literary and cultural journal, first published in 1887 while the college was still based in Trinity, N.C. It is one of the oldest continuously-published literary magazines in the United States. Early editions of the Trinity Archive, held in the University Archives, were digitized through Duke’s digital collections program and are now available through the Internet Archive.

It turns out that the Duke University Archivist, Valerie Gillispie, enjoys reading digitized issues of the Trinity Archive. While perusing the December 1896 edition, she found an interesting article: “The Removal of the Tuscarora Indians from North Carolina.” Written by Sanders Dent, then manager of the magazine, the article aims to “arrange some facts found in the old papers of General Jeremiah Slade and, thus, preserve an interesting bit of North Carolina history for her future historian. General Slade was one of the Commissioners appointed by the Legislature in 1802 to settle the affairs of the Tuscarora Indians and from his letters we get most of the material for this sketch.” Dent’s article recounts the history of the Tuscarora in North Carolina in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Following the end of the Tuscarora War in 1713, many Tuscarora fled to upstate New York and joined the Iroquois Confederacy as the Sixth Nation. Those that remained in North Carolina were granted land in Bertie County, but by the late eighteenth century they too were being forced to lease their land to the whites and leave the state for New York.

Dent’s article liberally quotes from letters held in the Jeremiah Slade Papers. Between 1803 and 1818, Slade served as an agent for the Tuscarora, managing their land leases in North Carolina and tracking money owed them by their white tenants. The papers include letters, receipts, and legal documents between Slade and the Tuscarora in Niagara, New York, with several documents signed with an X by the chiefs representing their tribe. Dent adds in a footnote that Slade’s “papers are now in the possession of the Trinity College Historical Society.”

A power of attorney sent to Jeremiah Slade in 1817, signed by Tuscarora chiefs and warriors
A power of attorney sent to Jeremiah Slade in 1817, signed by Tuscarora chiefs and warriors

Thanks to Dent’s footnote, Val found that the Jeremiah Slade Papers were now held in the Rubenstein Library (but under his son’s name, as the William Slade Papers). It was an exciting connection to our Rubenstein Library ancestors, the Trinity College Historical Society. Founded by Trinity College students and professors in 1892, TCHS sought to “collect, arrange, and preserve a library of books, pamphlets, maps, charts, manuscripts, papers, paintings, statuary, and other materials illustrative of the history of North Carolina and the South.” It was a history club and a museum and a library all-in-one, and many of the library’s oldest Southern collections were acquired by TCHS before being transferred to Duke’s manuscript department in the early twentieth century. (You can read more about the TCHS here and here.)

Undated letter to Slade from the Tuscarora, asking for transfer of funds and telling him they intended to “prosecute their claims” to the N.C. Legislature

How and when the Slade Papers first came to the Trinity College Historical Society is still a mystery. The TCHS records, held by the University Archives, are incomplete for that period. A clue lies in the Slade Papers, with an 1884 item from J.D.B. Hooper, a professor at the University of North Carolina. Hooper writes that “I have consented to receive from Mr. William B. Slade, a Box of Scraps, culled by him, from newspapers, magazines, &c. with a request that I will endeavor to have them received into some library, public or private, where they may, at some future time, become useful…” He goes on to write, “I think that they may furnish materials for interesting Scrap books, when they shall fall into the hands of a person of leisure and literary taste.” Um, sure. Thanks Professor Hooper! (His papers are held at UNC.) The only other hint I have found as to the initial transfer of the Slade Papers to Duke lies in this undated clipping from the collection:

Undated clipping announcing the transfer of Slade's scrapbooks to the Trinity College Library
Undated clipping announcing the transfer of Slade’s scrapbooks to the Trinity College Library

But I can find no record of Slade scrapbooks in our accession logs or catalog records from the 1890s. I can only assume that with the scrapbooks came the box of papers that Hooper mentions. It all must have arrived sometime before 1896, when Dent wrote the Trinity Archive piece.

Since this all came to light after Val’s browsing of the Trinity Archive, we decided to revisit the Slade Family Papers, update their housing, and enhance the collection’s description to reflect contemporary descriptive standards and scholarship interests. The original catalog record had no mention of the Tuscarora, and there was no finding aid or other web presence for the collection. It was really fun to re-process such an old collection and see its contents firsthand. The Tuscarora documents, while fascinating, are only a small piece of the Slade story. The majority of the collection documents the nineteenth-century operations of the Slade plantations, farms, and fisheries around Williamston, N.C. Plus, each generation of the Slade family had many children, so there are a lot of letters between all the siblings and cousins discussing their activities, family life, education, politics, and entertainment. There are also extensive legal and financial documents, including receipts, account books, land deeds, court cases, and other items. I was amazed at the amount of documentation discussing slaves; items recording student life at different North Carolina colleges in the early nineteenth century; letters detailing life in the Confederacy during the Civil War; and materials about postwar recovery and politics, including the new business arrangements between the Slades and their former slaves, now freedmen.

Slave valuation, 1820, in the Slade Family Papers
Estate inventory including slave valuations, 1820, in the Slade Family Papers

It’s always wonderful to see what sort of research can happen as a result of digitization and online access to our collections. But the re-processing and new finding aid for the Slade Family Papers was special. It is one of those rare projects where it all came full circle: because the Trinity Archive was available online, we rediscovered this collection, and along with it, further evidence of the work of the Trinity College Historical Society. The TCHS acquired the Slade Family Papers, among many other things, over 120 years ago for future historians to study and use. We are active participants in that legacy today.