There is a particular fondness that I hold for digital photograph collections. If I had to pinpoint when this began, then I would have to say it started while digitizing material on a simple Epson flatbed scanner as an undergraduate student worker in the archives.
Witnessing the physical become digital is a wonder that never gets old.
Every day we are generating digital content. Pet pics. Food pics. Selfies. Gradually building a collection of experiences as we document our lives in images. Sporadic born digital collections stored on devices and in the cloud.
I do not remember the last time I printed a photograph.
My parents have photo albums that I love. Seeing images of them, then us. The tacky adhesive and the crinkle of thin plastic film as it is pulled back to lift out a photo. That perfect square imprint left behind from where the photo rested on the page.
Pretty sure that Polaroid camera is still around somewhere.
Sometimes I want to pull down my photos from the cloud and just print everything. Make my own album. Have something with heft and weight to share and say, “Hey, hold and look at this.” That sensory experience is invaluable.
Yet, I also value the convenience of being able to view hundreds of photos with the touch of a button.
Duke University Libraries offers access to thousands of images through its Digital Collections.
Here’s a couple photo collections to get you started:
Resonance: the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object
Nearly 4 months have passed since I moved to Durham from my hometown Chicago to join Duke’s Digital Collections & Curation Services team. With feelings of reflection and nostalgia, I have been thinking on the stories and memories that journeys create.
I have always believed a library the perfect place to discover another’s story. Libraries and digital collections are dynamic storytelling channels that connect people through narrative and memory. What are libraries if not places dedicated to memories? Memory made incarnate in the turn of page, the capturing of an image.
Memory is sensation.
In my mind memory is ethereal – wispy and nebulous. Like trying to grasp mist or fog only to be left with the shimmer of dew on your hands. Until one focuses on a detail, then the vision sharpens. Such as the soothing warmth of a pet’s fur. A trace of familiar perfume in the air as a stranger walks by. Hearing the lilt of an accent from your hometown. That heavy, sticky feeling on a muggy summer day.
Memories are made of moments.
I do not recall the first time I visited a library. However, one day my parents took me to the library and I checked out 11 books on dinosaurs. As a child I was fascinated by them. Due to watching so much of The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park no doubt. One of the books had beautiful full-length pullout diagrams. I remember this.
Experiences tether individuals together across time and place. Place, like the telling of a story is subjective. It holds a finite precision which is absent in the vagueness and vastness of space. This personal aspect is what captures a person when a tale is well told. A corresponding chord is struck, and the story resounds as listeners see themselves reflected.
When a narrative reaches someone with whom it resonates, its impact can be amplified beyond any expectations.
Last week, it was brought to our attention that Duke Digital Collections recently passed 100,000 individual items found in the Duke Digital Repository! To celebrate, I want to highlight some of the most recent materials digitized and uploaded from our Section A project. In the past, Bitstreams has blogged about what Section A is and what it means, but it’s been a couple of years since that post, and a little refresher couldn’t hurt.
What is Section A?
In 2016, the staff of Rubenstein Research Services proposed a mass digitization project of Section A. This is the umbrella term for 175 boxes of different historic materials that users often request – manuscripts, correspondence, receipts, diaries, drawings, and more. These boxes contain around 3,900 small collections that all had their own workflows. Every box needs consultations from Rubenstein Research Services, review by Library Conservation Department staff, review by Technical Services, metadata updates, and more, all to make sure that the collections could be launched and hosted within the Duke Digital Repository.
In the 2 years since that blog post, so much has happened! The first 2 Section A collections had gone live as a sort of proof-of-concept, and as a way to define what the digitization project would be and what it would look like. We’ve added over 500 more collections from Section A since then. This somehow barely even scratches the surface of the entire project! We’re digitizing the collections in alphabetical order, and even after all the collections that have gone online, we are currently still only on the letter “C”!
Nonetheless, there is already plenty of materials to check out and enjoy. I was a student of history in college, so in this blog post, I want to particularly highlight some of the historic materials from the latter half of the 19th century.
Showing off some of Section A
In 1869, after her work as a nurse in the Civil War, Clara Barton traveled around Europe to Geneva, Switzerland and Corsica, France. Included in the Duke Digital Collections is her diary and calling cards from her time there. These pages detail where she visited and stayed throughout the year. She also wrote about her views on the different European countries, how Americans and Europeans compare, and more. Despite her storied career and her many travels that year, Miss Barton felt that “I have accomplished very little in a year”, and hoped that in 1870, she “may be accounted worthy once more to take my place among the workers of the world, either in my own country or in some other”.
Back in America, around 1900, the Rev. John Malachi Bowden began dictating and documenting his experiences as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, one of many that a nurse like Miss Barton may have treated. Although Bowden says he was not necessarily a secessionist at the beginning of the Civil War, he joined the 2nd Georgia Regiment in August 1861 after Georgia had seceded. During his time in the regiment, he fought in the Battles of Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Spotsylvania Court House, and more. In 1864, Union forced captured and held Bowden as a prisoner at Maryland’s Point Lookout Prison, where he describes in great detail what life was like as a POW before his eventual release. He writes that he was “so indignant at being in a Federal prison” that he refused to cut his hair. His hair eventually grew to be shoulder-length, “somewhat like Buffalo Bill’s.”
Speaking of whom, Duke Digital Collections also has some material from Buffalo Bill (William Frederick Cody), courtesy of the Section A initiative. A showman and entertainer who performed in cowboy shows throughout the latter half of the 19th century, Buffalo Bill was enormously popular wherever he went. In this collection, he writes to a Brother Miner about how he invited seventy-five of his “old Brothers” from Bedford, VA to visit him in Roanoke. There is also a brief itinerary of future shows throughout North Carolina and South Carolina. This includes a stop here in Durham, NC a few weeks after Bill wrote this letter.
Around this time, Walter Clark, associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, began writing his own histories of North Carolina throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Three of Clark’s articles prepared for the University Magazine of the University of North Carolina have been digitized as part of Section A. This includes an article entitled “North Carolina in War”, where he made note of the Generals from North Carolina engaged in every war up to that point. It’s possible that John Malachi Bowden was once on the battlefield alongside some of these generals mentioned in Clark’s writings. This type of synergy in our collection is what makes Section A so exciting to dive into.
As the new Still Image Digitization Specialist at the Duke Digital Production Center, seeing projects like this take off in such a spectacular way is near and dear to my heart. Even just the four collections I’ve highlighted here have been so informative. We still have so many more Section A boxes to digitize and host online. It’s so exciting to think of what we might find and what we’ll digitize for all the world to see. Our work never stops, so remember to stay updated on Duke Digital Collections to see some of these newly digitized collections as they become available.
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.
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.)
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.
Notes from the Duke University Libraries Digital Projects Team