What Gets Digitized?

Giving Local Collections Global Reach

Jill Katte

cover image of Vica défie l’Oncle Sam

Photos of Fidel Castro in his kitchen, World War II-era ration coupons and Nazi propaganda comic books, rare string quartets and song sheets, images of Duke Chapel under construction, portraits from a 1920s African American photography studio, and a video interview of choreographer Merce Cunningham. These diverse materials and other resources from the Duke University Libraries, reborn as digital collections, are now available at Duke and around the world.

The Libraries launched its Digital Collections Program in 2008, consolidating many disparate digitization projects into a formal initiative supported by a cross-functional team of expert staff from across the Libraries. In establishing the Digital Collections Program, the Libraries set several objectives:

  • Create digital collections that are distinctive in terms of their content and/or the means of access they provide to their content;
  • Provide digital access to library and archival materials at Duke, especially materials that reflect strengths in the Libraries’ collections and that are useful for teaching, learning, and research at Duke and elsewhere
image showing annotations made by whitman

The digitized Walt Whitman manuscripts and the portfolio of documentary photographer William Gedney are two of the Libraries’ distinctive collections that are now readily accessible to the campus community and researchers worldwide. The Whitman collection includes manuscript drafts and revisions of his poetry and prose as well as proofs and published versions of his work from his early career in journalism up through the end of his life. The 5,000-item Gedney collection includes selections from the photographer’s finished prints, work prints, contact sheets, notes, notebooks, handmade photographic books, book dummies, and correspondence

  • Transform unique teaching and research materials of broad value held by Duke faculty members, departments, and programs into digital collections that are searchable and accessible over the Web
Photo of Robert L. Eichelberger

The Americans in the Land of Lenin digital collection brings together photographs documenting the daily life in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from the personal papers of Robert L. Eichelberger and Frank Whitson Fetter held at Duke. The collection complements the University of Michigan’s Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections as well as the Russia Beyond Russia Digital Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, providing scholars everywhere with a wealth of primary research sources online.

  • Reformat and preserve text, image, sound, and moving image collections that are not readily accessible in their current format or would be damaged by use in that format

Prior to digitization, videos in the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Video Archive and television commercial films in the AdViews collection were essentially inaccessible because researchers who wanted to see them had to request viewing copies, an expensive and time-consuming process. Transforming the interviews and commercials into highly-accessible digital collections has led to their viewing by hundreds of thousands of visitors, while protecting the original films and videos.

  • Contribute collaboratively to national and international digital collections initiatives that benefit Duke and the larger research community

The Digital Collections Program participates in the Open Content Alliance, a permanent online archive of multilingual digitized text and multimedia material from institutions around the world. Duke has contributed The Chanticleer yearbooks from 1912-1960, as well as Utopian literature, advertising texts, and other materials.

We knew when we began the digitization program that in addition to articulating clear objectives, we also needed to define a rationale, an organizing principle, which would guide us in choosing from among many worthwhile projects the ones that would best support interdisciplinary research, visual studies, and global engagement at Duke. We considered these University priorities and the Libraries’ collecting strengths and arrived at four themes that would drive the development of digital collections: advertising and consumer culture, documentary photography and film, Duke University history, and transcultural experience.

In addition to selecting projects that fit all of the criteria, we are intentionally digitizing diverse formats and media types, including images, texts, film, video and audio. As of September 2009, we offer nearly 40,000 digital objects in a cross-searchable interface, all freely available to researchers on campus and worldwide. The following samples provide a sense of the diversity and richness of the Duke Libraries’ digital collections.


AdViews Logo

AdViews provides access to a wide range of vintage brand advertising from television’s first four decades, the 1950s to the 1980s. When AdViews is completed in December 2009, it will include 12,000 commercials produced by D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles (DMB&B), a New York advertising firm founded in 1929. The DMB&B archives are held at Duke in the Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, a research center in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

Sam Reed and the Trumpet of Conscience

This collection documents the life and work of Durham, NC, activist and community organizer, Sam Reed, and The Trumpet of Conscience, which was both an organization and publication that he founded in Durham. From 1987 to 2000, the Trumpet of Conscience worked to promote social justice and improve race relations. The group’s mission was “To come together, to listen to one another, to strive toward reducing and eliminating the root causes of crime and divisiveness in our midst.”

The Sam Reed and the Trumpet of Conscience digital collection includes newsletters, planning documents, photographs, awards, speeches, and interviews created and collected by Sam Reed. These materials are held in the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, 1917-1932

From 1908 to 1932, Sidney Gamble visited China four times, traveling throughout the country to collect data for social-economic surveys and to photograph urban and rural life, public events, architecture, religious statuary, and the countryside. A sociologist, renowned China scholar, and avid amateur photographer, Gamble used some of the pictures to illustrate his books. The Sidney D. Gamble Photographs digital collection of approximately 5,000 photographs represents the first comprehensive public presentation of this large body of work that also includes images of Korea, Japan, Hawaii, San Francisco, and Russia.

image of house boat from Sidney Gamble collection

Digitization of the collection was performed using the original, highly-flammable nitrate negatives. The Sidney D. Gamble papers are part of the Archive of Documentary Arts in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.

To learn more about all of the Duke Libraries’ digital collections, visit the A to Z list of collections at http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/az-list.html.

Jill Katte

Jill Katte is the Duke Libraries’ Digital Collections Program Coordinator.