Hello, I’m Allison, one of the new digitization specialists in the Digital Collections family. When I’m not studying for exams and assignments in my undergraduate degree in Computer Science, I’m digitizing letters and documents from the American Revolution or scanning film from newspapers in the 1950s. While meticulously charting metadata can sometimes be monotonous, the work is intriguing. In digitizing the material we have, I get to experience a more casual glimpse into American history, as I review letters about plantations, accounts of purchased goods, and even notes from meetings of the Continental Congress. Currently, I’ve been scanning and creating metadata for newspapers that my grandparents might have read in the morning before heading to work.
What I do here is not only fascinating; it’s distinctly different from what I do in my classes at the university. Computational science can be extremely engaging and exciting, but the work I do now is dry and technical, with little room for creativity and perspective. Additionally, many of the career paths for these kinds of majors are concerned with how to create more profit for already giant companies. Before working here, there seemed to be little application for involving art, literature, or history.
Working at Digital Collections has truly been a magical experience for me. In my classes at the university, programming is logic and linear algebra and string operations on arbitrary homework assignments. Here, in the basement of the library, among gorgeous aged rare books, I see incredibly intelligent and skilled individuals writing and running scripts, coding databases, interpreting and analyzing metadata, and preserving rare historic material. It is astounding and encouraging to be a part of a department that marries programming with history.
I am also delighted to see so many women around me engaged in programming, troubleshooting, and web development. It’s wonderful working with such talented and skilled women, especially coming from a male dominated field. In my short time in this office, I have come realize that a background in computing and programing can offer a sort of modernization to the humanities, and that we can work together to keep art and history and cultural relevant in an increasingly digital age. Although for now, I do simple data input, I’m excited to learn more about web development and big data analysis and apply it here or in adjacent areas as the field of digital humanities expands.
I landed in digital collections by pure serendipity. I entered the Public History program with a focus on historic preservation at the University of South Carolina. Receiving no funding from my department, I applied for a position in Digital Collections helping to digitize The Gamecock from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. Discovering my love for Library Science too late, I continue to work in Digital Collections hoping to build upon my interest in how digital collections can be used for historical preservation. Over the last few months, I have worked on five different projects including digitizing a portion of the John Caldwell Calhoun papers.
In planning for the Teacher Workshops for Social Studies teachers, library organizers selected the John Caldwell Calhoun papers for use in the workshop. A controversial figure of history today, Calhoun was an active proponent of slavery and states’ rights during his political career. A native of South Carolina, Calhoun served in the United States House of Representatives, became the Secretary of War and became the Vice President of United States. Thus, it was easy to see why items from this collection were ideal for a workshop focused on helping social studies teachers utilize digital collections in their classroom.
This collection consists mainly of business and personal correspondence of John C. Calhoun from the South Caroliniana Library, little of which was digitized. For the workshop, a few letters were selected to be digitized. In selecting this letters, however, it was discovered that these letters were silked, in attempt to preserve the letters. Silking was a conservation technique used in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth centuries. In basic terms, this process consisted of adhering a thin piece of transparent silk to a document. The reasoning behind this process was to slow down the deterioration process of the paper (Barrow, 1942; McCarthy, 2016).
In digitizing the Calhoun papers for the Teacher’s Workshop, my initial thoughts were on time management for the project, in order to ensure that everything was accessible and usable for the workshop. Thus, my focus was on the project flow of this endeavor, scanning all the items and ensuring clear images, that any questions about the metadata edited, and everything loaded on the library depository, well before the deadline. Although it was interesting to see and work with letters that went through this early method of preservation, the fact that items in this collection were silked was not a part of my initial focus.
I started by scanning letters from the Calhoun collection on the Zeutschel, a large flat base scanner in the Digital Collections office. In looking at the first images of the scanned letters, I noted problems in seeing the handwriting in the images. Since the letters were going to be used in a workshop, and the fact that handwriting from the nineteenth century materials are in themselves hard to read, the clearest images were needed. Thus, I sought advice on getting more clear images. The library consulted a conservator to see what could be done about the silked documents while in the office, basic research was conducted into experiences from other libraries and archives in using silked materials.
One unexpected outcome of silked archival items it that the items become harder to read over time. The aluminum in the paste affected the acidity of the paper, resulting in ink dissolving and discoloration of the paper overall. It is possible that this what led to the discoloration in the documents. Further research also revealed that this process often used arsenic. While there was no evidence that these materials contained arsenic, I took precautions and wore gloves when handling the Calhoun papers (Information Resource Management Association, 2019; McCarthy, 2016).
While the problem with clarity of some of the images remained, I continued to scan the letters and began to create metadata in hopes some of the images could still be used in the Teachers Workshop. The last step was to add the images and metadata in to the library’s digital depository known as CONTENTdm, so the images would be accessible online through the Library’s website. Some of the more legible images were used in the teacher’s workshop. The fully digitized John Caldwell Calhoun collection can be found here: https://digital.library.sc.edu/collections/john-c-calhoun-papers/
Barrow, W. J. Restoration Methods. (1942) The American Archivist. Page 152 Retrieved from http://www.americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.6.3.497248722g4584rr?code=SAME-site.
Information Resource Management Association USA. (2019). Digital Curation: Breakthrough in Research and Practice. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=lcxjDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA200&lpg=PA200&dq=arsenic+in+silking+archival+materials&source=bl&ots=ymV2dnhioj&sig=nzhC0NeX3EpyvjEGAzeaKA2nyAU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiwv5jFv-rdAhWC21MKHcwZDfAQ6AEwCXoECAIQAQ#v=onepage&q=arsenic%20in%20silking%20archival%20materials&f=false.
I began working at Thomas Cooper Library as an undergrad. It wasn’t my intention to become a librarian; I was a history major who thought I would continue on that path and become a professor, even though the idea of teaching in front of a classroom full of students made me a little nauseous. I love history, still hope to get my masters in one day, I just also happen to love working in libraries as well.
I started working in the Government Information and Maps Department. Not sure what that is? Neither was I before I started working there. The Government Information and Maps Department collects and provides access to federal government publications (not classified documents). I enjoyed working there, in large part because my boss, William Sudduth, gave me every opportunity to try new things. I started with re-shelving materials and worked my way up to the reference desk. I found being able to help others with and through the research process to be very rewarding. I enjoy doing research, I would have to with a degree in history and library science, so to be able to help students get started and feel a little more confident about doing their own research was something I could see myself doing professionally.
I continued to work in Government Information and Maps after I started graduate school. It was during my second semester that I began work on a digital collections project for Mr. Sudduth. He asked me to digitize Education Pamphlets for the department. I was little hesitant about working in Digital Collections at first because I was never what you would call particularly tech savvy, however my fears were unfounded. I loved what I was doing, and was thankfully able to continue doing it when Digital Collections hired me on as a part-time employee after I graduated. I like the idea of being able to make materials more accessible to students, and digital collections plays a key role in that process.
The American Revolution in South Carolina Collection, which will be coming soon digitally, features papers from Henry Laurens, William Moultrie, Francis Marion, and Thomas Sumter, all of which were prominent figures from South Carolina during the American Revolution. When I took over the project, the Sumter and Marion papers had already been digitized and published, and the metadata for the Laurens papers had been mostly completed. I began work on finishing the metadata and adding in the transcripts for the Henry Laurens papers, which I am happy to say I completed just recently.
I will talk more about the American Revolution in South Carolina Collection and Henry Laurens in my next post!