UNC's Digital Heritage Center knits state's history together

CorrespondentNovember 24, 2013 

  • How to access the archives

    To access the collections that have been digitized by the Digital Heritage Center visit http://digitalnc.org/. The center does not have regular visiting hours, but does accept visitors by appointment. To make an appointment call 919-962-4836 or digitalnc@unc.edu.

— In the information age, libraries can seem like antiquated relics; quaint places where three-dimensional books gather dust. But librarians across the state are working hard to digitize their collections, and now treasures that have long sat in archive rooms are available for public viewing.

“We have 125,000 items currently digitized,” said Nicholas Graham, the program director at the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center, the statewide digital library that enables cultural heritage institutions across the state to share their collections online. “When we’re done there will be over half a million documents.”

Last month the Digital Heritage Center, housed in the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library and supported by the State Library of North Carolina, was named the state’s hub for the Digital Public Library of America.

“As the state hub for the DPLA, we gather digitized materials from other libraries, archives and museums to share with the national digital library,” said Graham.

The brainchild of the nation’s top librarians and researchers, the DPLA became available online last spring. Housed on the site dp.la are more than five million pictures, sound clips, government records, fliers and other documents from across the country. Universities, national museums and county libraries are all adding their archived materials.

“This is unique material,” said Sarah Bost, a second-year library science graduate student at the School of Information and Library Science at UNC-CH. Bost, originally from Davidson, works as a graduate assistant digitizing documents at the Digital Heritage Center. “These [documents] are not just the latest bestseller, which is what a lot of people come to the library for. A lot of times, people don’t even know these materials exist.”

Each collection unique

By digitizing, using scanners and cameras to put images online, librarians across the state are finding new audiences for some of the more surprising items in their collections.

Graham said photographs are often some of the most telling materials digitized for the DPLA. He said a photo of a river baptism in Haywood County is one of his favorite images. Often the documents show how civic society ran in a bygone era; there are scrapbooks from women’s groups, Masons, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs. A Rockingham Community College quilt from 1976 celebrates the bicentennial with patriotic squares.

“We’ve worked with old newspaper clippings, store ledgers, even a framed gold record,” said Graham.”That’s part of the fun – every library has collections that are unique to their community.”

On dp.la, visitors can search by a keyword or phrase. They can also use an interactive map to find archives by state and county, and another interactive timeline allows users to search for documents by year.

“North Carolina offers a lot of diversity,” said Graham. “Not just diverse cultures, but geographic diversity, and a mix of big cities and small towns.”

Jane McAllister is the director of the Davie County public library. Four years ago, she started digitizing the contents of the library’s archives.

“I was the librarian in the local history room, but no one had any access to our wonderful materials,” said McAllister. “Digitization was gaining ground, and I needed to figure out a way to go online.”

Diligent collectors

With a small staff and limited resources, it would have taken the Mocksville librarian months to scan all of her articles. So McAllister worked with Graham to scan her documents. The result was Digital Davie, an 800-item website which is now part of the DPLA.

“I can’t tell you what it means to me that our library is out there with the likes of Duke and ECU, out with major players,” said McAllister. “I can direct people to the site when they are writing articles, books or family histories.”

McAllister said many of her materials come from community members who find interesting documents after a family member dies, or pick something up at an estate sale. She’s been handed pieces of the original slate roof from the Mocksville train station and materials from the Brown Brother’s Tobacco company.

“We make diligent efforts in the community to let people know we are interested [in these items],” said McAllister. “Even if collectors keep the items, we want to get them scanned.”

Graham said that the Digital Heritage Center will ensure that institutions without resources to digitize their archives are able to get their materials in the DPLA.

“Since we already have a statewide focus, we will work with other libraries that have digital collections to harvest items and add more,” said Graham. Newly digitized items will be posted to the DPLA every month.

Documenting a moment in time

Though the collections will be available to anyone with Internet access, librarians said they reserve the right to choose which items from the archive get digitized and preserved.

“The primary mission of our collection is to preserve [this collection] for the people of Durham county,” said Lynn Richardson, the North Carolina Collection librarian for Durham County Public Library. “I’m thinking about my NC Collection users locally first, and I think it follows that what will be of interest locally would be important nationally.”

Richardson said digitizing documents that show the Civil Rights movement, tobacco business and African-American culture are all key to preserving Durham county legacy.

For Bost, who’s learning how to be a librarian, the question of what to save and digitize is at the forefront of coursework.

“As an archivist, you don’t know trends of historical scholarship, or what will be important ten or 20 years from now,” said Bost. “It’s easy to err on side of saving too much. You want to document something that shows life at a particular point in time.”

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