Friday, March 18, 2011

Digitization at the New-York Historical Society: Manuscript Collections Related to Slavery

Since my students are profiling digitization programs, I thought I'd do one too.  Most digitization programs introduce use to content that causes us to go "!"  So it is with this collection from the New-York Historical Society.

Founded in 1804, the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) library has a tremendous collection of archival material. 
Collection strengths include local history of New York City and State; colonial history; the Revolutionary War; American military and naval history; religions and religious movements, 18th and 19th century; the Anglo-American slave trade and conditions of slavery in the United States; the Civil War; American biography and genealogy; American art and art patronage; the development of American architecture from the late 18th to the present; and 19th and 20th century portraiture and documentary photographs of New York City.
The collections include 2 million manuscripts, 500,000 photographs, 400,000 prints, 350,000 books and pamphlets, 150,000 architectural drawings, 20,000 broadsides, 15,000 printed maps, 10,000 newspapers and 10,000 dining menus. Among the historic icons are manuscript maps drawn by George Washington’s cartographers in the field, Robert Erskine and Simeon DeWitt (1778-1783); Napoleon’s authorization for the Louisiana Purchase (1803); and Grant’s handwritten terms of surrender to Lee (1865). (Library intro)
One of its collection strengths - in the N-YHS museum and library - is material related to slavery. The N-YHS has had museums exhibits on slavery using material from its collection.  It has also had an exhibit of modern art create in response to slavery.  In 2010, the New-York Historical Society library released a new digital collection, Manuscript Collections Related to Slavery. This online collection offers...
...access to fourteen of the most important collections in the library’s Manuscript Department relating to the institution of slavery in the United States and the Atlantic slave trade. They include account books and ship manifests documenting the financial aspects of the slave trade, legal documents such as birth certificates and deeds of manumission, and political as well as polemical works. They range from writings by the abolitionists Granville Sharp, Lysander Spooner, and Charles Sumner, to the diary of a plantation manager and overseer of slaves in Cuba, Joseph Goodwin, and that of a former slave in Fishkill, N.Y., James F. Brown. Other personal papers include two works by John Clarkson concerning his involvement in the settlement of Sierra Leone by free blacks, and a journal describing the travels of two Quakers in the West Indies, Mahlon Day and John Gurney. The site also provides access to the archives of abolitionist organizations such as the New-York Manumission Society and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, as well as the records of the African Free School, documenting the education of free blacks in early nineteenth-century New York.
Digital Collection Management Software: Delving into the collection, you can tell that N-YHS is using CoNTENTdm.  Not quite as obvious - unless you look at the title bar in your browser - is that N-YHS is part of Digital Metro New York, though the METRO New York Library Council.  Hence, even though this is a standalone program, N-YHS cooperated with METRO when it came to digital asset management.

N-YHS, like many other CONTENTdm users, has added functionality and pages "outside" of CONTENTdm.  The one feature that catches my eye is the way you can view a collection's description by clicking on a photo.  It is "below the fold" on the collection's homepage, so you need to scroll down to use it.

Copyright: The N-YHS digitized materials that are believed to have no known copyright restrictions.  I suspect that they have been careful to not digitize materials that might have privacy concerns.  What occurred during and after slavery was legal in the U.S. is not always a story that people want told and I can imagine that there are situations that are might be deemed private.

Terms of Use: The Historical Society has a Conditions of Use Statement for the entire collection.  In addition, each individual metadata record contains a rights management statement.  You do have to view the page description for the item that you are viewing in order to see the individual rights statement, which is not the default view.

The Look: As you go through the N-YHS web site, you will notes that there is not one consistent look (design) across the site.  In addition, N-YHS is using several pieces of software for its digital assets.  Hopefully, the organization will be able to standardize its look in the future, so that the brand has a consistent image.  Placing the digital collections, if possible, in the same digital asset management software will also give them the same look and feel, the same functionality, etc.  Users would then be able to search easily across collections.

The Collection is Always Open: The New-York Historical Society has been renovating its building. At the moment, the galleries are closed (February 1 - November 10, 2011), however the library is remaining open during most of the renovation. In addition, those that do not want to travel to New York City's Upper West Side can access this collection and other online.   In addition, 60,000 of its museum objects are in an online emuseum. But that brings me to...

Discover Happens Elsewhere: If you search for for "new york" slavery in your favorite search engine, other sites and collections will appear in the first 10 hits, but likely not this manuscript collection. Therefore, another area I would suggest N-YHS improve in is discovery.  Look at what sites, etc., a found first in a search, then contact those sites and ask them to link to the manuscript collection.  Even if a few of those sites add links, a searcher's ability to find the Manuscript Collections Related to Slavery increases.

Finally, this is a collection that deserves to be explored.  I hope you'll take a moment and take a look.

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