W.E.B. DuBois library’s archives go digital

By Cameron Ford

Many of the University of Massachusetts students’ frequenting the W.E.B. Du Bois Library are unaware of one of the library’s special collections.

The Department of Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) is this hidden gem, residing on the library’s twenty-fifth floor.

Despite holding “approximately 35,000 rare books, nationally significant manuscript collections, historic maps and the official records of the University of Massachusetts Amherst,” according to the library’s website, research within this department is often difficult, owing to the fact that until now, research and data-gathering processes have been conducted only by hand.

That may be changing soon, however, thanks to a set of nine digitization principles recently endorsed by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in Washington, D.C.

To make research easier, colleges and universities have been turning to digitizing their special collections and archives, converting them to electronic databases where information can be sorted and retrieved by using a search engine.

However, the digitization process comes with added responsibilities for both the university and its vendor, which is usually a private company hired to assist in the process, as special precautions must be taken to minimize the risk of damage to pieces in the archives. The nine ARL adopted principles help to improve relations between vendors and universities throughout the digitization process.

According to Karla Strieb, the ARL’s Assistant Executive Director, the digitization of any university’s special collections gives schools a huge advantage in terms of ready access to reserves of information.

“Basically, the idea is to make [this information] more easily discoverable,” Strieb said. “Simply to find out they exist is much easier when they’re in digital form because … they can be accessed in a wider variety of ways than going and visiting the special collections room and having the curator bring you the information while you look at it supervised.”

“The number of ways you can use things for teaching and learning is quite different when they’re in digital form,” she continued. “You can make them more widely available to people at the campus, people beyond the campus, and people around the world.”

The ARL describes itself on its website as “a nonprofit organization of 125 research libraries at comprehensive, research-extensive institutions in the U.S. and Canada that share similar research missions, aspirations, and achievements.”

The library is a member, finding itself in company with many other top-notch university libraries, such as those at Cornell, Harvard, Princeton and Yale.

The library is currently in the process of digitizing its special collection and archives, according to SCUA head Robert Cox.

“The project we’ve got going right now to digitize the archives of the W.E.B. Du Bois is about a four-year project from start to finish,” Cox said. “We think we’re going to get the entire collection done within those four years.”

The benefits of a digitized 35,000-piece archive go without saying. Students will be able to digitally search for specific data, rather than sorting through cartons of rare, fragile artifacts when the work is complete.

For the time being, Cox explained, UMass has chosen not to work with outside vendors, instead relying on “three full-time staff members.”

“Our work has been to [digitize] in-house so that we can be more flexible, and so that we can also do it more inexpensively,” he added.

However, Cox did not rule out the possibility of utilizing vendors in the future.

“It is probably the case that for selected projects at selected times we might wish to go ahead and use outside vendors,” he said. “If we did so, we would want to make sure that vendors are producing … them to the best possible standards.”

This expectation could certainly be helped by the ARL’s endorsement. The nine principles all deal with prevalent issues in digitalization projects, including security of artifacts, archive-donor rights, user confidentiality and limits on access restrictions.

Cameron Ford can be reached at [email protected]