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Antebellum UNC Students Speak and Write to You: A New DocSouth Collection Goes Live!

Documenting the American South is pleased to announce the launch (on September 14) of its newest digital collection, "True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina," which includes 121 documents written primarily by students attending the University of North Carolina between 1795 and 1868. These materials have been transcribed, edited, and annotated by Professor Erika Lindemann, a faculty member in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Department of English. The collection is based on fifteen years of research and Prof. Lindemann's 563-page monograph, which presents and contextualizes the voices of Carolina's first generations of students. The site also includes a bibliography for the project and fifteen essays that provide editorial, historical, and contextual information about the lives and writings of antebellum University of North Carolina students. Prof. Lindemann donated her work to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

The collection includes letters, speeches, compositions, diary excerpts, contemporary articles, and other materials selected from the Southern Historical Collection, the North Carolina Collection, and the University Archives. The documents are arranged chronologically in chapters, with each chapter covering roughly a decade of the University's early history. Most of the documents in the collection are writings by students attending the University from 1795, when the institution opened its doors, to 1868, when the effects of the Civil War halted instruction for more than eight months. The topics of these writings vary widely, from academic to social issues, as does the tone of the pieces, which is at times mischievous—such as when a student writes about a thwarted journey to a local brothel—and at times melancholy, as in the case of a dying student's last letter home to his parents.

Students frank observations to friends and family contrast with formal speeches and essays on assigned topics, coming together to offer a full picture of the early university. One early student, John Pettigrew, writes to his father, "The Students in general have nothing very criminal in their conduct excep a vile, & detestable practice of cursing, & swearing, which has become very fashionable here, there can be hardly a sentence spoken without some of those highflown word which sailors commonly use to divert each other."

All offer a compelling glimpse into antebellum life and early liberal arts education in the United States. Each document is carefully transcribed, thoroughly annotated, and presented together with digital images of the original manuscript, so the documents appear as they would have to students and teachers over 135 to 200 years ago.

To present this new collection effectively, DocSouth made many significant technical advances. "True and Candid Compositions" is the first DocSouth project to use an innovative, successful approach to the automation of data processing by combining various advanced technologies, including Java JAXP, JDBC and XSLT. The main DocSouth MySQL database was significantly modified to store rich metadata for primary source documents, scholarly essays, published materials, and manuscript page images.

DocSouth also wrote and tested several new programs that worked their magic to generate several types of indexes. Users may browse and search all proper names referenced in the 121 transcribed primary documents. The names are divided by type: personal names (1,305 unique names), place (332), publication (253), organization (127), and event (43). Using the "publications" option, for example, users can trace references to the Bible throughout the collection: twenty-six different documents include a reference to the Bible. Other noteworthy publications include Homer's Iliad (3 documents) and The North Carolina University Magazine (8 documents). Users can also find documents describing Christmas in North Carolina or discussing the Battles of Gettysburg and of Saratoga by browsing the "events" index. Browsing the "places" index will locate documents that refer to Africa, England, or Chatham County, NC.

Because the authors of many of these documents refer to places, events, and people in ways that are unfamiliar to modern readers, DocSouth provides several options for users to gain additional information about these references. Readers can mouse over words in blue to see an expanded or more complete name. Green "new window" icons invite users to click the name for biographical information about the person. Written by Prof. Lindemann, these 465 biographical notes vary in length from a few words to several paragraphs and help bring prominent and less prominent antebellum students, instructors, and citizens to life. In addition, 70 biographical notes are supported by complete entries from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, published by special permission from UNC Press. The transcribed documents are further elaborated by 912 contextual and informational endnotes written by Prof. Lindemann.

This new collection also includes a number of important enhancements. "Print-friendly" versions are available for both the transcriptions and the page images. Throughout the collection, a side navigational bar allows users to expand and collapse chapters, select browse options, perform full-text searches, and access the advanced search page.

This newest collection was funded in part by a grant from the North Carolina State Library.

DocSouth staff