From Investigation to Implementation

Building a Program
for the Large-Scale
Digitization of Manuscripts


About the Research Process at the Southern Historical Collection

For more than seventy-five years scholars have been coming to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to explore the manuscripts in the Southern Historical Collection (SHC). There, in the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library search room, they can access millions of documents on the American South.

The research process involves going online to the finding aids, identifying collections of interest, then requesting the materials for study. A staff member retrieves the box of materials from the stacks and delivers it to the patron waiting in the search room. Typically, the manuscripts are organized in folders inside each box. After studying the materials the user returns them to the staff member for reshelving.

For those who are able to visit the collection, the SHC's vast holdings are an invaluable resource—but not everyone can make the trip to Chapel Hill to conduct research in the manner described above. However, what if the SHC was available to anyone, anywhere the Internet can reach? Large-scale digitization of the collection would dramatically change the research process at the SHC—and would likely alter the shape of future scholarship on the American South.

The Challenges of Large-Scale Digitization

The SHC already has a strong online presence, in large part due to Documenting the American South, an award-winning site that makes selected documents available alongside contextualizing documentation from archivists and scholars. Large-scale digitization will not replace established programs like Documenting the American South or other digital projects currently in development but, rather, will exist simultaneously, providing a new model for digital programs in the University Library. Previous digitization efforts of library materials have been project focused. Large-scale digitization will incorporate entire collections encompassing millions of individual documents. The resulting digitization will be programmatic and sustainable, incorporated into the core mission of the SHC and continuing indefinitely.

This shift toward a large-scale model for digitization raised many critical questions for the SHC staff to consider. Would the patrons who use manuscript sources in the SHC want to use digital versions of those sources? If so, how would they use those sources? Which features would they want and need in an online, digital SHC? How comprehensive should the digitization plan be? Should digitization be undertaken on an item-by-item basis, or should collections be digitized in their entirety? Which collections should be prioritized for digitization? How should the digital versions of collections be formatted, organized, and presented online? How would the SHC staff incorporate digitization into the workflows already established for manuscript collections?

The SHC decided to seek grant monies to explore answers to these questions and to develop a plan for meeting the challenges of large-scale digitization, and subsequently received funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the project.

The purpose of the grant project was two-fold: 1) to build, in cooperation with the scholarly community, a "decision matrix" for selecting and prioritizing the massive holdings of the SHC for large-scale digitization, and 2) to construct a sustainable model for a large-scale digitization program for manuscript collections that would serve as the beginning of a Digital SHC.