Hide and seek: Finding “hidden” collections

Startscreen CLIR Hidden Collection Registry

Once upon a time you made good wishes for every new year. You promised yourself to set one or more substantial goals to pursue with all your talents and capacities in order to obtain results that often would led to higher self-esteem and other lofty qualities. Wisdom teaches us real changes come in small steps, not with giant leaps. In this post I will look not just at one project, but at a foundation supporting many projects. The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), based at Washington, D.C., has a fine record of supporting all kinds of projects for libraries, archives and documentation centers. One of their latest projects is the CLIR Hidden Collections Registry. If this truly works, it would perform a most welcome service. What does this registry contain? How can you search in it for particular collections, themes or periods? Does it fulfill its purpose and promise? Knowing about the support of CLIR for projects which are of interest for legal historians prompted me to test the new registry website. Apart from the findings about the registry I intend to report on some incidental catch as well.

A serious quest

You might be slightly surprised by the jolly title “Hide and seek”, but there is here indeed an element of play. The very title Hidden Collections Registry contains a joke: How can you bring together and register what is described as hidden? If you have found a hidden thing, it is discovered once and forever, provided you share your discovery. CLIR aims here at bringing together information about collections that led a more or less hidden life. Thanks to CLIR funding they have become more visible and accessible to the public.

Some members of the public do equate accessibility with online access. I work at Het Utrechts Archief, an archive with more than 1,300 collections, good for some 32 kilometers on our stacks. It will take herculean efforts to digitize everything, even if you succeed in making every year one million scans. We try to put every finding aid online. Sometimes we can only offer a list of the boxes in a collection in anticipation of fuller treatment. Every year some collections will be digitized entirely, but for some important series we can add only ten or twenty digitized years per annum. Funding can be most helpful to tip the balance between only offering digital finding aids and some small digital collections on one side, and on the other side creating large digital collections or dealing with fragile and very special collections not fit for the normal digital road.

CLIR logo

CLIR succeeds indeed in supporting a wide variety of projects. The latest CLIR overview published on January 4, 2018 is no exception. Among unexpected things is for example the very first item, a project of The Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, PA, Archiving Antigua: A Digital Record of Pre- and Post-Emancipation Antigua, 1760-1948. The Moravian Brethren are a protestant missionary organization which has been active first in Europe, but rather quickly in the Americas. At Het Utrechts Archief are some thirty archival collections concerning a number of settlements, branches and even factories of the Moravian Brethren; when searching for “Evangelische Broeders” and “Broedergemeente” you will find them. I checked quickly for more Moravian stuff in the Hidden Collections Registry. The newly funded collection should be added to the three very different projects concerning the Moravian Brethren included in the CLIR registry thus far, a music collection, the first hundred years of the Pennsylvania settlement, and a collection documenting several German spiritual movements.

For each item the CLIR registry gives a concise overview and indications of the period involved and the geographic scope. It is useful, too, to have not only the name of the institution but also the name of a person to contact. To every item in the registry tags are added concerning the formats of materials. You can search for themes and periods, for projects funded by CLIR – a total of 162 – and for projects in a particular year, starting with 2008.

CLIR and legal history

You can imagine how eager I am to look for projects before 2017, because the newest projects have not yet been included. I started searching with the words legal history and this resulted in 37 results, a nice percentage of the nearly one thousand projects funded until now. Let’s look at some results. The colonial library of Jasper Yeates was to be digitized in a 2012 project. The city and state of LancasterHistory in Lancaster, PA are not indicated in the registry entry. A second project from 2008 concerned the political and governmental history of Alabama from 1799 to 1948; no institution is specified. The third project dealt in 2014 with Massachusetts petitions on women’s rights between 1619 and 1925, a project of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. With some surprise I saw among these results a project at UCLA for its palaeontological collections, funded by the CLIR in 2010. It seems the separate appearance of the words legal and history was enough for inclusion, as is the case for the project concerning Midwest organic tools. Adding a real field for tags will help much to solve this problem.

It is truly difficult to choose among the 37 results concerning legal history more examples, because many projects are really interesting, from Illinois Circuit Court records to the well-known project to digitize 30,000 French pamphlets at Chicago’s Newberry Library, and from the legacy of slavery in the Maryland State Archives to the papers of civil rights activist Margaret Bush Wilson (Washington University, St. Louis, MO), entered in the registry for 2011 and 2012, a project for native American petitions in Massachusetts (Yale Indian Papers Project), and the digitization of the M. Watt Espy papers concerning the history of the death penalty in the United States since 1608 (SUNY, Albany). Legal history is clearly not out of view within the CLIR collections program.

Faithful readers of my posts are used to the proliferation of links in my posts which usually lead you directly to a particular website or project. If you find something interesting and want to leave my blog, you should indeed use these links immediately. It is the very purpose of the links to bring you to particular addresses! However, it is embarrassing to give you in the first half of this post only links to the CLIR registry, and not as usual links to the websites with these projects. The CLIR Hidden Collections Registry does not contain links to the websites of institutions with a particular project nor the links to the results of projects. Not mentioning links, not even only for the CLIR funded projects, is not what you expect in any registry or list of funded digitization projects. In its current state the registry lives not up to reasonable expectations. It is a shame in particular, because the organization proposing this tool without links is the very Council on Library and Information Resources, an organization which aims at helping institutions to communicate better. In its current state the CLIR Hidden Collections Registry succeeds to a certain extent in hiding collections.

Finding the missing links

As for now teachers should not hesitate to test the digital abilities of their students and pupils, and ask them to find the URL’s of complete projects! In some cases you will not find the results at the website, subdomains or portal of an institution. I will not completely spoil this game, but a few examples might be instructive. The Newberry Library in Chicago has uploaded 30,000 digitized French pamphlets to the Internet Archive. At least one resource mentioned here does reach into the twenty-first century, and gains in value from the long period covered. In fact the very project that made me want to use the CLIR Registry is the project concerning the death penalty in the United States, a resource not only of interest for historians. The M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives at SUNY, Albany, is home to the National Death Penalty Archive, with as its jewel the M. Watt Espy Papers. You can find the results until now at the Espy Project page. As for now, data are being processed in a GitHub project. You can find some examples of notes in these papers on a news page of the libraries of the State University of New York at Albany. The links section for this project in the CLIR registry will have to be substantial. The Yale Indian Papers Project (YIPP) has only an announcement about the funding by CLIR, but you can already find some digitized petitions, maybe from other institutions not touched by the grant, or on the other hand the first results. I am aware that in a number of cases there is not yet a URL for a project. In such cases you will need even more the web address of the relevant institution.

The Hidden Collections program of CLIR aims at the realisation of the potential of collections, by helping with funds for either the preservation and cataloging of one or more collections, or by giving grants which make digitization and online open access possible. It is only logical to show the successes of this program. Dozens of projects in the CLIR registry are concerned with civil rights, women’s history, slavery and Afro-American history, even if you got to acknowledge that some entries look very much like an all-compassing grant apply. It would be logical to filter results by adding the category Funded, but alas this is not yet possible.

With a little help…

Before turning our back on the major and minor shortcomings of the registry project it is only fait to look at some CLIR projects which deserve applause. In Recordings at Risk CLIR invites institutions to apply for grants in order to safeguard endangered audiovisual recordings. CLIR supports the Digital Library Federation with for example a guide for digitizing special formats. Among CLIR’s own projects I would like to single out the project for a Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME), a project with partners such as Stanford University Libraries and the Qatar National Library. The DLME will be developed to contain not just digitized printed books, but also digitized archival collections, manuscripts and artefacts documenting the cultural heritage of countries in the Middle East. This project will join the ranks of project such as Patrimoines partagés of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, launched a few months ago, Menalib, the Middle East Virtual Library of the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Sachsen-Anhalt, Halle, and – closer to CRIL – the Oman Digital Library of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. In the project of the BnF the Middle East is just one section among eight sections covering various regions and countries. CLIR rightly mentions the Endangered Archives Project led by the British Library, a project which deserved a post here. CLIR provides also fellowship grants.

Everybody writing a grant application knows he or she has to fulfill several demands. The CLIR calls them core values. For the Hidden Collections program openness is one of these values, and I quote approvingly: “The program ensures that digitized content will be made available to the public as easily and completely as possible, given ethical and legal constraints.” It would be a sign of respect to all those scholars, staff members and institutions benefiting from or sponsoring the work of CLIR when the Hidden Collections Registry, too, does operate accordingly. In my view supplying the missing links is a necessary gesture. Some tuning would be welcome, too. When you look at all good things supported by CLIR the present state of this registry is hopefully only a temporary exception.

A postscript

Part of my concern about the CLIR registry stems from the situation around the IMLS Digital Collections and Content: U.S. History Resources from Libraries, Museums and Archives, a portal created at the Grainger Engineering Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After technical changes and a move to a new web address this potentially very rich resource does not function anymore. Ironically it is the version with the penultimate layout saved in the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive which you can still browse, for example in the version of January 2012. You can easily retrieve the URL’s of digital collections at the end of the archived web addresses in the links of the old IMLS portal.

Another example: Some of the firms selling digital collection systems had their own overview. One firm even used its own system for a database in which you could find almost 1,000 projects, the Collection of Collections, but alas this database has been removed, too; you can only browse the latest capture from January 2017 at the Internet Archive.

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