Project takes civil rights record digital

CorrespondentNovember 29, 2013 

Triangle universities are entering the final stage of a joint project sharing research and resources about the “long civil rights movement.”

The project, “Content, Context, and Capacity: A Collaborative Large-Scale Digitization Project on the Long Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina,” has been a three-year mass digitization project focusing on the civil rights movement and, in particular, its Tar Heel connections.

The project draws on materials from UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. Central, Duke and N.C. State universities. Together, the institutions are bringing almost 40 manuscript and archival collections, including photographs, documents, oral histories, newspaper clippings, speeches and reports, to the digitized 21st century.

Collections include personal letters and perspectives from university faculty, including presidents. They cover events like sit-ins and protests, such as the Duke’s 1969 Allen Building takeover.

The project moves original content from the confines of reading rooms to an “online reading room” to promote scholarly research and increase public knowledge of the state’s role in the movement.

The first large-scale, intercollegiate digitization process of its kind, about 85 percent of the project’s 400,000 pages of materials is finished, with work expected to be complete by mid-February.

Hosted by the Special Collections Library of UNC-Chapel Hill, the CCC project is funded by the Triangle Research Libraries Network.

Origins and aftermath

A UNC historian, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, coined the term “long civil rights movement.”

It covers not only the mid-20th century – commonly viewed as the years spanning the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – but also the movement’s origins and aftermath. These date back to the New Deal in the 1930s and through the 1980s to today, including the on-going struggle in environmental, social and economic justice.

Lauren Menges is the project librarian and manager responsible for administration. She said the civil rights movement remains relevant today when one weaves in economic justice, voting rights, and the women’s and gay rights movements.

“It’s perfect timing with this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and its parallels to today, like the Moral Monday protests,” she said.

But digitization work is tedious, said Suzanne Huffman, who is responsible for digitization oversight.

Once faculty identify collections, undergraduate and graduate students at each university clean them. Staples and paper clips are removed and any documents damaged, by mold for instance, are sent to the conservation department.

University engineers clean any audio materials.

Some materials can’t be moved in the rain and when moved, have to be carried a controlled climate.

Once scanning and digitization are complete, records are returned to storage.

‘Richer understanding’

Huffman said the project should provide researchers and the average person with a “richer understanding” of the “local” involvement in the long civil rights movement.

“People often think of Selma when thinking civil rights,” said Huffman. “But North Carolina had a role in this period.”

According to researchers involved, the LCRM is arguably at the heart of North Carolina history. It includes the struggles of tobacco and textile labor unions, that of black business owners, churches and civic leaders and also changes in predominantly white universities that eventually integrated.

Historically black colleges and universities played a major role in increasing citizen empowerment and improving social and justice conditions.

NCCU archivist Andre Vann worked on the project and said civil rights is a “hot topic” this year with about 25 people visiting his reading room each month. The digitization provides an opportunity to become familiar with primary documents while keeping originals safe.

The hope is that the project is a model in creating new technological ground.

“It’s like Hansel and Gretel,” Vann said. “It’s providing a trail of breadcrumbs for other institutions wanting to follow.”

Part of the larger story

The publishing of NCCU founder and president James E. Shepard’s papers, which include more than 700 pages of manuscripts, photographs and newspaper clippings, has been the most popular of the project.

Menges uses Google analytics to track how many unique visitors are using the database and says people as far as India, the United Kingdom and Australia have used the database.

The biggest hope is that the information will trickle down and excite middle and high school students about local history.

Menges said many people still remember the events recorded in the collections and that those local events are part of the larger story.

“It’s not just local history but also national history,” she said.

Koonce: ckoonce29@yahoo.com

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