v32#2 Provider, Partner and Pioneer: Research Libraries and the Impact of Digitization

by | May 11, 2020 | 0 comments

by Martin Drewe  (Head of Customer Experience, Quartex, Adam Matthew Digital) 

At a recent symposium hosted by the British Library and convened by Research Library UK’s (RLUK) Digital Scholarship Network, Matt Greenhall, Deputy Executive Director of RLUK, noted that the role of the research library is changing from provider to partner, and from partner to pioneer, as libraries work in collaboration with each other and the communities they serve to increasingly take a proactive role in driving research and engagement through digital scholarship. 

Though the definition of digital scholarship can be contested, Liz Jolly, Chief Librarian at the British Library, stated that the focus of the Digital Scholarship Network is on “research and teaching that’s made possible by digital technologies.”  Two further speakers at the same symposium — Cillian Joy from the National University of Ireland, Galway, and Rikk Mulligan, Digital Scholarship Strategist at Carnegie Mellon University — reported that the most prevalent digital scholarship activity for research libraries is the digitization of analogue materials and the creation of digital collections.  This article explores the drivers behind and the impact of digitization programs at two North American universities using Adam Matthew’s new Quartex platform to display their digital collections.

Central to the mission of one of these institutions, Baylor University, is “partnering with researchers to create innovative solutions that enhance research and teaching.”  In 2004, the library began to digitize their collections and adopted CONTENTdm, the digital collection management software, as a means of making these collections available to students, researchers and the general public.  Darryl Stuhr, Director for Digitization and Digital Preservation Services, oversees all digitization projects undertaken by Baylor’s Digitization and Digital Preservation Services Group.  He remarks that initially the library team responsible for digitization appeared to be working ahead of the curve:  the drive towards digitization came from them;  they were already acting as pioneers.  But, from about 2010 this became a more collaborative process as the special libraries and archives at Baylor began to request collections for digitization. 

In the last few years, the team has seen frequent demands directly from faculty members, including Robert Darden, a professor in Baylor’s Department of Journalism, who had previously spent ten years as Gospel Music Editor at Billboard magazine.  Darden has a deep love of gospel music but was frustrated that many gospel recordings were so hard to find.  In 2005 he wrote an op ed piece along these lines for the New York Times entitled “Gospel’s got the blues,” expressing his concerns that many great recordings in the genre may be gone forever, as masters deteriorated or were lost:  “It would be more than a cultural disaster to forever lose this music.  It would be a sin.”

As a direct result of this article, Darden was contacted by renowned investor Charles Royce, who, according to Darden, told him, “I’ll pay for it, if you figure out how to save it.”  Thanks to Royce’s donation of $350,000 the Royce-Darden Collection was established and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project created.  The aim of this project is to identify, acquire, preserve, record and catalogue the most at-risk music from the black gospel music tradition, along with any ephemera that may be of use to scholars, and to provide standards-based discovery tools for a full catalog of materials, along with tracks from the audio archive, through an online interface.  From April 2020 Baylor will be using Quartex as this online interface, providing direct access to the 4,500+ individual songs in the Royce-Darden collection. 

Thanks to this initiative, many people outside the Baylor campus have become aware of the collection.  Most notably, when the Smithsonian Institution opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in 2016, selections from the project were included in a permanent exhibit.  

The Royce-Darden collection is just one of many held by Baylor University.  The Digital Projects team has immediate plans to offer online access to between 60 and 70 digitized collections, supporting 11 libraries on the Baylor campus.  One of these libraries is the Armstrong Browning Library, home to the world’s largest collection of Browning materials and a growing collection of written content and cultural artifacts that support research on nineteenth-century literature and culture. 

The Armstrong Browning Library is now working with Baylor’s Digitization team to ensure that they can reach more than the 30,000 physical visitors they welcome each year.  One key initiative is the Browning Letters Project, which brings together the letters to and from Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning from diverse sources.  The Brownings are perhaps best known for the love letters they wrote to each other during their surreptitious courtship — 573 letters written over a period of about 600 days — which culminated in their elopement to Italy in 1846.  But they were also literary heavyweights of the nineteenth century and the letters contain details regarding their work and critical responses to it, as well as commentary on social and political issues of the day, including slavery and Chartism.

The Browning Letters Project began in 2012, with a collaboration between Baylor and Wellesley College and the publication of 1,400 letters on Baylor’s CONTENTdm platform.  Since then the project has grown to include letters held by Balliol College Oxford, the Harry Ransom Center, Ohio State University Libraries and Texas A&M University.  Other collaborations are also planned and access to the digital collection will be offered through Quartex from spring 2020.  The ultimate aim of the project is to provide access through a single site to all 11,601 known letters.  But, even should relevant documents be hosted elsewhere, users of Baylor’s new site, created on the Quartex platform, will be able to make use of International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) technology to allow on-screen placement of any letter or other document wherever in the world it’s published, as long as that document’s IIIF manifest exists.

Another technology that Baylor is keen to make use of is Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR), a feature integrated into QuartexBrowning scholars have been working on a transcription program across the Browning letters, resulting in the transcription of about 1.8 million words to date.  For anything not yet transcribed, Baylor can activate reliable and accurate HTR search across these documents, and other manuscript collections they hold, including their Victorian Letters collection.  

The Library has in the past run digital humanities workshops using the Victorian Letters collection, and plans to hold further workshops and digital displays to encourage use of the Browning Letters in digital humanities research.  This work is being led by Baylor’s Digital Scholarship Librarian Joshua Been.  “There is potential for huge growth in engagement over the next couple of years as collections become more visible and usable, which should drive growth in digital humanities,” says Darryl Stuhr.

Shelley Hawrychuk, Chief Librarian at University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) Library, feels that in terms of their support of digital scholarship, UTM was “a little late to the party,” but they have since embraced the potential for engagement it can offer.  She cites a digital scholarship initiative from an academic based in UTM’s English and Drama department, Alexandra Gillespie, as a key driver for this approach.  Gillespie was awarded funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a project on book history, “Digital Tools for Manuscript Study,” which sought to simplify digital manuscript research by making manuscript images themselves much easier to use.  Gillespie worked on the project with the University of Toronto Library, St. George, rather than her own campus, UTM Library, because, as Shelley Hawrychuk freely admits, UTML lacked the capacity, resources and skills to support the project adequately at the time. 

Since then the Digital Humanities Network, co-chaired by Gillespie, has linked initiatives across the University of Toronto.  The network launched in 2016 with the goal of bringing together humanities scholars working within the digital environment from across all three U of T campuses, and now includes more than 200 scholars.  “This network is a real hub for digital humanities research at U of T,” says Elspeth Brown, another network co-chair and Professor of Historical Studies at UTM.  “It helps to connect students, researchers and teachers, and brings them together to share ideas and approaches.  It also helps us to identify the future needs of researchers for resources, infrastructure and collaboration.”

In the last two years, UTM Library has invested in four new posts to support digital scholarship, and while the Digital Humanities Network is a university-wide initiative, Gillespie recognizes the proactive role of UTM Library.  “It’s a space where you see real collaboration across disciplines and also between faculty and staff from Information & Instructional Technology Services and the Library,” she says. 

Simone Laughton heads the Instructional Technology Team, and runs it out of the Library.  Simone’s team makes use of Quercus, a learning management system based on Canvas, and a team of liaison librarians — a model in place since 2003 — to maintain, in the words of Shelley Hawrychuk, “a rich and robust relationship with departments.”  Library liaisons meet regularly with faculty and produce library guides customized for each class, including details of primary sources available to students.  This results in heavy usage of vendor-supplied digital primary source materials and the UTML liaison librarians will be able to use the same framework to signpost the Library’s own digitized archives and special collections. 

Chris Young is one of newest librarians to join the UTML team.  He is the Coordinator of Digital Scholarship and Librarian, and heads up the library’s digital scholarship initiatives including UTML’s digitization of its own archives.  The library was aware they needed an effective means of displaying their digitized collections and recently made the decision to purchase Adam Matthew’s Quartex platform.  UTML was familiar with the digital resources published by Adam Matthew, and knew that as the same software would provide the underlying framework behind Adam Matthew’s next generation of collections, they could be sure it would be robust and performant.  UTML ran a Quartex pilot using their Erindalian collection, a student newspaper dating from 1968-1973.  Metadata across the collection is relatively scant so UTML was keen to ensure that the newspapers are full-text searchable — and were thus exploring the in-platform OCR functionality of Quartex

Following this successful pilot, they determined to move their other collections onto the same platform.  Prominent amongst these is their United Fruit Company collection, which comprises company records, memos and photographs of Rafael Platero Paz, who from the early 1930’s to the 1980’s was the main studio photographer in the banana company town of El Progreso, Honduras.  In 1930, the United Fruit Company was capitalized at over $200 million and the largest employer in Central America.  It was also notorious for its poor stance on the rights of workers.  Kevin Coleman, an Associate Professor of History at UTM that specializes in the modern history of Latin America, recently won a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant for his research on the United Fruit Company, the conditions of which require the results to be made available on an open access basis. 

Working with UTM Library, Coleman will publish his research findings alongside the library’s relevant archival documents on a dedicated website, “Visualizing the Americas.”  He can achieve this through use of Quartex, as it supports publication of multiple front-end sites, all styled and branded independently, from a single back-end instance.  From the perspective of the library, this makes sense too, as they can effectively support faculty, ensure that sites are easily generated and updated, and are not reliant on additional funding to continue guaranteed digital access. 

UTM Library is now planning digitization of other collections, including the Abualy collection, a substantial and significant Ismaili collection.  Shelley Hawrychuk is clear that, thanks to recent initiatives and funding, they can approach the accessioning and digitization of new collections with confidence as their first step on a path to improving access and discovery and as they continue to partner with faculty and scholars and pioneer use of new technologies to facilitate digital scholarship.  

Adam Matthew’s Quartex platform:

University of Toronto Digital Humanities Network:

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