“We’re saying we value this work and by necessity that means pausing other things,” Berry said. “There’s a symbolism to it and also a practicality — a large-scale digitization project takes time, and we need to be able to dedicate that time.”
Berry’s background is in this work; she came to Harvard from the University of Minnesota, where she was responsible specifically for the digitization of African American materials held in its collections.
“Houghton has digitized some other really important and incredible items,” Berry said, including some centered on other marginalized groups. But materials about African Americans have not been a strength of the library’s digitization work.
Last year, Berry started to think about what African American materials she would prioritize for digitization. “The list kept growing,” she said. “At this point it’s a list of 3,400 records.”
Materials slated for digitization include written records and experiences of former slaves; abolitionist letters and meeting minutes; proceedings from racial justice-focused “Colored Conventions”; histories of Black Civil War soldiers; and bills of sale for enslaved Black people. Personal papers and photographs from individuals and families will add depth and context to the collection.
On July 27, Berry and her team began prep work, pulling items out of the collections, working with conservators to stabilize the items that needed it, and modifying or adding to many of the item descriptions. Imaging Services will do the actual scanning and digital image work.
By next summer the project will have its own collection page, including curatorial guidance for the materials, plus supplemental research and biographies of some of the collection’s key Black authors. The collection metadata will also be made available as research data to support future digital scholarship focused on Black American history.
Berry believes the future site’s users will not be limited to scholars who are already familiar with the Harvard catalog. She said many Black history researchers, including some experts, who work outside academia are often unable to access digitized primary sources related to Black and African American materials without encountering expensive database paywalls.