Documenting the American South project

So far this semester we have discussed many digital History topics. From the discussions of digitalization of Civil War records in the article Crowdsourcing the Civil War and digital collections during our trip to the library to listen to a lecture from the university’s archivist on searching those collections to Rosenzweig’s article Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in the Digital Era and looks at such digital collections as the September 11th archive and the Wayback machine, we have learned a lot about digitization when it comes to certain collections. One digital collection that I would like to share with everyone is the Documenting the American South Project sponsored by the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Documenting the American South (DocSouth) is a digital publishing initiative that provides Internet access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. Currently DocSouth includes sixteen thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews, and songs. The project has been developing for over a decade with the aims of gathering and digitizing all materials related to Southern culture. Most of the collections come from Southern holdings.

The project dates back to 1996 with the Pilot Project to digitize a half dozen highly circulated slave narratives. The project is designed to provide digitized primary materials to researches, scholars, and students. These sources offer a Southern perspective on many parts of American history. The collections included in the project include: The Church and the Southern Black Community, The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, The First Century of the First State University, First-Person Narratives of the American South, Going to the Show, The James Lawrence Dusenbery Journal (1841-1842), Library of Southern Literature, North American Slave Narratives, The North Carolina Experience, North Carolina Maps, North Carolina and the Great War, Oral Histories of the American South, The Southern Homefront (1861-1865), Thomas E. Watson Papers, and True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students at the University of North Carolina.

As a personal note, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War largely with the assistance of the primary sources available in the Documenting the American South Project. This brings up a question that we have discussed in class. If primary sources are digitized these days, then can serious researchers and scholars base their research solely on these digital sources? Or does historical research require scholars to do in person research? This is definitely something that we have to think about in the digital era.

5 Replies to “Documenting the American South project”

  1. jc1234,

    First of all, Documenting the American South is a great site – SO much information available.

    I don’t see why serious researchers and scholars can’t base their research just on digital sources, like those found on the DocSouth site. Is something lost not having a tangible object in front of you? Maybe. But all the essential data is still there. If anything, it makes research easier and more accessible to those who aren’t able to travel to where those primary sources are kept, thus maybe encouraging people to engage in more scholarly research.

    But I do believe there are some primary sources you would have to see in person, as opposed to on a computer screen. It would depend on what you were researching and if your primary source had any special features not conveyable online. (Physical size, how it was constructed, etc.) I don’t think this research is more “serious” than primary sources online, it just depends on what information you’re looking for.

  2. I have to agree with Angela. I don’t think that digitized sources are necessarily inferior to their paper and/or manuscript originals. Everything comes down to what specific questions the researcher is asking, and whether or not those questions include an analysis of the physical document/object itself. Historians can “read” documents in ways that exceed the content held within its pages, and that is an important point to remember when conducting research. The responsibility, then, lies with the researcher. If he or she has questions that can only be answered by examining the original, then they need to travel to the physical archive. If not, digitization is a great method for making historical documents more universally accessible. Isn’t this a step in the right direction? Taking history out of the elite-only realm?

  3. The metadata in this collection is impeccable.

    Click into a menu like this one and you’re presented with an incredible wealth of further research and reading. It’s really staggering how meticulously categorized this site is. At first appearance, this appeared to be what I’ll call a stock academic site, but it’s a lot more than that.

    I’d love to know more about the content management system they’re using. From their about page, it appears they’re using some technologies we’ve talked about a bit in class (like Google Analytics).

  4. Great post jc1234!

    First off, this reminded me a lot of Crowdsourcing from several weeks (which feels like a lifetime) ago. This was and still is a massive undertaking on the part of UNC. Their collections are some of the most dense and coveted by researchers and historians alike. I don’t find this website as easily navigable as Crowdsourcing, but certainly easy not difficult to find your way through.

    Massive digital collections like this are easier to cope with if you already have an idea of what you’re looking for. I’m also working on a paper on North Carolina’s women and how they dealt with Sherman marching through their state. This is an awesome resource for everything from professional historians to grade-school teachers. It’s an easy way to expose kids to the resources online and available at state archives.

  5. Just to echo everyone else, thank you for showing me this. I have spent this entire evening exploring the collections for a research paper I am currently working on. The presence of slave accounts is something that is particularly interesting and useful here.

    Regarding Angela’s comment, I think that one of the greatest weaknesses of digital archives like this is that they are not yet complete. So much remains to be digitized, and as historians we generally try to go beyond what is convenient to present the most complete and well research argument possible. I think that as these archives continue to grow this problem could vanish.

    I often hear historians say that going to the physical archives will always provide benefits that digital sources cannot. The “serendipity” of the archives is a term I have heard many times. If you are carrying out a pointed search their is the potential to miss some of the context or some other useful things surrounding that document. I have also heard that going to the physical archives brings you in contact with a community that can provide invaluable information: the archivists and other historians working on the same records as you. I tend to think that both of these problems can be solved by technology. It is not difficult to replicate the experience of sifting through papers at the archive for those who wish to using technology. Also the ability to create message boards and chat rooms surrounding archives and collections can bring that community element to the online archive. While you do not find things like this in most online archives today I think their is a lot of potential. The way to solve the limitations of digital archives is to move forward, not backwards.

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