Emory Report
July 10, 2006
Volume 58, Number 34


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July 10 , 2006
Documents from slave voyages to be digitally accessible

BY Elaine Justice

Emory scholars who are revising and expanding a renowned database of trans-Atlantic slave voyages—which, when completed, will account for fully 82 percent of the entire history of the slave trade—expect to make the material available on the Internet within the next two years.

The work is being funded by two grants, $324,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and $25,000 from Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research. The expansion of the current database is based on the seminal 1999 work “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” a CD-ROM that includes more than 27,000 slave trade voyages and has been popular with scholars and genealogists alike.

“We’re trying to do for African Americans what’s been done for Euro-Americans already,” said David Eltis, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of History and one of the scholars who published “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.” Eltis and Martin Halbert, director of digital programs and systems for University Libraries, are directing the project.

“Everyone wants to know where their antecedents came from, and certainly Europeans have been more thoroughly covered by historians,” said Eltis. “There is more data on the slave trade than on the free migrant movement simply because the slave trade was a business and people were property, so records were likely to be better. What the database makes possible is the establishment of links between America and Africa in a way that already has been done by historians on Europeans for many years.”

In addition to increasing the number of slave trade voyages from the original work by nearly 25 percent, the grant will allow the addition of new information to more than one-third of the voyages already included in the 1999 CD-ROM. The expanded database, making its debut on the Internet, will include auxiliary materials such as maps, ship logs and manifests. At the end of the two-year project, online researchers also will be able to submit new data to an editorial board for vetting and future inclusion in the database.

In bringing the materials online, “we are thinking about the needs of very different groups of users,” said Halbert. “Scholars and researchers in higher education will want to look at specific time periods and generate comparative statistics, charts, graphs and geographic displays of information. K-12 students have much less background knowledge so will need more context to be able to use the material effectively.”

Everyone from advanced researchers to students and the public will be able to go to a single location on the Web to use the material, said project manager Elizabeth Milewicz. “There will be one database, but different ways to search it.” While some researchers may want to download the database in its entirety, others, especially K-12 teachers and students, “will want to ask questions of the database without getting overloaded,” said Milewicz.

“We’re constantly asking who is the audience [for the Web site] and how would they use it to make sense of the data,” said Milewicz. “The trans-Atlantic slave trade is one of the most documented movements of people into the New World. Helping younger audiences to understand the slave trade to get a sense of what it meant at the time and make it real for them—is part of our aim as well.”

Carol Hahn, Candler Professor of Educational Studies and member of the project’s advisory board, will be working with sociology professor Regina Werum to help fulfill the project’s educational mission, soliciting and reviewing educational and supplementary materials for the site.

The first prototype of the site will be presented at the Digital Library Federation Forum in spring 2007. Emory is part of the prestigious 39-member international consortium of libraries and related agencies that are pioneering the use of electronic information technologies.

In addition to Hahn and Werum, the advisory board for the project includes: Joseph C. Miller, T. Cary Johnson, Jr. Professor of History, University of Virginia; Paul Lovejoy, Distinguished Research Professor, York University; Herbert S. Klein, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History, Columbia University; G. Ugo Nwokeji, assistant professor, African American Studies, University of California Berkeley.

Members of the project steering committee are: David Richardson of the University of Hull, United Kingdom; Manolo Florentino of Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro; and Steve Behrendt of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.