April 19, 2010

Digitizing early Emory documents

Documents from Emory’s 19th century beginnings are being transformed into 21st century availability through an innovative collaborative class at Oxford College. Called “The Oxford Experience,” the project is actually an English 101 class taught by Adrian Ivey and Jeff Galle of the Oxford English department. Participating students work with professors, librarians and archivists to transcribe and encode archival documents, research their contents and create a permanent collection of digital texts hosted by the Emory Libraries.

Each student chooses an historical document from Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Books Library (MARBL) to analyze, transcribe and research. Documents are selected from a pool of letters and diaries of 19th and early 20th century Emory students.  Librarians select the documents for the pool based on the way in which they convey the day-to-day student life at early Emory, then located in Oxford.  The material features students depicted in the Early Emory Class Photographs project, an online gallery of more than 1,110 images of Oxford students dating from 1860-1911.

After selecting a document, students attend classes with Mark Swails, digital services librarian at Oxford, to learn about primary sources and digital preservation. They learn to use an XML-based computer language created to encode and preserve textual sources.  Working from high definition digital scans, Oxford students then transcribe the documents they selected and encode them in the preservation computer language. Students also meet with Swails to learn history research skills and complete a research project about a historical topic or theme from the documents.

During the summer of 2009, Ivey, Galle and Swails teamed with Crystal McLaughlin, director of student development, and George Miles of Newton County High School’s Academy of the Liberal Arts to significantly expand the project. The course now includes a service-learning component and more training sessions for students.

In the fall semester, Oxford students applied their coding and analysis skills not only working on their own, but also by teaching these techniques to a group of 35 high school freshman from the Academy of the Liberal Arts. Teams of two Oxford students met with two high school students for evening workshops to guide them through the transcription and encoding process. Last semester 19 pieces were transcribed, preserved and presented in this way.  All the participating students are listed as transcribers on their published documents.

“We focus on the process, not just the final product,” says Ivey. “The students’ research is actually achieving a real goal…Not just a random assignment, but creating something of real value to the University.”

The project is continuing this semester with a new group of Oxford students who are preparing a new collection of primary sources. The results of their efforts will be available on the Web this summer. 

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