February 2009: Civil Rights Digital Libraries Enhance Americans’ Understanding of Important Era
In 1962, African American women in Albany, Georgia, picket in front of Albany City Hall and nearby Lane Drugs. To see news clip, click here.
Civil Rights Digital Library Features Historic News Clips, Other Collections
The Civil Rights Digital Library (CRDL), a comprehensive civil rights Web site and portal hosted by the University of Georgia, saw an enormous spike in the number of hits during the week of January 19 when the nation celebrated the inauguration of President Barack Obama and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday. Among CRDL’s many video selections, users could watch a prophetic 1971 clip of civil rights activist Andrew Young predicting the election of an African American president in his lifetime , a 1962 clip of African American students turned away from the public library in Albany, Georgia, and a 1960 clip of African American first-grade girls integrating an elementary school cheered on by African Americans in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded the University of Georgia a National Leadership Grant (NLG) to create the digital library in 2005. The project was selected in part because it provides a portal for many of the nation’s civil rights collections, resulting in much greater public access and the ability to search across many collections as if they were a single collection. It also harvests metadata from the collections, which are physically scattered throughout the country, and has contributed significantly to audio-visual metadata standards.
At its heart, the CRDL promotes an enhanced understanding of the civil rights movement through three principal components:
- a digital video archive delivering 30 hours of historical news film held in the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia Libraries,
- a portal providing a seamless virtual library on the civil rights movement, and
- instructional materials to facilitate the use of the video content in the learning process.
"More than two hours of the video content is related to Martin Luther King, Jr., much of it never seen before" said Dr. P. Toby Graham, Director, Digital Library of Georgia, University of Georgia, and CRDL Project Co-director. "Many people know the 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech, but we also have film of Dr. King speaking in the Southern churches where the civil rights movement was born, going to prison for the cause, reacting to news of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and speaking to the press on the occasion of his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964."
In addition to 450 news clips, the digital library has 100 content partners from around the country and 146 digitized collections. Most offer original documentation of the period, such as oral histories, letters, diaries, FBI files, and photographs. A partnership with the online New Georgia Encyclopedia, for instance, provides articles on events and individuals associated with the civil rights movement in Georgia, supplemented by images and multi-media files. One of the project’s objectives is to make the navigational features both educational and functional, Graham said. For example, CRDL’s map interface lets users click on a city to learn about civil rights activities specific to that place. It also features a timeline that users can click on for civil rights events that happened in a certain period.
The CRDL initiative includes a special site for teachers called "Freedom on Film," relating civil rights stories from nine Georgia towns and cities, along with related news film, discussion questions, lesson plans, and related readings. Freedom on Film is undergoing development by University of Georgia faculty and students, along with scholars from other institutions.
The CRDL will continue to grow through its partnerships with allied organizations across the U.S., Graham said.
"We recognize that there are institutions like museums, libraries, and archives that are collecting and digitizing materials related to the civil rights movement. For potential partners, there are many advantages to participating in the CRDL. The Web site provides an additional means for the public to access their material. On the CRDL site, each partner has its own page with contact information and information about the collection. When users search their items, they are linked out to the partner’s repository."
Graham noted that it’s relatively simple to partner with CRDL, which harvests metadata using the interoperability standards of the Open Archive Initiative (OAI).
In addition to its many partner collections, CRDL presents content from other IMLS-supported projects, he noted. Through the NLG program, IMLS funded the Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive, the Mississippi Digital Program, the Civil Rights Special Collection in the WGBH "" [ital], and Emory University’s initiative to enhance access to audio content related to the civil rights movement. Through grants to the Georgia Public Library Service, IMLS also supported the Atlanta in the Civil Rights Movement project by the Atlanta Regional Consortium for Higher Education.
"It makes sense to create a common platform that draws together civil rights projects supported by IMLS and others. The longer the site is up, the more hits it’s getting. The statistics are moving in a consistently upward trajectory. From October to November 2008, hits jumped 100 percent. This has been the most engaging thing I’ve ever worked on in my career," Graham said.
Rhodes College Crossroads to Freedom
One of CRDL’s partners, Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, contributes valuable content to the national portal while building a different type of civil rights digital library. Rhodes College uses its Memphis-centric digital library created by student teams to encourage a community conversation about the impact of this historical era on Memphis today. The project received a 2006 National Leadership Grant from IMLS because it demonstrates how a digital library project can engage high school and college students and members of the larger Memphis community around the civil rights movement. The project is also contributing models on student staffing of digital projects and shows how small to medium-sized institutions can implement the open-source FEDORA digital repository platform.
"Without the students, Crossroads wouldn’t exist," said Suzanne Bonefas, Ph.D., Rhodes College Director of Special Projects and Principal Investigator of Crossroads to Freedom. "It has been hard for our citizens to move beyond the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. By involving students, people are willing to talk about these painful issues. We want Crossroads to be a small part of salving the wound."
The Rhodes College Web site now contains 1,200 photographs, letters, and other documents relating to the civil rights movement in Memphis and the Mid-South. It also features more than 70 oral histories, mostly of older people. Students interviewed the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County, members of the Tennessee National Guard who were called to duty after Dr. King’s assassination, and black and white musicians who talk about how playing music together changed after the assassination.
So far, 40 students at Rhodes College have worked on this project, usually in paid positions or internships that help fulfill the college’s "beyond the gates" requirement. In the summer, the project is staffed by a large team of students from Rhodes and Fisk University, an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Bonefas said. Local high school students are also team members and are mentored by the college students.
"One student would come in every Monday morning with one or two names of people to interview whom she’d met on Sunday at church. Local congregations have been a rich source of stories about the era," Bonefas said. Each team consists of 15 students with one student acting as the project manager. The students are responsible for identifying people, conducting the video interviews, sending the tape for transcription, editing the transcript, and cataloging it. The students also developed a workflow for processing materials and quality control systems, with the goal of having students do the bulk of the project management.
Students say that working on the project has shown them there’s more to Memphis than they previously understood, she said. Students talk to people with a whole range of perspectives, which has resulted in more complex thinking about the impact of the era on our community today.
"We are working with museum, city, and school partners to develop ways to work together to preserve our cultural heritage and encourage conversations in the community," Bonefas said.
The local school system is also interested in using the Web site. Beginning this summer, Bonefas will work closely with 4th through 8th grade school teachers to develop secondary materials and lesson plans for social studies classes that connect to archive materials.
Other partners are emerging too. The Crossroads team is working with the University of Memphis on digitizing and preserving materials such as reel-to-reel tapes and paper transcripts documenting the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike. These records have special significance to the city because Dr. King was in Memphis to mediate the strike when he was killed. Many of the interviews of African American strikers, labor leaders, and others were conducted soon after the assassination. Crossroads has also begun to put online the Memphis News, an African American newspaper published from 1931-1973. It’s a wealth of information, Bonefas said, presenting an alternative perspective from that of the white papers.
"More people are coming forward to help," Bonefas said. "The next step is figuring out how to involve volunteers who are interested in contributing to the archive. It will be very interesting for cross-generational encounters. We’re creating a model that is sustainable, affordable, and builds capacity. I’d love to have this be a model for cultural heritage organizations."