November 2007: History and High-tech Intersect on the New Jersey Digital Highway
Garden State communities looking to learn more about their beginnings are quickly finding that history and high-tech intersect on the New Jersey Digital Highway, a newly developed Web portal that is linking historical institutions around the state and helping to digitize their rich collections.
Funded in part by a National Leadership Grant, the Digital Highway is a three-plus-year project run through Rutgers University that has digitized more than 10,000 pictures, records, and oral histories and is serving as a model for how to connect community cultural organizations, from Clifton to Cape May, through a central Web site.
"This is about local ownership and shared access," says Linda Langschied, Digital Projects Manager for the Rutgers University Libraries. "It is a true statewide preservation service. It’s books, reports, audio, and video. The services developed for collections owners is a critical component. We don’t do the work for the cultural heritage partners. It’s their collection – they manage it, they run it. But we assist with consultation and can lend equipment."
What began as a desire by the New Jersey State Library, the New Jersey Historical Society, the New Jersey State Archives, and the American Labor Museum to digitally preserve many of the state’s most important artifacts and records became a broad-based grassroots effort that included community libraries, museums, historical societies, and other cultural heritage associations around the state.
The State Library, knowing of Rutgers’ national reputation as a high-tech troubleshooter, quickly enlisted the university as the technical engine for this project.
"Our original partners, under the leadership of the State Library, wanted to be able to digitize their cultural heritage materials and make them accessible to the public, and we wanted to deliver that in a way that was going to be sustainable," Langschied says.
What that meant was finding a digital platform that could be used by all statewide institutions to mount their objects and descriptive information, known as metadata. They found that platform in FEDORA (Flexible Extensible Digital Object Repository Architecture), an award-winning model developed by Cornell University that is customizable and allows local institutions to have true control over what they digitize and post.
Rutgers and its partners recruited more partners around the state (17 in all) to share their collections, the State Library offered grants to help institutions meet the program’s high digitization standard of 600 dots per inch. Collaborators included everyone from large state institutions like public television station NJN to small and diverse collection holders like Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center and the American Hungarian Foundation.
With a promise to digitize some 10,000 objects, Rutgers and its partners decided to launch the site showcasing a topic near and dear to New Jersey residents: the state’s rich immigrant heritage.
"We are the immigrant state," Langschied says. "For so many people, this was the doorstep to America… New Jersey is among the most diverse states in the nation, with so many wonderful stories to tell. This was a perfect opportunity."
Merging collections from around the state, The Changing Face of New Jersey: the Immigration Experience from Earliest Times to the Present covers four centuries of immigration in the Garden State through eye-catching, fully searchable maps, photos, sheepskin deeds, audio and video histories, immigration records, letters, and diaries. Through the Web site, teachers can find curriculum content standards, desk references on history and ethnic education, and lessons on how to use digitized and primary resources in history education. Students can get help with homework or questions about New Jersey culture and history or get advice and assistance with research papers. And researchers can find links to genealogy resources from the state and individual counties to help uncover family histories.
An 1850 letter from Irish immigrant servant Mary Garvey to her mother back in Ireland, testifies to the challenges of starting over in a new country, but implores her mother, just the same, to come to America for a chance at opportunity. Photos and oral histories from the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, meanwhile, chronicle the relocation in the 1940s of more than 2,500 Japanese evacuees from internment camps to Seabrook, then one of the nation’s largest frozen vegetable producers. The American Labor Museum/Botto House makes available papers and photos from the turn of the 20th century that convey the flavor and vigor of working class life and union activity during that era.
In Atlantic County, home to a rich immigrant tradition, the Atlantic County Library and the Egg Harbor City Historical Society secured a state grant to chronicle what in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one of the east coast’s most prominent German communities.
"I was driving through Egg Harbor City one day, and began to notice that so many of the streets were named after famous Germans or cities with a lot of German people," says John King, Senior Public Information Assistant for the Atlantic County Library. "I knew this was a city with a great deal of German heritage, and the more I thought about it, I thought this would be a fascinating place to look at."
Over 18 months, King, alongside staff at his library and in Egg Harbor City, spent hundreds of hours selecting from more than 30,000 immigration records and thousands of photos, and then meticulously scanning, indexing, and entering metadata into the FEDORA-based system.
"I just like being a part of something that is going to last so long," King says. "There’s certainly a prestige being part of a statewide initiative like this. It’s important to remember the things we are preserving. These may represent days gone by, but that doesn’t have to mean they are gone forever."
The Jersey City Free Public Library, meanwhile, used a state grant to digitize hundreds of photos, postcards, letters, diaries, genealogical records, and even recipes from early Dutch settlers to the area. In addition to a hand-drawn 1727 map of what is now Hudson County and part of Staten Island, Jersey City’s contribution also included a series of historical tableaux presented by schoolchildren in 1910 – a series that allows visitors to both appreciate the subjects they capture and to learn from the way those students chose to present them.
"It is getting to the point where it is hard to recall a time before the World Wide Web, but it really wasn’t all that long ago," says John Beekman, assistant manager of the New Jersey Room at the Jersey City Free Public Library. "Projects such as the New Jersey Digital Highway are crucial to…providing content with the level of quality that libraries and academics spent centuries developing…[They] allow a sharing of expertise across disciplines and institutions to develop best practices in creating and delivering content in the format where our patrons and students have come to expect it."
By most accounts, those expectations have been met.
With 10,000-plus visitors a month, evaluations of the New Jersey Digital Highway have been glowing thus far, according to a final report, with visitors lauding the layout and the integration of different communities.
The accolades don’t end at New Jersey’s borders. When Virginia Tech suffered tragedy earlier this year with a horrific student shooting, tributes, letters and messages of condolence piled up quickly. By the end, the university had amassed more than 75,000 pieces, but had no plan in place to deal with them. Within the technology community, Rutgers had earned so much renown for its adaptation of FEDORA that Virginia Tech immediately contacted the university’s library to help create an online digital memorial and repository. That project continues, with plans to have a Web site up in the near future.
In the meantime, Langschied admits the New Jersey Digital Highway remains a work in progress. The site’s administrators continue to field suggestions about content and to extend opportunities to more communities to link their sites and scan their images.
William Paterson University, which received a National Leadership Grant to create a state digital video archive and portal called NJVid, is introducing another eye-catching medium to the mix. NJVid will use the Digital Highway’s FEDORA platform and work with Rutgers to help deliver high-quality video through the Web site.
"We want to become the best digital library project that exists," Langschied says. "We want to partner with other organizations, form a close community of FEDORA users and engage in collaborative development with them. At the end of the day, our goal is to provide seamless access to historical collections for every user in the state.
"This is a huge project, but we will continue to query end users, to grow, to develop, and to make available a system that never breaks trust with our partners."