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Howard University Forges New Ties for Freedman Project


Howard University will participate in a historic collaboration with the Genealogical Society of Utah, the National Archives and Records Administration and the Black History Museum and Cultural Heritage Center of Virginia to index Virginia’s Freedmen’s Bureau records. The $400,000 project is being funded by Howard, with assistance from Microsoft and NARA, and is expected to be completed in the next five years, depending on available funds.

The Freedmen’s Bureau records are the “genesis records” of African-American identity in the post-Civil War era. They provide the earliest major compilation of information on many freedmen. From 1865-1872, the records document their names, legalized marriages, educational pursuits, work contracts and receipt of rations, health care, legal, and other support.

“The most important aspect of these efforts is that the invaluable historical artifacts and sociological and genealogical knowledge that they contain will be preserved forever and made available to everyone,” says Dr. Harry Keeling, professor of computer science at Howard, who will lead the project.

The National Archives recently completed the microfilming of all Bureau records, a process that produced over 1,000 rolls of microfilm. The Genealogical Society of Utah is now scanning the 203 rolls containing the Virginia records and will assess more than 300,000 digitally scanned images for inclusion in the Freedmen Project. FamilySearch will provide online access to the genealogy. Volunteers recruited by The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia will extract and index information contained on the scanned records.

Keeling says digitizing will be done using a machine that takes microfilm as input and stores the images to a PC. The knowledge extracted from these images will be compatible for searching by Web-based intelligent agents that will understand the content of the images. The name of this technology is the “semantic Web.”

“Searches will retrieve all relevant documents, not just those that match the user’s search criteria. The search agent can also explain why it is relevant,” he says.

Howard University will place the records on the school’s Web site. In the meantime, Keeling and his students have prepared a test site,

— By Shilpa Banerji

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