Twenty historically Black colleges and universities came together this summer in Atlanta for one unique initiative to bring their histories alive: the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship/HBCU Summer Institute for Digital Scholarship, in collaboration with the HBCU Library Alliance.
“These colleges are a really important part of the educational system of the United States that often gets overlooked,” says Sarah Melton, digital projects coordinator at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS). “It was really a privilege to work with these librarians and learn more of where they were coming from.”
As the capstone project of a multiyear grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the initiative was designed as an outward-facing program to finish off a set of internal projects that Emory had already completed on campus.
“We were interested in how digital humanities and digital libraries might come together in certain ways. And we were particularly interested in training librarians to really be able to make use of technologies that we have available on campus,” she says.
“The tools that we’re using can get really complex and aren’t always intuitive, even when you have a background in technology,” explains Melton. “So it was really great to … guide them and … spend a whole week learning all about it. I learned a ton, and I use (the tools) every day.”
The HBCU Library Alliance in Atlanta helped Emory staff identify the key needs schools are facing and craft an application for admittance to the program.
When it came to the application, the alliance was looking at whether the applicants’ proposals linked to the school’s mission and advanced the library’s priorities in digital scholarship, and whether the training could be replicated to a broader audience.
“We were fortunate enough to be able to take everyone who applied,” says Melton. “Besides Atlanta-area schools, we had participants from universities in Texas, Arkansas, Delaware and other states.”
While many of the schools initially applied with projects that were outside the scope of what could be done in a week, the center helped them fine-tune their ideas so they could bring the right materials to immediately start producing a project.
Tools of the trade
The training in digital scholarship centered on learning how to use Omeka, a tool for building digital exhibits; WordPress, for blogging; and OpenTourBuilder, an ECDS-developed tool to create mobile tours.
“All of the platforms are open source, meaning that the code is available for free to users. This was a major reason we focused on these platforms; we wanted the librarians to be able to showcase what can be done for free at their own institutions,” says Melton.
The week’s programming included workshops, digital scholarship sessions, afternoon project time and then finished with a presentation on Friday.
“Each of the sessions was intense, but we learned a lot,” says Jean B. Greene, the director of library services & archives at Hinds Community College’s Utica campus. “We would not ordinarily have access to opportunities like this.”
Katherine Hayes, archivist at Bowie State University’s Thurgood Marshall Library, started working on a timeline at the institute to celebrate her university’s sesquicentennial.
“The Emory Center for Digital Scholarship/HBCU Library Alliance Summer Institute was a wonderful opportunity for HBCU librarians to enhance their skills and expand their knowledge of digital tools in a comfortable and engaging environment,” says Cynthia Henderson, a board chair for the Alliance and executive director of the Louis Stokes Health Sciences Library at Howard University.
“It offered an opportunity to share the richness of HBCU collections,” says Sandra Phoenix, executive director of the HBCU Library Alliance and one of the members of the selection committee.
Melton notes that, at the introduction session of the weeklong program, representatives from each of the colleges shared a little-known fact about their university, opening her eyes to the impact HBCUs have had.
“A number of really phenomenal alumni have come from HBCUs, in some cases really small towns in Mississippi or Kentucky or South Carolina. That was very cool to learn about. A lot of these histories are not widely known,” she says.
For example, a representative from Prairie View A&M University in Texas unearthed archival information about female jazz bands, a rarity for their time.
“She was able to show some pretty cool images and clips of fabulous performers,” Melton says. “The material people came with was really fascinating and it was really exciting to actually get to see it, because so much of that material gets locked away when there aren’t resources to make it more available.”
Another of the week’s highlights was Dillard University’s project. Cynthia Charles, director of the school’s library, came with copies of a newspaper by African-Americans that relaunched in the 1980s. While she attempted to digitize all the copies, Charles was only able to finish the first issue.
“It was particularly poignant because many of the issues had been damaged in Hurricane Katrina. So there really was a kind of preservation [and] access issue there,” says Melton.
Too often the conversation about librarianship is that the field lacks diversity, says Melton, and it is important to pay attention to who is on staff because there is an overall need for diversity in the information presented. “What HBCUs can bring to the table is a really rich history,” she notes.
Indeed, the initiative didn’t just provide a platform for training and exchange; it also allowed participants to discuss challenges.
“We share common problems and needs, such as understaffing, underfunding. But staff from these institutions are universally committed to making their projects work in spite of these things, of finding a way to do so,” says Hayes.
She points out that “the summer institute gave us a way to accomplish a digital project without extra money or staff.”
Greene notes it also helped forge partnerships that will be mutually beneficial. “All HBCUlibrarians want to be able to better serve our students and faculty.We want to be able to provide them with access to information and technology that will help them be more competitive,” she says.
From the creation of a WordPress page showcasing Hinds Community College’s exhibit on its founding and centennial anniversary, to a campus tour, Greene has been hard at work since attending the institute in June.
For Hayes, a library tour of Bowie State aimed at new students is in the works.
Having schools continue to work on their projects was one of the goals, which is why they have been given access to passwords for the programs, says Melton. “It was really about having people come away with something that they could take to their institution and start using,” she says.
The institute served as a launching pad for new digital projects, and now each school is continuing on with its work. As a support, a Google group was created to ask questions and report developments. Melton hopes to follow up with Emory staff visiting several of the schools to run workshops in the near future.
“We’re lucky, though, that the HBCU Library Alliance Conference will be here in Atlanta in October, so we’re planning on going to that,” she says. Depending on the need, a virtual training might be in the works for fall, too.
She adds, “It’s been rewarding to work with participants who imagined ways to make use of this material and really do concrete work to highlight these interesting collections.”