“Putting It on the Line”: Citizen Participation in the Democratic Process, Georgia State University’s Digital Collections
Most special collections started as the “Treasure Room” of a large library, a room or a caged-in area where valuable or fragile materials were stored. Georgia State University’s Special Collections and Archives department, on the other hand, started life as the Southern Labor Archives, a large collection of labor union and arbitration manuscript collections.
The unique origins of GSU’s special collections continue to define what we collect and how we make it available. The collections have grown to over 500 and most document the phenomenon of social activism in post-World War II America, with particular emphasis on the South. New acquisitions embrace women’s and gender issues, social change, and social activism, as well as popular culture as a barometer of social change.
Two of those collections, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution photographs collection and the 7 Stages Theatre archives, are particularly rich in images that contribute substantially to the DPLA. Both document what it means to be a concerned citizen in a vibrant democracy. How these collections got to Georgia State University, what happened to them when they arrived, and how they were shared with the Digital Library of Georgia and DPLA are two stories that illustrate and celebrate how America’s special collections libraries evolve and take advantage of the digital age to provide order and access to historical materials.
Three years ago, the Atlanta newspaper of record closed up its downtown location and moved its headquarters to the suburbs. The newspaper photographers had “gone digital” earlier, and the new building easily accommodated the digital collections; the “analog” photographic prints and negatives, on the other hand, had to vacate the old building and couldn’t be moved to the new one.
It took GSU more than two weeks to pack and move around six million images from the old Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) building to a new home in one of the University’s previously vacant buildings. Cooling, heating, shelving, flooring, and other physical improvements to the storage building were ready just days before the big move — and then, the real work began. Six-million images and no inventories, indexes, lists, or descriptions! An army of student assistants inventoried the print folders over a long four-month period. Most of the post-1979 negatives had been stored in chronological order in large, flat, and very heavy boxes piled on top of one another, six boxes high – but at least there was an order. Over the next two years miscellaneous prints (many thousands of them) and odd lots of negatives and slides were sorted and inventoried. The inventory process continues today.
The GSU contract with the Atlanta newspaper required that we supply the AJC with digital images from their collection within a reasonable time. In addition, when University researchers and the general public realized that GSU had this amazing resource, a constant and continuing demand for digital images came to Special Collections and Archives from wholly unanticipated sources. The technical challenges were enormous from the outset. Issues such as file naming conventions, digital resolution, digital storage, inventory and description terms and conventions, use policies, and many other procedural and policy issues were addressed. Fortunately, the department already had extensive experience with all of these issues, enabling us to establish guidelines at the outset that remain largely unchanged today.
One of the early requests for images came from a GSU professor of law, Anne Emanuel. Anne was finishing a manuscript of a biography of Elbert Tuttle, an Eisenhower appointee to the 5th Circuit Court, and she needed images of him and some of his major accomplishments. Judge Tuttle had been responsible for the integration of the University of Georgia, so we were sure that the AJC had covered and photographed Tuttle’s career. The University of Georgia Press published Anne’s book with the photographs that we had “negotiated” with the paper.
The 7 Stages Theatre archives was an entirely different type of acquisition. 7 Stages had a 35-year history in Atlanta by the time GSU was given the archives. 7 Stages also has an international reputation for “activist theatre,” premiering new works from Atlanta, the United States, South Africa, Albania, Germany, and England, and from a seemingly endless list of obscure and well-known playwrights. 7 Stages was a perfect fit with the aims and objectives of the Special Collections and Archives department. Archivist Kevin Fleming filled the bed of his pickup truck at least four times and labored for days at a time, sorting through boxes stored in no particular order throughout the theater building. New HVAC systems had taken up what had previously been storage space, and the theater was pleased to get its history out of danger and into a safe library environment.
GSU faced two challenges with the 7 Stages collection: (1) the collection occupied around 48 three-foot long shelves and the boxes and the contents of the boxes were in no particular order; (2) the department couldn’t wait the usual three to four years it would take to process the collection before making it available to 7 Stages and the public. We needed to find a new way to make the collection immediately available and impose an order on it at the same time.
For the 7 Stages collection, Special Collections and Archives decided to use the digital world as the principal tool to create access and order. Over the last two years, the department has digitized more than 1,500 7 Stages Theatre records, including photographs, board-of-directors minutes, production notes, scripts, programs, advertisements, contracts, correspondence, audits, budgets, and the myriad other items that make up the day-to-day operations of a theater.
In order to make a constant feeding of the boxes housing the “processed” materials possible, a date arrangement (rather than a box number arrangement) became the most sensible way to accommodate the constant processing and digitization of the collection. The collection was assigned the “manuscript number” of M219, and that number became the first part of all 7 Stages collection file names. For example, the original play by Atlanta playwright Robert Earl Price, “Hush: Composing Blind Tom Wiggens,” opened on February 2, 2002, so the date “2002-02-02” was assigned to all manifestations of the production: M219-Plays-2002-02-02 (correspondence, contracts, lighting cues, prop lists, publicity, newspaper reviews, etc.); M219-Programs-2002-02-02; M219-Prints-2002-02-02; and M219-Negatives-2002-02-02 (negatives, slides, color transparencies, etc.).
With the 7 Stages collection, the immediate goal is to try to create at least one digital item for each play or event staged or sponsored by 7 Stages. This will establish access to the arrangement of the collection for 7 Stages staff, GSU staff, and the education and public communities wanting additional content from the collection.
Access to the extraordinary collections housed at Georgia State University has been the primary thrust of the University’s digitization program. Ours is a digital collection that remained rather static at about 10,000 items for a number of years but over the last four years, grew five-fold to number 50,000 items. Many of those items are multi-page documents. Last year, when the Digital Public Library of America picked up so many of our 50,000 items through the Digital Library of Georgia, we noted that usage of our collections rose.
The content of GSU’s digital collections mirrors our commitment to building collections that reflect citizen participation in the democratic process in America. Our participation in the Digital Public Library of America has greatly expanded our outreach to a new audience of Americans looking to understand our rich history of citizen activism.
About Georgia State University’s Special Collections and Archives. http://library.gsu.edu/search-collections/special-collections-archives/
Finding aids. Indexes and descriptions of many of the collections in the GSU Special Collections and Archives. http://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/findingaids
Content management: GSU digital collections site. http://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/cdm/
Featured image: Detail from Developing film in the Atlanta Journal darkroom, 1949. Courtesy Georgia State University’s Special Collections and Archives.
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