The People’s Contest

Letter from James A Beaver Papers

Letter from James A Beaver Papers

This post was written by Sabra Statham, Digital Project Coordinator, PSUL.

As we head into winter I am once again reminded that another year at The People’s Contest has passed. In fact, this year when February rolls around it won’t just be my fifth year at the Penn State Libraries, it will be the project’s fifth year. This anniversary seems like a good time to go back and look at what we have accomplished. Few digital projects last this long so not only have we achieved that important landmark, it looks like the project is just getting going with lots of new activities planned for the future.

So here is some background on the project:

The People’s Contest Civil War Era Digital Archiving Project  was originally funded by an IMLS planning grant which had come about as a result of Bill Blair’s, (Head of the George and Anne Richards Civil War Center here at Penn State) interest in digitizing material. Working with then Assistant Dean Mike Furlough (now Ex. Director of the Hathi Trust) and Eric Novotny our history librarian, Blair sought to promote research into the lived experiences of people on the northern home front during the Civil War. Very little research has been done into this facet of the war, largely due to a lack of sources. A scholars board came up with a date span for the project defining the war years 1851-1874.

During that first planning year I came on board as project coordinator. I was joined in the field by Matt Isham, then a doctoral candidate (now Richards Center Manager). Together we surveyed the holdings of 10 small archives the first year and catalogued over 400 manuscript collections. Matt also wrote his essay, now available on our website, The Northern Home Front during the Civil War: A Quest to Understand. By the end of the year we had launched a website, published our database of collections, and were planning to digitize.

Soon we began selecting and digitizing those collections that seemed especially valuable to scholars. Our first collection was the Papers of John Covode owned by the Heinz History Center in Philadelphia. This process involved almost every department in the libraries, preservation prepped the collections, cataloging and metadata prepared the online records and digitization imaged the manuscripts. And when we needed to work on our webpages or database I-Tech was involved. Though many projects in the libraries involve multiple departments, ours was unique in the extent to which our activities spanned not only departments in the libraries, but within the University and across the state. We also began bringing students into our activities in various capacities. We had both graduates and undergraduates helping conduct surveys, add metadata, transcribe and describe collections.

Now as we head into our SIXTH year where are we going?

Well by the end of this year we will have 26 digital collections online. Represented are letters, diaries, scrapbooks, material written by women, African Americans, students and more. We have nearly 1000 records in our database and several new essays to read by prominent scholars in the field. Our first Graduate Assistant is helping build new exhibits, we will soon have several datasets for display and download, and our transcription tool is up and running. And we have ambitions to explore working with ledgers and economic data. So check out our project and plan to come back regularly because you will certainly see more each time you visit The People’s Contest.

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