I’ve had a basic understanding of scanners for a few years now, but I only got into professional history scanning this year. The wonderful staff at Villanova’s Special Collections department taught me to use their advanced scanner and have put me to work, off and on, converting analog items into digital files for the Digital Library Initiative. They’ve given me some interesting items to digitize — mostly dime novels and Catholic newspapers from the 1800s — and they’ve supplied useful criticism when I’ve botched scans or saved the files incorrectly on the server. I went into my October 1st scanning appointment for my digital history class with an existing level of comfort with Villanova’s technology. The scanning process wasn’t surprising per se, but it was good to review the procedure, because tech skills can become rusty if you don’t use them daily.
For those of you not familiar with archival scanning, I’ll walk you through the process (or, at least, how we do it in Nova Nation). The first step is to make a record of metadata for the object you’re scanning. By “metadata,” I mean the name of the object, its owner, any author(s), relevant dates, its place in the office list of workflow orders, the scanner’s camera setting, DPI (dots per inch in the image), color/B&W/grayscale, etc. Once you’ve got those facts in place, you place the object on the scanning platform and make sure that it comes into contact with a projected laser line, which ensures that your item falls within the camera’s boundaries. Next, you scan the object, crop the image that the computer produces, and save the image to the computer hard drive.
Some organizations might stop at this point, but since we (like many academic archives) publish our scans online, the last step is to upload the image from the lab’s computer to the library’s main server. From there, library IT specialists take over, converting the images into readable files for our website. The IT team might crop documents of particular interest into smaller sections, feed the chunks through Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to transcribe the text, and upload this modified version to Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg. The opportunity to share documents with the global scholarly community is the most exciting part of digital history scanning.
During my appointment on Oct. 1, I scanned some documents owned by the Pennsylvania Archdiocesan Historical Research Center and loaned to Villanova. The documents all pertained to social clubs for Irish-Catholic men in Philadelphia. I noted some inaccuracies in the folder, an inevitable part of archival filing. The folder read “Catholic Club of Philadelphia,” but the documents inside the folder referred to multiple clubs. Were these societies one and the same, the name changing over time? Or did someone decades ago throw all these papers into an envelope and call it a day? One research project would be to identify which Catholic clubs existed in Philadelphia in the 1880s and locate their headquarters on a period map.
The specific texts I scanned, “Catholic Club of Philadelphia Records, 1871-1923,” included invitations to lectures and the announcement of a visit by a Vatican emissary. Glancing over the documents, I noticed the omnipresence of Irish surnames; the only non-Irish name was that of the Italian monsignor en route from Rome. A quick skim through other items in the folder, beyond the few texts I’d been assigned, confirmed that this particular club (or clubs) was almost wholly Irish, and for men only. A ticket to a reception was good for members and their ladies. I was dealing with the paper trail of a specific ethnic and gender group.
Again, mapping seems like the best way to fuse the Catholic Club with digital history. One might use historical registries and census data, much of which is now online, to find the addresses of the club’s members. By ascertaining the members’ proximity to each other, one might learn if the club was for a specific neighborhood (an Irish enclave in Philadelphia, perhaps?) or for Irish Catholics spread throughout the city. Moreover, what was the general income bracket of the members? Did the men live in good neighborhoods or poor ones? If they were all poor by national income standards, did they still live in relative comfort or squalor for members of their ethnic group?
An interactive map with separate layers for income bracket, neighborhoods, meeting sites, parish borders, and church locations, with annotations describing members’ professions and citizenship status, would recreate the social world of Philadelphia’s Irish Catholics. These nineteenth-century men, their clubhouses, and their social events were once real, even though they now are reduced to bits of paper in an old folder. Scanning the papers is a first step at recreating old Philadelphia. To finish the job, you’d need to dive down the digital history rabbit hole and start mapping.
Reference: Catholic Club of Philadelphia Records, 1871-1923. Villanova University Digital Library. http://digital.library.villanova.edu/Item/vudl:428999.
Cover Photo Source: Dvorty [pseudonym], “Internet Archive Book Scanner 1.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, created and last modified February 23, 2008, CC BY–SA 4.0, accessed January 13, 2016, http://bit.ly/1J33agq.