Unearthing Strategic Partnerships:
Collaborating With Archives to Build a Local History Collection
by Thomas R. Caswell
The University of Florida’s Unearthing St. Augustine’s Colonial Heritage is a federally funded collaborative project that draws together four different repositories of hidden and fragile archival material. These archives were previously inaccessible to researchers worldwide and are now freely available in an open source database. By partnering with both public and private institutions, this initiative digitally preserves and provides access to thousands of maps, drawings, photographs, and documents. These items help in telling—on a global scale—St. Augustine, Fla.’s unique story as the United States’ oldest city.
| This successful 2year program is the direct result of the strategic partnering of libraries and archives working together to bring about a digital collection.
Some of the important archival items—dating from the 16th century to the present—to be “unearthed” are maps and overlays of the city; architectural drawings of historic structures; Spanish and British colonial government documents; records; photographs; and site summaries from key archaeological excavations. This successful 2year program is the direct result of the strategic partnering of libraries and archives working together to bring about a digital collection.
Significance and Impact
Research in St. Augustine has long elicited attention from scholars in history, archaeology, and historic preservation throughout Florida and the U.S. Unearthing St. Augustine is the culmination of more than 40 years of commitment to scholarship by the University of Florida (UF) in the study of historic St. Augustine. The city is situated a mere 70 miles due east of the university’s campus in Gainesville, Fla. Established in 1565, St. Augustine has long identified itself as “the oldest city” in America because of its early founding date and its remarkable survival as a small community that has maintained its original colonial grid of streets and blocks.
The city’s story is one of diversity. It is a window into the lives of Native Americans, colonists, slaves, and free people of color as they adapted to a region constantly caught in the military conflicts of expanding empires and national states. As such, St. Augustine has been a research mecca for archaeologists, historians, and other scholars seeking to understand the complex legacies of the Spanish borderlands and the American Southeast. In 2015, the city will celebrate the 450th anniversary of its founding. So this project is timely (ending Dec. 31, 2014), and it finally brings the study of St. Augustine’s past into a modern research environment.
Unearthing St. Augustine draws on unique and rare archival materials that were difficult to access and manipulate in their original form. Now, they’ll be accessible in an open source digital format. The project focuses on collections from established strategic institutional partnerships among the City of St. Augustine, the St. Augustine Historical Society, and the UF Libraries. With the exception of a few digitized resources, there is currently no easy way to gain access to the diverse information that exists in these repositories.
The resulting interactive digital collection will be a primary resource for scholars, students and historical tourists in colonial and urban history, geography, historic cartography, and cultural heritage and museum studies. For the first time, this project will unify disparate resources held in multiple repositories that are largely inaccessible to the general public. It will open access to archival materials drawn from the following four collections:
- Government House Historic Site archives—currently inaccessible, since the state agency that oversaw its creation ceased in 1997 (now managed by UF Libraries)
- St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library transcriptions and translated texts—accessible only by appointment
- City of St. Augustine Archaeology Program records and photographs—accessible only to City of St. Augustine employees
- Herschel Shepard Historic Preservation Collection—available only as a paged collection in UF Libraries’ special collections
From the Government House, project staff members inventoried and digitized maps and overlays of the city, architectural drawings of historic structures, and related government documents. This collection was developed by archaeologists and historians during the long tenure of the state agency known originally as the St. Augustine Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission (1959–1967) and subsequently as the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board (HSAPB) (1968–1997). The files were originally collected to provide historical information to guide HSAPB administrators in the purchase and development of colonial properties. Since the closure of this state agency in 1997, and in the absence of a librarian or archivist, these resources have been closed to researchers.
Since the majority of the Government House files are primary source materials, digitization of these materials will bring universal access to thousands of pages of data and images that have been accessible only to persons officially working at the Government House’s historic site. Visitors to the closed collection are confronted with vast amounts of materials in flat file drawers, filing cabinets, and bankers’ boxes with little or no descriptions on labels. Many flat files are located on the tops of file cabinets or rolled up and stuck in a corner, further frustrating researchers’ quests for and access to these materials. The delicate nature of these materials, due to age or physical format (e.g., blueprints or original architectural drawings on vellum), makes digitization critical.
From the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library, the project targeted original Spanish documents, as well as Englishlanguage translations. This collection answers frequent requests from K–12 teachers and researchers working on Colonial America for access to key documents in translation. Aside from items that are relevant to the founding and development of St. Augustine, the files include translations of Spanish printed sources about Juan Ponce de León and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, English translations of accounts of Francis Drake’s raid on St. Augustine in 1586, reports from expeditions, memorials by clergy on conditions in the Spanish missions, texts on town planning and royal ordinances, and documents pertaining to the building of the Castillo de San Marcos. Unpublished research reports and archaeological data include the colonial history of Native American and mission communities as well as documents related to Fort Mose, a free black settlement.
A third major contribution to the project comes from the City of St. Augustine Archaeology Program. It focuses on materials from excavations conducted during the past 20 years by city archaeologist, Carl D. Halbirt. These documents, site maps, and slides not only reflect the city’s European origins since 1565, but a rich and varied Native American heritage. Project staffers selected sets of documents and images from major excavations, documenting inground features, such as building foundations, roads and bridges, defense lines, wells, trash dumps, and animal burials.
The sites to be covered will be selected in consultation with the project advisory board from a field of more than 500 projects. Those included will be represented online by a summary of their history and documented by maps and digital images from the excavations. Resources from the city’s archaeology program will provide comparative data for archaeologists working at other colonial and urban sites and will also facilitate the teaching of archaeology and cultural anthropology.
From the previously private and unprocessed Herschel Shepard Historic Preservation Collection, project staff members digitized records and drawings of the major preservation and restoration work of St. Augustine. The Shepard Collection, which was donated to UF Libraries in 2010, documents Herschel Shepard’s expertise in Florida’s historic architecture and his many contributions to preservation and restoration in the state. Shepard’s work covers the entire range of Florida’s architectural past, including restoration and reconstruction of historically significant sites. The total collection of original drawings, documents, and photographs includes all of Shepard’s works on the colonial buildings of St. Augustine. Shepard has worked in architectural restoration and reconstruction of St. Augustine buildings since 1970, and many historic structures are documented thoroughly with drawings, extensive research notes, and photographs.
The collections and resources selected for this project, as identified previously, were chosen based on several criteria. Qualifying criteria included the following:
- Researchers’ frequent areas of interest and demands
- Uniqueness or rarity of the materials
- Ability of the materials to fill in knowledge gaps
- Restricted to materials either in public domain or legally owned by project partners
Project Staff Members
A total of 12 UF Libraries’ staff members and faculty shared the cost of this effort. The project team was drawn from various departments within the libraries depending on areas of expertise or collections knowledge. Team members included three collection curators and staff members from the digital library center, IT, preservation, and GIS (geographic information system) spatial information services departments. The two grantfunded positions included a fulltime programmer to develop the system architecture and user interface (UI) and a fulltime program manager to oversee digitization activities and metadata creation.
Communication was maintained throughout the project by email, telephone, or in person. Project staffers were expected to meet on campus in Gainesville. This occurred on the third Thursday of every month during the grant project, unless there was a quarterly advisory board meeting within a week of the project team meeting. In that case, the advisory board meeting took precedence, and all project team members were invited to attend. Project team meeting minutes were taken and distributed to all team members via email after every meeting.
Project staffers and project partners established an advisory board to review the materials that were identified by staff members and to further refine the selection process. The eightmember board included a key staff member from each archival collection and was rounded out with archaeologists, historic preservationists, and historians who have expertise in the colonial history of St. Augustine and Florida. The board recommended items for inclusion in the project and identified gaps in content that needed to be filled by additional selection. It contributed, at no cost to the project, expert guidance on building the digital collection and designing the UI.
Advisors guided the selection process throughout the project by email, telephone, or in person. They also periodically evaluated the UI during development and provided feedback. Board meetings were held on a quarterly basis in St. Augustine, rotating among various venues and meeting rooms supplied gratis by institutional partners. Minutes were taken at all meetings and drafts were approved via email or at the successive board meeting. Final approved drafts, which were archived in UF’s online institutional repository, were distributed to all project staffers and advisory board members.
The majority of the digitization of archival materials occurred in St. Augustine at the newly established digitization lab. It was funded by the grant and is located within the Government House, which is now managed by UF. The lab is fully equipped with a large 11" x 17" flatbed scanner, a highcapacity slide scanner, and a CopiBook overhead scanner for oversized items (17" x 24"). As a community resource, the lab is the first of its kind in St. Augustine and affords UF (and its project partners) the ability to scan archival materials locally. The digitization effort included the following steps:
1. Preimaging activities—The project staffers and key advisory board members coordinated the transport of original objects from partner repositories to the Government House digitization lab for imaging. The UF conservator trained the project manager to properly handle original objects. Upon arrival at the digitization lab, the project manager examined and applied treatments to facilitate the imaging process. The project manager was responsible for tracking the location of all original objects while at the digitization lab.
2. Metadata—Metadata Encoding and Transmission Standard (METS) metadata were created by the onsite project manager and imported into a tracking database. The metadata were enhanced both automatically and manually as objects moved through the imaging workflow. A unique bibliographic identifier (BibID) was assigned to each processed object. The METS files include technical and structural data about each image, as well as descriptive and administrative information.
3. Scanning—At the digitization lab, the project manager scanned objects and trained and supervised partner volunteers to scan their own collection materials. Due to the lack of a highcapacity internet connection at the Government House, the project manager or project director traveled to Gainesville biweekly to deliver portable external hard drives. All objects were digitized to meet standard requirements for the item’s physical format. Photographs and documents were scanned at a minimum of 300 dpi, 8bit grayscale, or 24bit color. Maps, architectural drawings, and other largeformat materials were brought to UF and imaged at a minimum of 300 dpi using an overhead digital camera. All imaging was completed in accordance with established professional standards.
4. Quality control and derivate creation—After imaging and image enhancement, all aspects of image control and digital package creation were controlled by an integrated software package that controls derivative image formation, quality control review at the package level, and deployment to UF servers. The scan technician derived JPG, JPG 2000, and JPG thumbnail images. JPG 2000 files with zoom features are used in the display of largeformat maps and drawings online.
5. Digital package and text processing—After quality control, the digital package moved to text conversion, markup, and METS file validation. Staff members ensured that all packagelevel metadata conform to the national METS, to local extension schemas, to UF requirements, and for longterm digital preservation in the Florida Digital Archive (FDA). Staffers implemented optical character recognition (OCR) processing to produce searchable text from digital images. The project manager worked with the textprocessing unit to proof the OCRproduced text.
6. Postimaging conservator review and storage—After imaging, original materials were regrouped and returned to the appropriate repository and partners confirmed receipt. All partner repositories store original objects in the proper environmental conditions to ensure longterm stability.
7. Digital preservation and digital content sustainability—In a practice consistent with all UF digital projects, redundant digital archives are maintained in perpetuity. Currently, the UF Libraries and the FDA maintain the two primary archives. The process of forwarding original uncompressed TIFF images to the FDA is the key component in UF’s plan to store, maintain, and protect St. Augustine’s object data.
8. Deployment—Staff members will create a project portal page (due by Dec. 31, 2014; it will be located at ufdc.ufl.edu/USACH). Discoverability of the digital objects will be enhanced by a variety of search and browse options. The primary interface will be Google Mapsbased. Researchers will be able to conduct keyword and subject searches of all of the collections simultaneously from the main project page. In addition, all digital objects will be discoverable via the UF digital collections (UFDC) homepage (ufdc.ufl.edu), so researchers can search in combination with all other digitized materials held by UF and partner institutions.
The Unearthing St. Augustine collection will be delivered electronically using UFDC system architecture. UFDC operates on an engine named SobekCM (ufdc.ufl.edu/sobekcm), an open source software being developed at UF. SobekCM currently works in conjunction with the open source Greenstone digital library system, but the UFDC architecture allows for platform independence and easy migration to other digital library management systems. SobekCM also allows for online object submittal and editing of metadata.
Functionality and Interface
In order for the map interface to overlay newly digitized maps and images with existing geographical data, the digitized files were assigned geographic coordinates. Geographic coordinates were assigned to digitized files using GIS software. The UF GIS coordinator trained project staffers to use GIS software to georeference digitized materials. Geocoded metadata includes elements such as place names, physical addresses, and construction and destruction dates.
Unearthing St. Augustine will be promoted broadly to local, national, and international scholars, as well as teachers and the general public. The City of St. Augustine’s anniversary in 2015 will provide opportunities for promoting this project, its partners, and its outcomes. UF and its partners will create and disseminate information about the project and its resources. At the launch of the project, press releases were provided to media outlets and listservs, both general and subjectspecific. Articles and postings were published in journals, newsletters, and blogs. Contributions of digital objects to social networking sites (such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) encourage discovery. Outreach has also included presentations at national conferences and regional meetings.
Project Success and Sustainability
Only 11,000 digitally archived images were originally targeted for the Unearthing St. Augustine project. As of Aug. 31, 2014, more than 19,900 items were scanned and ingested into the UF digital collections. Revealing the vastness of its research collections, UF digital collections has mounted more than 8 million items since its inception in 1997. UF’s existing open access (OA) servers have the necessary memory and storage to support and deliver all of the digital images and metadata created during the project in perpetuity. UF has the technology infrastructure and programming expertise to ensure the longterm sustainability of the resulting interactive digital collection.
Additionally, because it is based in open source software, the programming developed for this project is available for use in other projects created by other institutions. UF and its partners are committed to providing universal online access to these unique historical resources. This project will encourage people to explore the earliest days of one of the oldest cities in North America. By leveraging the infrastructure of a large research university for the benefit of several small local history collections, this project highlights the strength of partnerships between libraries and archives, offering exciting new opportunities for partnering institutions, researchers, and expert users far beyond the duration of the grantfunded project.