Monday, March 2, 2009

Probing the Past: Virginia and Maryland Probate Inventories, 1740-1810

Probing the Past, a digital collection published in 2006 by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) at George Mason University in partnership with Gunston Hall Plantation, provides public access to a collection of 325 probate inventories from estates located in the Chesapeake region of Virginia and Maryland during the period of 1740 to 1810. This collection includes images of each page of the probate inventories as well as transcriptions of the inventories that can be downloaded as PDF files. It is also supported by a searchable database containing detailed information derived from the inventories. Images can be browsed by city or county or by time period.

Collection Principles
This collection was not developed explicitly for the purpose of creating a digital collection; rather, its development can be viewed as the unintentional consequence of a research project, the
Gunston Hall Room Use Study, and an opportunistic use of grant funds. The study, published on the Gunston Hall Plantation website in 2000, was purposefully conducted to facilitate a better interpretation of Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason, an influential, early-American political writer and author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. This better interpretation was, in part, to be achieved through the selection of household furnishings for the restoration project meant to return Gunston Hall to its 18th-century appearance. Unfortunately, the known documentary material associated with George Mason lacked a probate inventory, a list of Mason's possessions at the time of his death, and revealed little information about his household items. The lack of information about Mason's actual possessions prompted a decision to broaden the scope of research to include probate inventories from estates similar to Mason's. The methodology used to select probate inventories similar to Mason's effectively served as the collection development policy. This methodology is briefly described in the online exhibit's About the Collection page as are other important characteristics about the collection. There is also a page dedicated to interpreting the collection. The original Microsoft Access database, the one developed for the research project, has been through several software migrations over the the years, so it is evident that at least that portion of the collection is actively being managed. There are also links on the home page, one for submitting comments and one for an online survey, that provide mechanisms to supply usage data.

Object Characteristics
Object characteristics such as format or stable identifier, are not well documented or easily inferred, with the exception of the transcriptions available in PDF format and the documentation for the database. The quality of scanned images is relatively poor, although adequate for the purpose of the collection. The transcriptions and the database are what make the collection most valuable. The objects do, however, have informative descriptive metadata displayed with each
image; however, administrative metadata is nowhere to be found.

The About page provides information about the collection as a whole, the type of descriptive metadata that user can expect to find associated with each object, and the names and titles of the people involved in the project. Object metadata includes the name of the individual the probate inventory is for, the date of the inventory, city and/or county and state where the inventory was filed, and page numbers within the county court record book where the original inventory is located.

The intended audience appears to be K-12 teachers and students, as evidenced by the lesson plans offered on the
Teaching page, and researchers and museums, as stated on the Gunston Hall website that is linked to from About page.

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