Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection

Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection

The Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection is a Cornell digitization initiative which Cornell undertook in 1999 upon receiving a grant from NEH's Save America's Treasures program. Cornell utilized this grant to "catalog, conserve and digitize the published pamphlets [in] its Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection, one of the nation's founding collections on the abolitionist movement in America" (Grant Project Description). The collection itself comprises some 10,000 pamphlets and leaflets collected by the Revered Samuel J. May during his lifetime. This author was unable to locate a precise statistic relating to how many such pamphlets and leaflets have been digitized as of today. However, all signs point towards this initiative having been completed by Cornell.

The lack of metadata with this collection came as a surprise to this author. One could perhaps argue that this is a byproduct of the collection focusing on pamphlets and leaflets. Yet, even the most basic administrative and structural metadata remains absent. The only fields one regularly finds are seemingly only the most basic of fields - title, author, collection to which the item belongs, and a date field that is viewable when browsing record lists yet nowhere to be seen when looking at an individual record but on the digitized title page of the pamphlet/leaflet itself. Thus, this author discovered no information specified by Cornell with respect to a metadata schema and its implementation. That said, Cornell does state that it employed the University of Michigan's Digital Library eXtenstion Service (DLXS) in digitizing and making available this collection (Grant Project Description). DLXS does contain a piece of middleware termed 'Collection Manager' which "maintains all collection and group information in tables" (DLXS Metadata Databases). Perhaps Cornell used this piece of middleware when employing DLXS. Then again, perhaps they did not. They do not state such information anywhere that this author accessed.

With regards to the characteristics of the digital objects, this author again had difficulty discovering a wide range of specifics. Cornell does make it known that they used a Xerox DocuImage 620S flatbed scanner for scanning and that, after scanning, they then entered a post-scanning process which included quality control and tagging amongst, presumably, other actions (Grant Project Workflow). The digital objects themselves are viewable either as digitized images of the original object or as OCR-produced text. This is a nice option to have, yet the OCR-produced text is somewhat frustrating and inaccurate. One such example is the following comparison between a random sentence fragment read from a digitized image of the original object and the same sentence fragment read from the OCR-produced text.

Digitized image of original: "But at present I shall, so far as I can, ascertain from pamphlet the specific complaints you make as to the 'emancipation proclamation' . . ."
OCR-produced text: "But at present I shall, so fhr as I can, ascertain from your pain- phiet the specific complaints you make as to the 'emancipa- tion proclamation,'. . . "

The images themselves allow for users to zoom in once while the OCR-produced text allows a user to search a specific pamphlet or the collection at large. Beyond this, this author can only say that images are downloadable as low-quality .tifs images but also printable at what appears to be a medium level of quality.

One of the pieces of this collection that this author was pleased to uncover is the following quote that Cornell used in describing the history of the Samuel J. May collection and of Cornell's Civil War collection:

In 1874 the abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Gerrit Smith, wrote, signed, and circulated an appeal to their friends and supporters in America and Great Britain, urging that it was of "great importance that the literature of the Anti-Slavery movement...be preserved and handed down, that the purposes and the spirit, the methods and the aims of the Abolitionists should be clearly known and understood by future generations. (Collection Description)

Not only does this author find this quote enjoyable from an historical perspective, this author also believes the underlying principle of Cornell's digitization attempts with respect to this collection is highlighted in this quote. That principle being to ensure that the lightnesses and the darknesses of the past never fade or disappear.

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