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A Look Towards the CLA’s Digital Future

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

Adapted from a recent article that appeared in the CLA’s monthly newsletter.

The current lockdown caused by the coronavirus may have shuttered the Congregational Library & Archives’ physical space, but it certainly has not stopped the staff from looking towards the CLA’s future. This is especially true on the digital side of things where there is plenty of exciting movement happening even as our weekly meetings have migrated to Zoom and much of our work has focused on metadata stored in the cloud. Digitization and born-digital collections have been very much at the forefront of our thoughts recently. First, three members of the CLA’s staff, Jules Thomson, Tom Clark, and Zachary Bodnar, were able to attend the virtual version of Digital Commonwealth’s annual conference in April. And beyond that, the CLA staff have recently partnered with AVP to bring proper access to the CLA’s digital holdings.

Digital Commonwealth is a non-profit collaborative digital library organization that “provides resources and services to support the creation, management, and dissemination of cultural heritage materials held by Massachusetts libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives.” Each year Digital Commonwealth hosts a conference where library, archives, and museum professionals can come together to share their digitization projects and discuss varied topics related to digitization. This year the conference was held on April 7 and the bulk of the conference was devoted to the ethics of digitization and social justice. The conference began with Elaine Westbrooks’ (University Librarian, UNC Chapel Hill) keynote discussing the pervasive systems of inequality which have led to racial disparities in the preserved record. In order to correct these systematic issues, Westbrooks encouraged conference attendees to reflect on our organizations and identify how we have contributed to exclusion, both historically and currently. The theme of self-examination continued through discussions on privacy concerns, content warnings, use of language, and how to identify and create projects that promote diversity. Some of those projects that were highlighted throughout the day included the Visibility for Disability Project out of UMass Amherst, a digital history of Chinese students at the Phillips Academy, and various projects devoted to LGBTQ+ history.

The CLA is not immune to the need to self-reflect. New England’s Hidden Histories has been, to date, the largest sustained digitization project undertaken by the CLA. While the project has been able to uncover and capture some of the history of Congregationalists of color, the fraught history of slavery and New England churches, and the history of relations between European colonists and Native Americans, the very nature of the records in question ensures that the NEHH project cannot capture the type of diversity that Westbrooks and others argue we must begin actively seeking out and making accessible. NEHH is an incredibly important digitization project, and there is little chance that the momentum we’ve built up over the years with the project will let up, but there will be conversations going forward about how we at the CLA can expand the scope and breadth of the project in the coming years. The CLA also recognizes that it holds within its collections important records related to marginalized groups and it will be necessary to bring these collections to the forefront in the immediate future. For example, the CLA’s vast missionary records, while often problematic and colonialist, can also be used to give voices to minority populations and restore their place properly within Congregationalist history. And the CLA holds records important to understanding the impact LGBTQ+ individuals have had on Congregationalism through our Open and Affirming Coalition collection and the papers of Robert Wood, a WWII veteran, gay clergyman, and author of “Christ and the Homosexual.” Making these valuable collections widely available through digitization efforts will be incredibly important for the CLA as an organization moving forward.

The good news is that the CLA is also currently working on the infrastructure necessary to truly operate a robust and standards-focused digital archive. The CLA has recently begun to work with AVP, a consulting and software development house focusing on the management and preservation of digital materials with an eye towards the needs of cultural institutions, to find and begin implementing a digital asset management system (DAMS).
Digital asset management systems come in many shapes and forms, but at their most basic function, they allow an organization to manage, organize, and share digital materials. DAMS have increasingly become an important part of how libraries and archives deliver their digital content to their users. To give an idea of what these systems can look like, you need look no further than the likes of Digital Commonwealth and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). These digital libraries, and many like them, run off a highly specialized and powerful DAMS built specifically for libraries and archives.

While we do not yet know what specific DAMS the CLA will end up with, that is what AVP is for after all, we do have some idea of how this will change and improve everyone’s ability to find and interact with our digital materials. Long gone will be the days of browsing through our website to find an item digitized as part of the NEHH program. Instead each digital object, such as a volume, will be independently searchable through a robust faceted search system that will allow users to refine by keywords, dates, creators, and more. The NEHH viewer will also be replaced by this DAMS with a built-in media viewer that will be able to handle multi-page volumes on top of audio, text, and video files. Users will also be able to download access copies of most digital files directly from the online record. And the system will expose the CLA to many new users; metadata from our DAMS will be harvestable and searchable by larger systems like the DPLA and Digital Commonwealth so their users will also ultimately become our users.

Overall, the DAMS will make the CLA’s digital files more accessible than ever before. Most immediately this will affect the CLA’s NEHH content, as that is the biggest source of digital content right now. But a DAMS will also open many new avenues of collecting for the CLA. Born digital content created by churches and individuals are already collected by the CLA, but currently we have little way of making these files accessible to users except by providing them in person through a USB device. With a DAMS in place, the CLA will be able to make these born digital materials available to all without the hindrances of physical and technical restrictions. Further, this system will allow us to more proactively collect digital content from churches and individuals shortly after the creation of that digital material. For example, the CLA is currently planning on soon directly collecting church records and digital content, such as streamed services and sermon texts, created in direct response to this COVID-19 crisis and the DAMS is already a vital part of that plan.

There is lots of work to be done yet to prepare the CLA for the digital future, but we are already actively doing that work. We are having the tough internal discussions regarding how the CLA can ensure equitable access to our collections and diversity in the voices represented within our collections, digital and physical. And we have just completed phase one of our work with AVP to develop a requirements short-list which we can present to potential DAMS providers. There is much to be excited about regarding the digital future of the CLA and while it may be somewhat premature, I am confident that we will make heavy strides towards that vision within the next year.