By Shannon Tennant, Elon University
ALCTS Microgrant Helps Tell Abby Williams Hill’s Story
In 2013, the Archives & Special Collections at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, received a $1,500 Transforming Collections Microgrant from the ALCTS. Our aim was to increase access to the Abby Williams Hill Collection by digitizing and providing detailed metadata for a selection of documents, paintings, diaries and ephemera. Through the use of interactive, historical mapping, we wished to employ digital humanities methods and tools to provide access to the Hill Collection while demonstrating new and innovative ways of approaching scholarly research by marrying technology and archival and special collections material. This would greatly increase access to the Archives & Special Collections and inspire faculty and students to undertake similar projects with Puget Sound’s unique collections. The completed project would facilitate a dialogue on campus regarding the use of archival collections (both physically and digitally) to enhance undergraduate teaching and learning.
Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943) was a landscape painter, social activist, and prolific writer. She produced a remarkable collection of landscape paintings showcasing the grandeur of the American West, as well as a vast archive of letters and journals addressing issues of continuing social and historical interest including African-American and Native-American rights, early childhood education, alcohol abuse, the plight of tuberculosis patients, and the preservation of our national parks. Though it is rich with research materials relating to a myriad of subjects, the existence of the Hill collection has not been widely publicized on campus or beyond and thus its research potential has gone mostly unnoticed.
In the fall of 2013, our team began testing various platforms for the project. Initially we thought we would use Viewshare, a free, open source platform designed to allow users to interact with cultural heritage digital collections through maps, timelines, and tag clouds. However, upon further research we found that it was not as easy to interact with as we hoped and did not provide a visually pleasing platform for researchers. We tested other free, mostly open source tools including Scalar, Hypercities, CurateScape, Neatline, Digital Commons, and Google Earth. Our criteria included ease of use for researchers, a tool that was aesthetically pleasing, and the ability to embed anything we created into our university website. We also considered our resources – one student employee and our three person project team, who was not working full time on the project – and our funding when looking at potential tools to use. After months of testing and discussion, we settled on Google Maps as a platform. We hired a student in the fall and in the spring she began work on the project. The majority of the ALCTS microgrant funding was used to support this student, and we would never have been able to complete the project without it. The funding was crucial to the success of the project and without the grant we would not have been able to undertake this project.
After selecting a variety of documents, photographs, ephemera, artwork, and artifacts from the Hill Collection, we digitized these items and our student worked about ten hours per week during the spring semester to research each item, providing detailed metadata that conveyed the story of Hill’s life using the most significant pieces in the collection. The images are hosted on CONTENTdm, which the university already had a subscription to before the project began. Once the student finished the research portion, we uploaded the information into Google Maps. Hill traveled extensively in the United States and abroad so mapping the items in the collection provides new and innovative ways to think about her life and her work. For example, in 1902 Hill traveled with two of her children to Tuskegee, Alabama, where she met Booker T. Washington, a famous African-American educator and head of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. A researcher can now click on a “pin” over Tuskegee and be able to pull up images of Hill’s correspondence with Washington and read a paragraph about the significance of that visit. There is also a pin over the North Cascade Mountains in Washington State, where the researcher would learn that Hill had the honor of naming a mountain after Booker T. Washington, and could see an image with detailed metadata of Hill’s painting of that mountain. Our student finished with this project in May and the curator of the Collection will continue to fine tune the map this summer so it is ready to present to the university community in the fall.
To promote the finished project we will hold campus events, visit local public school classrooms, and feature the project in the Hill Collection’s traveling exhibit, currently in development. In addition, we will collaborate with professors on campus to incorporate the Hill Collection into their classes through archival literacy sessions; as previously mentioned, the Hill Collection is a rich and varied resource and we believe that through the finished project, faculty will understand the significance of the Collection and the wide variety of disciplines that it applies to (environmental science, African American studies, geology, communications, gender studies, history, sociology, art history, etc.). This project will increase access to and awareness of the Hill collection among our students, faculty, and the wider community. We are very grateful to the ALCTS for their funding, which made this project possible.
Respectfully submitted by Laura Edgar, Curator, Abby Williams Hill Collection; Katie Henningsen, Archivist and Digital Collections Coordinator; and Hilary Robbeloth, Metadata and Collection Services Librarian.