Bowdoin continues to be a magnet for illustrious awards, with several major grants totaling more than $1.6 million awarded to faculty and programs at the College in recent months.
Bowdoin received a grant award of $150,000 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission’s “Digitizing Historical Records” program to support a three-year project to digitize the college’s Oliver Otis Howard Papers.
Based in Bowdoin’s George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, the project will reproduce the entire contents of the O.O. Howard Papers (which occupy more than sixty linear feet of shelf space) for online viewing and downloading. The 150,000 high-quality scanned pages will be freely available world-wide.
Howard was a Maine native who graduated in the Bowdoin class of 1850 and went on to become a Union general, awarded a Medal of Honor for his service in the war. His later activities included becoming head of the Freedman’s Bureau and superintendent of West Point, participating in Indian wars in the western United States, and serving for many years on Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees. Over the course of his life, Howard exchanged letters with more than 14,000 people, including notables involved in social reformation, the military, politics, law, religion, education, literature, journalism, and the arts. The luminaries with whom he corresponded included Henry Ward Beecher, Andrew Carnegie, Dorothea Dix, Frederick Douglass, James A. Garfield, Sojourner Truth, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Howard’s trove of letters, scrapbooks, speeches, diaries, and photographs attracts researchers in a wide range of disciplines. The documents not only provide insight into the events of Howard’s varied career, but also reflect his personal life as a member of a distinguished Maine family, his active social involvement, and his progressive ideas on topics such as African-American welfare and education for disadvantaged populations.
For reasons such as these, the Howard papers are already Bowdoin’s most in-demand collection. But thanks to the digitization project, “we think the collection will become even more heavily used,” said Richard Lindemann, director of the George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives. “Digitization makes more people come to see the originals, to inspect them more carefully,” he said. “It actually increases traffic to the original collection.”
Obtaining large-scale funding was critical for the success of this labor-intensive project, which requires many hours of scanning images (a task that will be performed by students) and an important element of quality control, as well as specialized equipment. Bowdoin’s proposal to the NHPRC demonstrated a cost-effective digitization plan, which included the innovative technique of integrating the newly digitized material with the Howard collection’s electronic finding aid – an existing resource that provides descriptive and organizational information about the collection. “Rather than creating metadata, we’re applying metadata that’s already been created,” Lindemann said, noting that this time-saving method provides a model for future digitization projects. Electronic finding aids are not only ubiquitous within Bowdoin’s collections but also commonplace at other institutions.
Lindemann noted that the digitization project dovetails with the College’s active interest in exploring the digital humanities. “The digitized archive will be an opportunity for students and faculty to interrogate the collection in ways that they haven’t been able to before,” Lindemann said.
News and updates for the digitization project are viewable on the project website.