Collection Spotlight: The Keston Digital Archive

Baylor University is a long way from Kirov, Russia and the halls of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, but one digital archive unites these seemingly disparate places through the common bond of The Keston Collection.

The Keston Digital Archive currently houses more than 1,800 items related to the subject of religious persecution carried out under Communist regimes. It includes photographs, books, correspondence, petitions and more, with a majority of the items presented untranslated from their original Russian language. These items are drawn from the larger collection housed at the Keston Center for Religion, Politics & Society, a division of the Baylor University Libraries. Currently, all users can access the metadata for all records, with image access available only on-campus or via a virtual scholar request. (Read through to the end of this post to find out how to make a virtual scholar request.)

The Collection’s Early Years

According to its website, the Keston Institute was “founded in 1969 under the title of Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism, [and ]has specialised in the study of all religions and all forms of religious expression in Communist and formerly Communist countries.” The institute’s archive was housed at Oxford until 2007, when it was donated to Baylor and became the centerpiece of the Keston Center.

The Keston Institute bills itself as the “voice of the voiceless,” and focuses its efforts on educating and advocating on behalf of those whose religions are controlled, outlawed or otherwise restricted under Communist regimes. Over the past four decades, the Institute collected thousands of documents and photographs which were included in the donation to Baylor.

Baylor’s Involvement

Since 2007, Baylor has been home to the Keston Center for Religion, Politics & Society, the official archival repository of the Keston archives. The center’s mission is “To promote research and encourage the study of religion in communist, post-communist, and other totalitarian societies and the relationship between religion and Marxism.” Toward that goal, archivist Larisa Seago and director Kathy Hillman are working to digitize, via the Digital Projects Group, materials that can be of use to scholars around the world.

Using a graduate student to scan materials in the Riley Digitization Center and the expertise of Seago (a native Russian speaker) to add metadata and context, the digital archive has grown to include materials of great interest to researchers investigating the impact of state intervention in the private religious lives of its citizens.

Connect with the Collection

To view the metadata for materials available, visit the Keston Digital Archive. Once there, you’ll see examples of materials from categories such as:

Posters

Poster celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space; he announces he didn’t see God during his time in “Heaven”

Photographs

Kiev Museum of Scientific Atheism

Prints

Anti-religious brochure, 1938

You can also access a selection of Soviet posters found in this collection via our Flickr collection.

For access to materials from locations other than the Baylor University campus, or to make a virtual scholar request, please contact Larisa Seago at Larisa_Seago@baylor.edu.

If you are interested in more information on the Keston Digital Archive, please contact us at digitalcollectionsinfo@baylor.edu. And if you are utilizing its unique resources in your research, we’d love to hear from you. Your work could even be featured in a future blog post!

English Street Art, Full Text Searching and Raising the Dead

“Crane” by Banksy, available at http://www.banksy.co.uk

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”

This quote, attributed to anonymous and ubiquitous English street artist Banksy, is a surprisingly profound viewpoint on memory and mortality, and it got me to thinking: if that’s true, then couldn’t full-text searching serve as a means of “resurrecting” the dead?

Stick with me here.

Wherever possible, we run optical character recognition (OCR) on the materials we’re digitizing and adding to our digital collections. The process involves a piece of software scanning the text in an image and looking for patterns that match letters and groups of letters that it “recognizes” as words. Those patterns are then matched against a dictionary in the software’s database, and where a match is found, it is embedded into the image as a layer of machine-readable text. It’s the way we’re able to provide full-text searching for our materials, and with our current software solutions we’re able to achieve almost 100% accuracy in some cases.

Running OCR on items with printed text is de rigueur for most digital collections. It’s almost mandatory if you want your collections to show up in Google, Bing or other search engines, as the more “harvestable” data you have in your collections, the better chance those engines will ingest it and make it available for people searching for a particular word or phrase.

We’re seeing lots of activity on our collections related to what I would call genealogist/family history searches. Often, it’s someone looking for information on a relative who attended Baylor at some point in the past. They will enter a simple search string in Google – James A. Smith Baylor University 1918 – and the results will almost always bring them to an item in our digital collections. Now, no one in our office sat down and typed James A. Smith’s name into the metadata for the 1918 Round Up, for example, so the researcher was only able to find it because the OCR’d text generated a hit via the search engine.

Pattie Orr, Dean of University Libraries and VP for Information Technology, has often remarked that she’s seen potential donors and friends of the library get truly excited when she demos our system to them by typing in a family member’s name and seeing what comes up. They are often overjoyed at the opportunity to read about a favorite grandfather’s exploits in a debate club, or to see photos of their aunt posing with her sorority sisters. Dean Orr notes that this kind of connection often serves to create informed advocates for the work we’re doing, as they are able to show and tell others about the treasures they’ve discovered in our collections.

Which leads me to this final thought: as more and more genealogists, researchers, faculty members and casual historians are accessing our materials, they are going to be encountering the names, faces and stories of people who may have died centuries ago. Many of them passed from this earth so long ago that no one living today has ever said their name aloud. So any time a great-great-great granddaughter finds her antecedent’s name in our collection and says it aloud for the first time, it could very well be the first time anyone has done so in decades.

That simple act of saying a name can truly serve as a resurrection – not of a body, but of a story, an identity, a history. And we are more than happy to serve as a the avenue for something so important.

Bonus Content

Just for fun, here are some of my favorite names I’ve run across during my work with our collections. Feel like “resurrecting” one of your favorites? Just say it out loud!

Carlyne Trautwein

Odo Surratt

Hettie Clegg

W.M.W. Splawn

L. Blum Wootters

Wilby T. Gooch

Cloantha Copass