A Not-So-Innocent Abroad: Presenting at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference

HEADERWhen I use the phrase “digital humanities,” what comes to mind? Humans using machines to analyze what makes us human? Machines pretending to be humans? A T-800 model Terminator quoting Shakespeare?

"It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves. Also, prepare to die, human scum!"

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

Turns out, it’s a trick question, because no one really agrees on what “digital humanities” means for sure.

That’s a big takeaway I got from a three-day conference on digital humanities (DH) held at the University of Pennsylvania last week. But the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference wasn’t just an opportunity for me to refine my ambiguity detection skills; it was actually a great opportunity to present not once but twice to a room full of humanists, librarians, archivists, scholars and generally intelligent people.

For this particular trip – my first to Philadelphia, as it turns out – I decided to capture some of my thoughts and experiences on video and to share them here in this blog post. Yes, friends: I have crossed into VLOGGING. Can viral fame be far behind? (Spoiler alert: Yes, it can, and should be.)

My first video observation actually addresses something that happened while my plane was on the tarmac at DFW International Airport, and it involves one of the most divisive subjects of our time: selfie sticks.


I know I’m treading dangerously close to “old man yells at cloud” territory here, but for real? You need that many versions of three people sitting on a plane, seen from an elevated angle? Oh, and they took more selfies in front of the baggage carousel.

keystone_blog-01But it actually ties in with one of the recurring themes of the conference, as it would turn out: documenting our human experience and using digital tools to tell the story of who we are as human beings. Which begs the question: what are the digital humanities, anyway?

Oh, the (Digital) Humanities!

For a quick definition of DH, let’s turn to our good friend Wikipedia:

Digital humanities is an area of research and teaching at the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. Developing from the fields of humanities computing, humanistic computing,[2] and digital humanities praxis ([3]) digital humanities embraces a variety of topics, from curating online collections to data mining large cultural data sets. Digital humanities (often abbreviated DH) currently incorporates both digitized and born-digital materials and combines the methodologies from traditional humanities disciplines (such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies) and social sciences [4] with tools provided by computing (such as data visualisation, information retrieval, data mining, statistics, text mining, digital mapping), and digital publishing.

That’s a lot to wrap one’s head around! I think of it this way: we’re using computers and computerized data to mine, examine, interpret and provide access to centuries of human intellectual output. Per the definition above, we most fully “do” digital humanities at the Digital Projects Group (DPG) by providing access to large sets of data formatted as digital collections. For every project we put online, there are numerous avenues for scholars and humanists to take the collections, evaluate them, look for patterns and, perhaps, see something new and exciting in the process.

I’ll be honest at this point and say that there were some super intelligent – almost scary smart – people at this conference, and that made the whole “presenting on things you do for work” thing more intimidating than I had anticipated. I mean, these are people who use words like “legomenology” and “praxis” in casual conversation. What might they think about our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project or my work managing our social media a the DPG? Most of them have probably only ever heard of Baylor in terms of our famous president/amazing riverside stadium, right?

Those questions would be asked over the course of three days at the beautiful Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts on the Penn campus, housed in the Van Pelt Library. If you’re wondering how to find that library, just look for the giant broken button on the sidewalk outside. Behold!

Want a closer look at that button? Here ya go!


Most of the sessions took place in a really cool space in the middle of the sixth floor. Some attendees likened it to being in a fishbowl, but I loved it.

keystone_blog-03During some down time on the second day, I went to a truly unique historic site: the Eastern State Penitentiary. It’s considered America’s first true “penitentiary,” in that it put all of its prisoners in solitary cells and did everything possible to make them feel repentant for what they did. This was opposed to the usual way of locking people up, which was basically throwing as many people into a cramped holding area as possible and hoping they didn’t murder each other before sunup. So, you know: progress!

The site was amazing. It has been kept as a “preserved ruin” for decades, with only minimal repairs made to show what it looked like in its original form. That’s not to say they haven’t made it really visitor friendly, though. There’s tons of great signage, and a wonderful audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi. Folks, this thing was worth every nickel of the admission price. Oh, and if that’s not enough, there was a sign in an exhibit that gave the name of the group that got the whole thing started (which included Ben Franklin as a member, natch): The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. My goal before I retire is to borrow that name and modify it for use as an official library committee name.


In our next video clip, I give you a curator’s-eye-view of the inside of a cell, and I make a joke about working in a cube farm. Enjoy!

Don’t feel too bad for old Al, though. Given the fact that he was already famous when he stayed here, the powers that be saw to it that his accommodations were pretty far above the usual prisoner’s setup. To wit:

Back to the idea of humanities, digital or otherwise: the museum used data about incarceration rates to make this cool infographic/sculpture in the prison yard. I thought it was a very effective and creative way of visualizing the data set.

keystone_blog-06Back at the conference, my first talk was a digital showcase on the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. I told the assembled crowd of attendees – which, because this was the sole presentation in that time slot for the day, was almost every person at the conference! – about the BGMRP, how it came into existence, and what kinds of research areas a digital humanist might find buried in the collection. Afterward, I got lots of nice feedback and some very interesting ideas about how to make the collection more useful to scholars. One idea that was proposed more than once was to provide transcriptions of the lyrics for songs in the collection, something that would allow DHers to run data analysis on recurring words, grammatical structure, use of metaphor/simile/allusion, etc. This could be a really cool Phase II or III for the project and I was definitely interested in hearing what folks from across the country had to say about one of our highest profile projects.

I was so jazzed about the presentation that I address it – and one of the big reasons to live in a city other than Waco – in this next video!

I mean, seriously: have you people ever HAD Dunkin’s iced coffee?

My next presentation was a long paper on “How to Keep the ‘Humanity’ in Digital Humanities Social Media.” I basically ran down some ideas about finding a voice for your collections, looking into the different social media platforms for the right fit, and then an overview of the ways we’re using social media to promote the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections.  It was another successful presentation, IMHO, and prompted an appropriate amount of laughter when I told them we used this blog to promote our School of Music Programs by writing an open letter to an actor from “The Walking Dead.” My observations, in video form!

Oh, and my presentation took place in a room with this view:

Not too shabby!

I’ll close this post by saying that attending this conference was enormously helpful from a content creator’s perspective because it gave me some great insights into how scholars, faculty and other users are utilizing the kinds of resources we put onto the web, and it gave me great ideas for how to further enhance our collections so that they’re as useful, findable and impactful as possible. And lastly, it gave me a great quote from keynote speaker Dr. Miriam Posner of UCLA, which I’ll present here as one of those “unrelated image/quote/speaker” memes, because I love them.

miriam_quoteAnd in case you’re thinking, after all that, that all I did in Philadelphia was eat cheesesteaks and visit museums, here’s pictorial evidence of me talking to a crowd, courtesy Amelia Longo, via Twitter:

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 4.06.11 PMOh, and for the record: Geno’s Cheesesteaks 4 life.

The Keystone Digital Humanities Conference website has a full list of the speakers and attendees for your consideration. To see all the Twitter backchatter, search for #keydh. The portrait of sassy Ben Franklin is from the collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a.k.a. the place with the Rocky steps.

“Lord, Don’t Forget About Me” – Thoughts on Sustainability, Digital Collections and Museums

buffet_quote_imageThis week, I’ve been attending the Texas Association of Museums’ annual conference in Ft. Worth (a.k.a. Cowtown, a.k.a. Funkytown). Amid the usual offerings on how to engage preschool visitors, trends in collections management and how to navigate federal law as it relates to Native American ceremonial items, one of the recurring themes has been the idea of sustainability. Not in the environmentally friendly, pro-recycling sense of the term, but in something more stark: do struggling museums deserve to survive, and if so, what can we do to help? Are museums doomed to fail because they are in thrall to their habits – good and bad – and unable to undertake significant change?

Specifically, there was a major report funded by the Summerlee Foundation that examined the state of historic museums in Texas, and the findings were eye-opening. Many of the state’s history-focused institutions have entered into a mode that can charitably be described as “perpetuation.” In other words, they’ve grown past the initial fervor that brought them into being in the first place – saving a historic structure, for example – and have entered into a second or third generation of leadership whose focus is on maintaining the status quo, or, at worst, keeping the whole affair from closing altogether.

This is discomforting news for many of the state’s 1,000+ historic sites and museums, as it indicates a lack of strong leadership, compelling history, innovative business models and the other positive attributes identified by the Summerlee report that are key to an institution’s survival. Implicit in all of this discussion is a question many museum professionals are hesitant to ask: If an institution that has pledged itself to add permanence to an impermanent resource (i.e. a physical collection or structure) is now in jeopardy, at what point do we say, “enough is enough?” We don’t expect for-profit institutions and businesses to last in perpetuity; stores go out of business all the time. But we DO expect our museums to last forever because they serve a higher purpose, namely, holding cultural assets in the public trust.

So Where Do Digital Collections Enter Into The Discussion?

The crux of this conversation focuses on our brick-and-mortar (and lathe, and log, and millwork, and adobe) brethren, but there are lessons here for institutions like our Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections, too.

While we aren’t restricted by the requirement that we care for an aging, actively deteriorating physical structure, we do have built-in costs related to our work. Servers, digitizing equipment, staffing, storage for physical items: all of these costs are inherent in the work we do. Without a scanner, a server and people to run them both, we can’t create a digital surrogate of a rare black gospel 45, and we can’t put it online for the world to experience it.

Being part of a major university certainly makes our position more stable than many of our historic sites colleagues, but even we aren’t immune from the changing whims of researchers, students and the general public. So long as the requests keep coming in for access to 19th century sheet music, the works of women poets and back issues of our campus newspaper, we will see the obvious demand for the resources we are committed to creating and hosting into the future.

But if there comes a point where online access to collections is considered as quaint as handling an authentic butter churn – that is, something you do once on a vacation and not something that has relevance to your daily life – that’s when we’ll know we’ve moved from a cause to a burden. It’s at that crucial point where so many historic sites are caught today, and it’s something we are actively planning to avoid.

We Must Sing In Full Voice

A big part of avoiding the “in perpetuation” mindset is to keep our voice fresh, to keep seeking new ways to engage with users of all stripes, and to spread the word about the uniqueness, usefulness and openness of our resources.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, wrote a number of rules for singing in his congregations. One of them was,

Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.

I think that advice is fitting for us as we work to create and promote our university’s unique cultural heritage assets via our digital collections. If we are engaged with the work, if we are focused and enthusiastic about what we do, that will show in our output, and people will carry the torch for us. But if we falter, if we give only a halfhearted effort, that, too, will show, and we’ll see an attendant downturn in interest.

But fear not, friends of our work: we have no plan to grow weary, to find our work a cross to bear rather than a song to sing, and we are fully committed to maintaining and expanding our collections “forever and ever, amen.” And the more you can help us by spreading the word to your friends and colleagues, the easier it will be to make sure our work is sustainable for generations to come.

One last note: if there’s a historic house museum, a county historical society or other history-related resource in your area, do all you can to support them. Pay them a visit, make a donation, volunteer to serve on their board of trustees, post something nice about them on Facebook; any help we can provide to our fellow culture preservers only benefits us as a society, and it keeps some really great people employed, too.

Rain-Soaked, Pit-Smoked, Pretty Stoked: Digital Frontiers 2013 and Digital Collections as Culinary Theory

Last Friday, I was honored to present on a panel at Digital Frontiers 2013, hosted by the good folks at UNT’s Digital Scholarship Co-Operative. I joined Elizabeth Hansen from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and Liza Talbot of the LBJ Presidential Library for a discussion titled, “Using Social Media to Engage Users with Digital Collections.” I’d presented a previous incarnation of this talk with Elizabeth at the Texas Association of Museums’ annual conference earlier this year, and it was great to reconnect with her and to meet Liza, whose creative use of Tumblr to present the life of President Johnson is an exciting approach to making mid-20th century history relevant to an expansive audience that includes young users who weren’t even alive during his presidency.

With Liza Talbot (center) and Elizabeth Hansen at Digital Frontiers 2013.

Aside from participating on our panel, I was also pleased to develop further connections with folks like Cindy Boeke, Digital Collections Developer at the SMU Norwick Center for Digital Services and form new connections with relative newcomer to the digital collections field Amy Caton, Reference/Metadata Librarian at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston. Cindy’s session exploring the use of data analysis and documenting outcomes for digital collections was eye-opening and I got lots of great ideas for how we can better engage our users and provide relevant, impactful reports to our command structure further “up the chain.”

During the drive from Waco to Denton – which normally takes about 3 hours but, due to torrential rain, took considerably longer this time – I had time to think about the state of our digital collections and, because I was trapped in a car with little else to do, how I could derive a metaphor using our collections and awesome food.

It took a little work, but here’s my Unified Theory of Baylor Digital Collections As They Relate to Food. (I’m working on a more concise title, but this is still a working theory.)

Why Food?

I could certainly compare our collections – and our philosophy, our workflow, our center, etc. – to something else, like a precision Swiss watch, an American muscle car, or a football team (like our currently undefeated Baylor Bears – Sic ‘em!). But food is universal, it’s something everyone can grasp, and when people encounter a meal that hits all the right notes, displaying obvious skill and quality, it can impact us in ways nothing else can. So let’s dive right in, shall we?

  1. Like good ribs, we take time to make our collections right

You can’t rush good ribs. Sure, you can quick-grill some country style ribs and pretend that’s good enough, but for something truly noteworthy, you need hours of smoking over choice wood, attention to the right balance of dry rub vs. sauce, and a finished product that’s the right balance of toothy and spicy, with a glaze that should require copious amounts of napkins to clean up. Like these:

Pecan-smoked pork ribs with Mexican corn and barbecue sauce, Woodshed Smokehouse, Ft. Worth (Apologies for the crummy quality photo; it was all I could do to snap a quick shot before diving in.)

Those beauties came from the Woodshed Smokehouse in Ft. Worth, a Tim Love-owned joint that, quite honestly, serves up the best pork ribs I’ve ever eaten. These things deserve lyrical odes, interpretive dance, a Greek chorus, you name it; nothing will be sufficient to describe their awesomeness.

And that’s what I like to think about our collections – well, minus the hyperbolic praise part – because we take the time to do it right. Our philosophy has always been that our collections should be drawn from excellent sources, sufficiently described to make them findable and useful, and presented in a format that is approachable and rich. Some institutions put their stock in quantity over quality, and that’s certainly one way to do it. But we feel having rich metadata, contextual research and a blend of outreach to make them relevant put our collections in a different category altogether. Are they perfect? Certainly not, and we are always working to improve them. But I’d wager if you sat them down side-by-side with any other digital collection online today, their quality would stack up byte for byte.

2. We don’t lose sight of the benefits of mass appeal

Ribs are awesome. But not everyone likes ribs. That’s okay: how about an amazing hamburger? Behold the Cowboy Murrin, a burger tour-de-force from Rodeo Goat, also in Ft. Worth and also totally worthy of your dining dollars.

The Cowboy Murrin burger, goat chips and chips & queso, Rodeo Goat, Ft. Worth.

Hamburgers are about as American as you can get, and people from all walks of life can approach them and enjoy them because they are comforting, you know what to expect with them, and they can be dressed up to meet any palate. We work to strike a balance in our collections that caters to both the hardcore researcher but also the at-home genealogists, the schoolchild working on his homework and the amateur historian searching for her grandmother in our campus newspaper collection.

We want our collections to be useful to everyone, so we make them findable through a simple Google search or an advanced search of our online library catalog. We identify collections in our partner institutions that appeal to a very narrow research focus and we put out mass-appeal collections like the Baylor Round Ups. We believe that balance puts our collections in a category comprising both depth and approachability, a category I’m going to term depproachability. (All rights reserved.)

3. Want to win friends? Be sweet.

In our final piece of “digital collections as food” theory, you can never underestimate the impact you’ll have if you’re nice to people. Because nothing finishes off a nice meal like something sweet, here’s a shot of a tray of apricot kolaches from the famous Czech Stop in West.

Apricot kolaches, the Czech Stop, West, TX

I am constantly amazed at the number of people who tell me about their horrible experiences dealing with libraries and digital collections that treat their users like criminals-in-waiting, scheming ne-er-do-wells looking to defraud an institution by stealing resources or failing to give sufficient homage. It seems that too many of our peers see their role as less a steward of the public trust than a gatekeeper or roadblock.

With our collections living freely available on the Internet for users around the world to access to their heart’s content (and in their own locales), we embrace a different philosophy. We think it’s important to treat our users as potential partners, people whose passion for their area of interest has led them to our collections in search of new information, better resources or confirmation of something they’ve suspected all along but could never quite prove. And in their search, we do our best to be accommodating and helpful, fulfilling their requests when it’s within our policies and rights to do so, and striving to do so with a smile. Because the old marketing adage applies to digital collections as much as it does to restaurants: “If we did well, tell ten people. If we did not, tell us.”


This year marks the 12th year of digital projects at Baylor University, and next month will mark our fifth year in the Riley Digitization Center. In that timespan, we have grown from a handful of collections to more than 55 publicly-accessible collections comprised of some 250,000+ items. We are humbled by the kudos we receive from researchers around the world and are impressed by the innovative ways they are utilizing the collections to impact scholarship on a local and international level every day. And we continue to be thankful for working with our amazing on-campus partners whose physical collections are the basis of our digital collections. We look forward to augmenting our existing offerings with new content on a regular basis and to finding new ways to connect those resources with our users.

In other words, we’re staying hungry.

Guest Post: The Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan by Stephen Bolech

This week’s post comes courtesy our Audiovisual Digitization Specialist, Stephen Bolech. In his work to save the recorded materials in Baylor’s collections, Stephen has kept up to speed on standards and practices in the field. This post gives information on one of the most important, recent publications from the Library of Congress. Take it away, Stephen!

I know Eric has mentioned me on this blog before, but since I’m writing a guest post, I thought I would officially introduce myself.  I am Stephen Bolech, the Audiovisual Digitization Specialist here in the Digital Projects Group.  As my title suggests, I handle all in-house digitization of audio and video materials for Baylor University.  That includes materials in the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project; the George W. Truett sermon discs; audio and video from The Texas Collection, the Baylor University Institute for Oral History, and the Crouch Music and Fine Arts Library; and just about any other A/V that needs digitization.

I wanted to bring to our readers’ attention a document released in February 2013 by the National Recording Preservation Board.  You’ll have to bear with me here, because there are several entities and names that differ by essentially one word.

First a little history: back in 2000, Congress passed the National Recording Preservation Act, which created the National Recording Preservation Board, the National Recording Registry, and the National Recording Preservation Foundation.  The Board was tasked with selecting recordings for inclusion in the Registry, and also with developing and implementing a national plan to safeguard our nation’s recorded sound heritage.  “The Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan” is the result of this charge.

Cover, “The Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan”

The Board estimates the astounding figure of 46 million sound recordings held in our libraries, archives, and museums, with many more in the hands of record companies, artists, broadcasters, and collectors.  These sound recordings are an important part of our cultural heritage, and many of them are in danger of being lost forever, whether through degradation or obsolescence.  The Plan is a 78-page document that seeks to outline how to “implement a comprehensive national sound recording preservation program,” part of the mandate given in the National Recording Preservation Act.  Congress also indicated that greater access is the goal of this preservation effort: “The Librarian shall carry out activities to make sound recordings included in the National Recording Registry more broadly accessible for research and educational purposes…”

To these ends the National Recording Preservation Plan identifies four broad categories of recommendations: preservation infrastructure, preservation strategies, access challenges, and long-term national preservation and access strategies.  In total the Plan sets forth 32 specific recommendations related to these areas.  I encourage you to read the Plan, and think about what roles your institution should play in implementing these recommendations.  The National Recording Preservation Board cannot preserve our nation’s recorded sound for us, but they have given us many actionable steps so that we can all play our part in this important effort.

For more information, download a PDF of the Plan at http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/PLAN%20pdf.pdf or visit the National Recording Preservation Board website at  http://www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/

Stephen Bolech is the Audiovisual Digitization Specialist with Baylor’s Digital Projects Group. He can be reached via email at stephen_bolech@baylor.edu.

“There’s No Hiding Place Down Here” – Confronting the Challenging Content in Our Collections

Inset from 1980 Soviet anti-American propaganda poster entitled “Svoboda po Amerikanski,” (“Freedom the American Way”) from the Keston Digital Archive. The poster accuses the American system of suppressing freedom of speech (“opinion”) by bribing the judicial system, represented by the dollar signs in the magistrate’s eyes.

The Digital Projects Group serves as the central source for digitizing materials from Baylor’s special collections libraries and other on-campus institutions. This puts us in the unique – and sometimes difficult – position of passing materials through our workflow that contain challenging and, occasionally, blatantly offensive content. In many instances, that content passes through the hands of our student workers and graduate assistants. And if these materials aren’t placed in their proper context, or if there are no opportunities for students to talk about the emotions and thoughts they experience when handling them, it can add an unwanted layer of discomfort and awkwardness to our work.

This potential challenge is a greater likelihood in some collections than others. You’re much less likely to see negative stereotyping or racially insensitive materials in a collection of famous Baptist sermons than you would be in a set of anti-semitic brochures collected for decades by a professor in the Department of Church-State Studies. But even seemingly innocuous collections can harbor unpleasant glimpses of the past, so it’s important to have a process in place to help our student workers – and, in some cases our researchers – process what they’re finding in our digital collections.

The Trouble With Perspective

I once heard it said that people’s historical perspective begins on the day they’re aware of their own uniqueness. In other words, it’s impossible for us to completely embrace the complex blend of social conventions, viewpoints, events and cultural touchstones that existed before we were born, as we all instinctively judge the present through the lens of how it developed from the time of our childhood up to the present day. We can intellectually grasp a concept – “People once thought illness was caused by vapors, not germs! Isn’t that funny!” – but it can be difficult to fully appreciate the internal motivations of events carried out and documented by people who lived in the past.

For a simple test of what I’m talking about, take a look at the following image and see what comes to mind.

If you were alive and aware of the world in 1963, you’ll immediately recognize this as a still from the Zapruder film, one of the most famous artifacts attached to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But for many 19-year-old undergraduate students, this may as well be a vignette from the Bayeux Tapestry for all the relevance it has on their daily life – at least as far as they’re concerned. However, if you show them an image like this …

… their perspective changes radically. The September 11, 2001 attacks occurred during their lifetime, and while they may only have been in elementary school at the time, they can tell you exactly what was happening the day they saw the Twin Towers fall, much as a Baby Boomer can pinpoint their location on the day Kennedy was shot.

The challenge of perspective is difficult enough to address with a subject as complex and nuanced as a presidential assassination or America’s worst terrorist attack, and those are events that happened within the span of living memory. But what does it look like when our students face materials created more than a half-century before their parents were born?

Universally Offensive?

A surprising source of challenging content is our Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music. While the entire collection contains some 28,000 pieces, the initial offerings digitized and placed online were chosen from a list of Mrs. Spencer’s own subject headings. They examine a variety of topics, but among the most important are depictions of race and cultural identity in turn-of-the-19th-century America. The original subset was dubbed The American Melting Pot Collection.

The images contain equal opportunities for offending almost every possible ethnic and racial identity group in the country. Some titles are patently offensive by modern standards.

Cover of “Chung Lo: A Chinese Monkey Doodle” sheet music, 1909

Others are more subtle in their negative depictions.

Cover of “Minnie-Ha-Ha Donohue, An Irish-Indian Love Song” sheet music, 1908

Still others represent inaccurate or fictionalized interpretations of groups that lacked adequate means of expressing their own cultural identities in a medium like popular piano sheet music. In this piece, a woman with a bad reputation (a “good for nothing”) finds redemption by serving as a nurse during World War I.

Cover of “The Little Good For Nothing’s Good For Something After All” sheet music, 1918

Opportunities to Educate, Find Context

When our students and researchers come across images like these, it can be a shock to them, especially to college students who have grown up in an age of multicultural awareness and who are unused to seeing blatant racism on casual display in popular culture. In these cases, we take time to explain to them that while the material they’ve encountered may be discomforting or difficult to address, it is nonetheless a part of the historical record, and pretending it doesn’t exist will not magically negate it. Instead, we choose to present an uncensored window into our collections, allowing researchers and scholars the chance to assess each piece’s impact on our understanding of history without selectively “cherry-picking” only the materials that are safe and non-offensive.

In the handful of occasions when our students have approached us with material they find offensive, we have been quick to have honest, open discussions with them about their feelings and why we are making such materials a part of our digital collections. And in each case, they have seen the importance of including the offending piece. In fact, they often say something to this effect: “It happened in the past, and we can’t pretend it didn’t just by choosing not to scan it. We need to give people a chance to see history as it was so we can see how much things have changed for the better.”

When I hear reactions like that from students in their late teens and early twenties, it gives me great hope that we are educating a generation of scholars that sees archival resources for what they are: a collection of viewpoints, set in a fixed medium for preservation and use by future generations, by no means all-encompassing of every voice, but valuable simply for having been saved.

The Historical Context Statement appears on collections that may contain potentially sensitive materials.

For the general public that accesses our collections, they may encounter wording on a collection’s landing page that spells out our Historical Context Statement. This paragraph, drafted by DPG staff and vetted all the way to the top of the university’s administrative structure, notifies users that materials they are about to view may be difficult to experience due to their content, but should be taken as examples of the time, cultures and mores that produced them. They are also informed that Baylor University “does not endorse the views expressed in such materials.”


The documentary evidence of our cultural heritage contains many wonderful treasures. Personal reflections, institutional histories, official publications and unpublished manuscripts all offer insight into the minds and souls of the people who created them. And while researchers may encounter materials that challenge their contemporary values and beliefs, the richness of the subject matter – positive and negative – is an essential element to understanding what it means to be human.