Out of the Pew Backs and Onto the Web: Digitizing 50 Unique Hymnals for Online Access

This post was written by Jon Snyder, Access Services Coordinator with the Arts & Special Collections Research Center.

Hymnals and hymnbooks are intertwined with the history of church music going back to early printing. They’ve been housed in the pew racks of churches in one manner or another for centuries, in addition to smaller books intended for personal use carried back and forth to church. The Arts & Special Collections Research Center has amassed a collection of over 1600 unique hymnals, the majority of which are in the special collections. Of these, 805 hymnals are in the public domain and able to be digitized. As a leader in church music scholarship and teaching, it was time for the collection to become digitized and accessible outside of reading room, usable in classrooms across campus and around the world.

The process of digitization began with finding fifty hymnals to digitize. Proposed criteria included rarity, age, or quality; however, as a resource for teaching, the team decided “importance” should be the criteria for the first round of digitization. Importance was seen through several filters, including introduction of important hymns (such as Olney Hymnal printing “Amazing Grace” for the first time), landmark hymnals in church music history (such as The Whole Book of Psalmes Collected into English Meeter by Sternhold and Hopkins), and influential American hymnals (such as The Sacred Harp). After much deliberation, looking to represent a variety of traditions from across Europe and the United States, fifty hymnals were selected to be the first round of digitized hymnals.

Before scanning, the metadata—information about the item such as author, composer, title, and date—was verified and clarified. This process resulted in the metadata in the digital collection being as accurate as possible. Due to the rare, and sometimes incomplete, nature of these hymnals, this information could at times be difficult to track down. One example in this set was The Psalm-Singer’s Amusement. William Billings, early American composer, published a collection with this title in 1781, and the included volume includes several of Billings’ tunes. However, the collection includes tunes composed after Billings’ death in 1801. After more research, this volume was confirmed to be composed by Samuel Howe and published by his brother, John, three years after Billings’ death. Thus, it was important for each hymnal to be confirmed with its metadata.

Once the metadata was compiled, the hymnals were scanned using three different Zeutschel scanners: the ScanStudio A2, best for all regular sized hymnals, especially those which laid flat, the OS 14000 A0, meant for larger materials like newspapers or tall books, and the OS 14000 A2 with a new book cradle, for small and tightly bound materials. Each scanner, though slightly different in function (picture snapshot vs. digital scan, size constraints, etc.), used the same application for editing and refining images for digitization.

Select items from this project were digitized on the Scan Studio setup in the Riley Digitization Center.

With everything digitized, it was time to show what is possible with fifty digitized hymnals. While the team has not yet put in every title of every hymn nor every text used, there is still plenty that can be done with the information gathered. Additionally, because the hymnals are now digitized, any digital platform can link directly to the item to allow for easier access. With the integration of digital humanities tools, instructors, students, and researchers can better interact with the materials.

First, the materials were put into a timeline using TimelineJS by the Knight Lab at Northwestern University. Grouping the materials into four categories by how their musical notation appears, users can see how notation morphed from no musical notation (text only) to a few lines (most often melody) to either open or close notation with four parts. Each hymnal is shown with an image of the cover page, a short explanation of the item, and link to the digital item.

Next, creators and publishers were compiled into a StoryMap from the same creators. With some research integrated into the larger cities, users can see the individual streets and neighborhoods where these materials were created. If following along chronologically, users can see the move from Europe to the east coast centers (namely New York and Philadelphia) and then to the west and south (Georgia, Tennessee, Illinois). This map also provides useful insight into the importance of London as a printing center for English-language hymnals.

With this first collection of fifty hymnals complete, along with several projects highlighting how the materials can be used by researchers, we look forward to growing this digital collection and the many ways it can be utilized. With the addition of another twenty-five hymnals and more detailed meta-data on the way, this resource will continue to grow into the future.


Research Resources

View the complete digital collection of hymnals here.

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