Digitizing Union College’s Alumni Files: Scanning and Student Engagement

By India Spartz

As you can imagine, when an undergraduate liberal arts institution like Union College is more than 200 years old, it generates and receives an astonishing amount of information about its alumni: newspaper clippings, notes, letters, and ephemera related to centuries of graduates.

In an attempt to maintain active relationships with its alumni, Union’s College Relations department established a series of alumni files. Several decades ago, files dating from 1795 to 1929 were transferred to the Schaffer Library’s Special Collections and Archives department for research purposes and safekeeping (the materials are currently stored in a secured climate controlled environment).

The files are a rich and valuable resource for documenting the history of Union College, and Special Collections receives frequent requests from students, faculty, and researchers who seek information pertaining to its alumni.

When I arrived as head of Special Collections & Archives in 2014, the alumni files were stored on shelves in the library’s basement. This arrangement meant that student workers and library staff descended three flights of stairs to pull files. Aside from the amount of time it took to retrieve and return the files, frequent handling put the materials at risk for damage. I immediately recognized the need to relocate the alumni files into the Special Collections & Archives department and began developing a way to scan the contents of each folder for long term preservation and access.

Union College is like most small undergraduate liberal arts institutions: we currently lack a sophisticated digital lab and have limited resources for outsourcing large digital scanning projects. So I determined that the best way to tackle scanning hundreds of alumni files would be to utilize student workers. In 2015, through a generous bequest, the library acquired a Zeutschel OS12002 overhead scanner. The Zeutschel makes it possible to customize scanning settings, which allowed us to streamline the digitization process. This feature also allows students to be quickly trained to scan the alumni files using basic Photoshop commands.

Screen Shot 2017-12-14 at 8.37.00 AM
Explanation of and example of file naming structure employed throughout the project.

In order to capture the necessary metadata, Special Collections & Archives collaborated with the Technical Services department to create protocols for assigning numbers for each item within a folder. The metadata naming schema uses the surname and first initial of the alum (as shown in image at right).

Training
The Technical Services department trains students on how to use the Zeutschel. The Special Collections & Archives staff also train students on handling and handwriting the metadata (using a #2 pencil) on each document. More experienced students have also acted as trainers by teaching each other how to scan and code the documents. So far, the students have successfully scanned folders dating from 1795 to 1866.

Challenges

  • It turns out that the more recent folders require additional time to complete, as they contain more information. This has slowed the pace of scanning considerably.
  • As students graduate, it’s imperative that the Special Collections & Archives department hire new student workers each year and provide training in order to continue the project.
  • Folders post-1900 are likely to contain confidential information since the College Relations department began sending questionnaires to alumni. These questionnaires requested information about their personal lives (names and birthdates of children, home addresses, etc.). Therefore, it may be necessary to restrict post-1900 alumni files because of confidentiality concerns.
  • As of this writing, scanned alumni files are only accessible via an in-house server. Special Collections & Archives staff are authorized to reference these files for researchers. Patrons may receive copies of the digitized files upon request. The Schaffer Library recently launched an institutional repository called Union Digital Works. This platform will likely serve as the online access point for digitized alumni files. Once online, researchers will have full access to the pre-1900 alumni files via the internet.

 

Student engagement
While the coding and scanning process can be tedious, students have surprisingly embraced these tasks. More than once, they have commented that coding and digitizing the documents provides an opportunity to listen to music on their headphones, relax, and escape their rigorous schedules.

Anouk, a senior majoring in environmental sciences, has worked on the project for two years. I asked her what she likes about coding and scanning the documents. She responded that she felt a sense of ownership of the project and commented that the project has taught her a great deal about the history of Union College and the importance of preserving historical documents for the future.

Quality assurance (QA)
The student work is overseen and checked by an Archives Assistant. This includes retrieving the saved digital files and spot checking everyone tenth one. Should a digital file need to be corrected or modified, the Archives Assistant consults with the student to fix the problem.  Once QA is complete, the finished digital files are stored on a secured “Library dark archive” or L: drive while access copies are made available to authorized staff via the “Library preservation” or M: drive.

Preserving the originals
After the folders are scanned and quality assurance is complete, they are filed in acid-free boxes for long-term storage. At the beginning of the project, we decided to keep the original manilla folders rather than re-house the documents into acid-free folders due to time and funding constraints.

Timeline and follow up
Because scanning the alumni files is an in-house project, there is no set timeline for completion. However, the department dedicates several students each year to scan the files. The post-1929 alumni files continue to be stored at College Relations. As this phase of the scanning project moves toward completion, efforts will be made to reach out and acquire the more recent alumni files for scanning and long-term storage.

Conclusion
While this project not only preserves the alumni files, it has also made it possible to eventually make the alumni files virtually accessible to researchers worldwide. By incorporating student workers into the process, the project has been able to move forward because of their enthusiasm and dedication. The students have also embraced the opportunity to work with historical documents and learn about Union College’s unique history while acquiring new technical skills that will serve them in the future.


India Spartz is the Head of Special Collections and Archives at Union College in Schenectady, NY. She holds an B.A. from the University of Alaska (her home state), MLIS from UC Berkeley, and M.A. in Museum Studies from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. She’s a member of the Academy of Certified Archivists and serves on SAA’s College & University Archives Steering Committee.

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