Thursday, 24 January 2013
Professional Development Call: Dr. Lauranett Lee
Professional Development: December 11, 2012
Virginia Historical Society - Richmond, VA
Dr. Lauranett Lee is the curator of African American History at the Virginia Historical Society. Her research interests include 19th century American history, slavery and genealogy. She spearheaded the Unknown No Longer project. Dr. Lee has her terminal degree in history and taught college courses before joining the Virginia Historical Society. Paige Newman is an assistant archivist at the Virginia Historical Society. Paige volunteered at the Virginia Historical Society before becoming a full time staff member. Both Paige and Dr. Lee agree that Virginia is a great place for archivists because of its rich history. Along with five interns, two volunteers, and Meg, the digitization specialist, the Unknown No Longer came into existence.
Virginia Historical Society
Virginia was the largest slave holding state in the union. The Virginia Historical Society was established in 1831, around the Nat Turner slave revolt. As a result, many of the slave records were not included or destroyed. In spite of that attempt to repress historical information, VHS has an abundance of slave holding records.
Unknown No Longer
Unknown No Longer is a free, online, database that lists the names of 10,000 slaves. Researchers can enter the first name, last name or plantation name of a slave and anything that the Virginia Historical Society has, located within their collections will pop up. Most of the names that have been found so far were located in the personal papers collections at the Virginia Historical Society. They considered open source software for the database platform but they did not feel confident that their data would be secure. This is why they chose Helium as the company that would help them to design the database. Other companies that they consulted with are mentioned in the related resources tab. The Virginia Historical Society is still looking for funding to increase the utility of the database. Since there are over 8.5 million items in the Virginia Historical Society and an estimated 500,000 slaves in Virginia, there is still a great deal of work to be done.
The processing staff reads through correspondence, wills and deeds to discover the names. Dr. Lee spent most of her time weeding through lists; while Paige extracted names from more complex documents. The Library of Virginia has similar records as the Virginia Historical Society but they try not to digitize their materials in order to keep the database autonomous. The team is more interested in cleaning up the data that they have rather than growing without quality. They try to improve entries by researching multiple collections and indicate any uncertain names with brackets. The Virginia Historical Society has tried to incorporate volunteers into their workflow; without much success
Most of the people who use the database are searching for their ancestors. The users communicate with each other and the staff on the message boards and there is usually a spike in usage after a media release.
On account of the generous grant from Dominion Power, the staff of the Unknown No Longer project can take their show on the road. They have great relationships with public libraries, historical societies, and genealogy groups. Their interactions with the community allow descendants of slaves and slave owners to see their history in a different context. The staff has also presented Unknown No Longer in sessions for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives. Dr. Lee’s placement on various boards and commissions also allow for a greater dissemination of the resources of the Virginia Historical Society.