Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Digital Paxton Project: Where the 1760s meets Modern Technology

Hi there! I’m Hunter Johnson, the Summer 2016 Digital Paxton intern at the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP). Now that you’ve read my fancy title, I suppose you’re wondering what I actually do here. Well, put on your scholar glasses, because I’m about to give you a brief tour of this project.
How did I get here? Long story short, I read about this internship online, loved the description, applied, and got accepted! I’m a rising senior at the University of South Carolina Honors College (Go Gamecocks!!). My research interests include the discovery and colonization of the New World by European settlers, and the wars and political disputes that subsequently followed. As you can imagine, an internship focusing on the 1760s, a time period that was the apex of British hegemony in North America, was very appealing to me. Also, Philadelphia is an awesome city, and is rich with colonial legacies and museums.
The Digital Paxton Project is a collaboration between LCP, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), and an outside scholar (Will Fenton). Will came up with the idea for this project, and the rest of us have gladly helped him out. So what does this project involve? Basically, it involves the digitization and transcription of dozens of pamphlets and cartoons concerning the Paxton Riots/Massacre. In 1763, a group of settlers on the Pennsylvania frontier, called the Paxton boys, were upset at the presence of Native American villages in their territory. They decided to target a village called Conestoga Manor, and killed all of its inhabitants, mostly women, children, and the elderly. After this, they marched towards Philadelphia, intending to kill any Native American found in the city. Battle was narrowly avoided after Benjamin Franklin negotiated a deal with the Paxtons. However, the inhabitants of Pennsylvania were still sharply divided over this issue, and published many works, both vilifying and praising the Paxtons. These publications are relevant to colonial history, as they illustrate the religious, political, and social divides among settlers, many of whom were not from England, despite belonging to an empire ruled principally by and from England. The settlers of Pennsylvania included people of a mixed Scottish-Irish background (so called “Scotch-Irish”), Swedes, Dutch, Germans, and multiple religious groups. As you can imagine, the inhabitants often violently disagreed with each other. The divide was sharpest between the pacifist Quakers and the not-so-pacifist Presbyterians, both of whom published pamphlets insulting the other side.
Example of a scanned pamphlet. This one is from a poem titled “The Paxtoniade” (Am 1764 Gym [795.D.24]). The title and content are meant to parody the epic poetry genre (Homer’s Iliad being a famous example). The poem describes the events leading to the Paxton Massacre. It mocks the Paxton Boys and their motivations, with a clear anti-Paxton bias from the author.
Example of a scanned pamphlet. This one is from a poem titled “The Paxtoniade” (Am 1764 Gym [795.D.24]). The title and content are meant to parody the epic poetry genre (Homer’s Iliad being a famous example). The poem describes the events leading to the Paxton Massacre. It mocks the Paxton Boys and their motivations, with a clear anti-Paxton bias from the author.  
That’s the historical background. Now onto the actual work. Like I said, the project involves digitizing and transcribing publications, in preparation for their online publication. It requires a lot of technology, so I’ll take you through it step by step.
The first step is pretty simple. You take a pamphlet, and place it upside down on a digital scanner (we use an Epson 10000 XL). The pages are supposed to touch the scanner’s surface, since we want to capture everything that’s written there. Once the pamphlet is placed, you load a special program to do the scanning. Scanning itself is easy: click the scan button, and let the scanner do its job. Then, you flip to the next page, and keep scanning until you’re finished with the pamphlet. We scan two pages at a time, and save each scan as a tiff. Some of the pamphlets are only 8 pages and very quick to scan, but others are over 50 pages and take a while!
After that, we use Photoshop to crop the tiffs into jpegs. The tiffs contain two pages each and are a broad view, but we want a narrower view of the pages too. So each tiff is cropped into 2 separate jpegs. Each jpeg represents a single page of the pamphlet at high resolution, so it’s easy to read. We use two different kinds of images, because it’s better to have multiple options for reading documents. The tiff serves as the archival digital file with the lower resolution jpeg intended for web use. Also, it’s smart to have multiple images of the same page, in case some images get accidentally deleted or won’t open. LCP follows best practices for digital preservation by storing a copy onsite as well as a backup offsite to ensure the long-term stability of the digital content.
After the images are Photoshopped, they need to have metadata appended. This sounds complicated, but only involves a couple clicks of the mouse. You enter a program called Adobe Bridge, and click “append metadata.” This puts information on each image file that contains the LCP address, email, and other things that register us as the creator of this image. It’s something that is used for technical reasons, as the metadata doesn’t actually appear on the image. It appears in the image files, and is essentially digital record-keeping. It sounds way more complicated than it actually is.
The next step is uploading the images onto our servers. This requires two different steps. First, all of the images are copied and pasted into folders on our computer. This transfers the images from an individual computer to the entire LCP network, so anyone in LCP can access it from their work computers. Second, the jpegs are uploaded using a file transfer tool called Core FTP. This is another complicated-sounding program that involves a few easy clicks. This uploads our images to the servers of the website. These images are intended for online publication, and this ensures that they are uploaded onto the servers for the Digital Paxton website. The Digital Paxton Project will launch in early 2017, so information on the website is forthcoming.
With the pamphlets scanned and images uploaded, there is only one step remaining: transcription. This is the longest and most time consuming step. While the images are helpful and contain the original text, they are often difficult to read. This occurs because spelling and grammar were not standardized. Letters also look different; for example, the letter S looks like the letter F, which makes it hard to read. Handwriting was also very sloppy, and in cursive, which makes it nearly impossible to read a handwritten letter at a normal pace. For historians who want to use these documents in their research, it’s more convenient to provide a transcription. This is a plain Microsoft Word document that reproduces a pamphlet’s written content, retaining the original spelling, punctuation, spacing, and inaccurate grammar. Transcription is simple: sit down at a computer and start typing! It’s very time consuming and requires much patience, but it goes fairly smoothly. It’s also very interesting, as I inevitably start listening to the author’s argument and agreeing (or disagreeing!) with their opinion. Some of the pamphlets use quite colorful language, and it’s clear that the two sides did not agree about much. 

That’s the entire process from start to finish! It’s a lot of work and clicking, but it’s really fun to engage with these historic documents. My last day of work is July 1st, and I’ll be very sad to depart this awesome project! It’s intended to be accessible to just about everyone, from researchers and students to anyone with an interest in colonial Philadelphia. Keep checking our website for more updates, images, and transcriptions!

Hunter Johnson
Summer 2016 Digital Paxton Intern

Friday, June 24, 2016

Fun in the Sun Archives: Preparing for Graduate School at the Library Company of Philadelphia

In a series of occasional blog posts, participants in our Mellon Scholars Internship and Workshop programs will introduce themselves, discuss their experiences at the Library Company, and share their goals for pursuing careers in the field of early African American history. This program is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

I recently graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College with a B.A. in History with departmental honors and a Certificate in Human Rights. I was an Eleanor Roosevelt Scholar, McNair Scholar, and a Student Guide at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. In the fall, I will matriculate at Northwestern University as a Ph.D. student in the Department of African American Studies.
The Mellon Scholars Internship Program at the Library Company presented an indispensable opportunity to hone the archival skills necessary to achieve my academic goals. Likewise, the chance to strengthen my writing and presentation skills by producing an original research paper and sharing my research with others attracted me to this program. Although I plan to specialize in 20th-century African American history in graduate school, I understand that the events and intellectual ideas in one century are not independent of those in the previous one. Therefore, I welcomed the opportunity to learn about early African American society from historic documents and from leading scholars in the field during this program. The Mellon Scholars Internship Program exceeded all of my expectations.

My career goals include teaching at a research intensive university while making significant interventions in the study of black education in the urban North. I look forward to understanding the complexities of educational inequality not just in terms of race, but also in terms of gender and class. My hope as a future professor is to partner with women, faculty of color, and allies in addition to helping students advance their own goals.

A significant portion of my time at the Library Company was spent researching black women educators in Philadelphia in the antebellum period.
From Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Statistics of the
Colored People of Philadelphia
 (Philadelphia, 1856).
I focused on the contributions of Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806-1882) and Fanny Jackson Coppin (1837-1913) toward uplifting the black race by providing free blacks with education. Both women had ties to the Institute for Colored Youth, where black pupils received instruction equal, if not superior, to white children in their community, complete with lessons in the Classics, arithmetic, the sciences, and English. These women taught young black girls at a time when literacy was illegal in the South and slave catchers threatened the freedom of black people in the North; yet, these black women educators were convinced in the humanity and high intellectual capacity of their people. I have consulted several primary sources from the Library’s collection, such as Statistics of the Colored People of Philadelphia (1856), which was published by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society's 
Board of Education. The Objects and Regulations of the Institute for Colored Youth, with a List of the Officers and Students and the Annual Report of the Board of Managers from the 1860s have also been very helpful to my research. I feel more prepared to commence doctoral study this fall.

Ashley Dennis
2016 Mellon Scholars Intern

Friday, June 17, 2016

Mellon Scholars Program: "Obscure details" and the Pursuit of History

In a series of occasional blog posts, participants in our Mellon Scholars Internship and Workshop programs will introduce themselves, discuss their experiences at the Library Company, and share their goals for pursuing careers in the field of early African American history. This program is generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Obscure details...There’s a title for my memoirs! For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved history and as long as I’ve loved history, I’ve found interest and passion in what some would call the most obscure subjects and questions and their most peculiar facets while connecting them to greater historical themes...What were Winston Churchill’s best quips and did they add to England’s finest hour? What was the 19th century development of Germantown like and how did it reflect greater trends of Philadelphia’s and America’s suburbanization? Was W.E.B. DuBois a snob and did that affect his commentary on both black and white society? 

I love the “nitty-gritty” and have spent much of my free time reading on these “dusty” subjects and sharing these tidbits with unprepared friends and family members (either to their amusement or anguish). I satisfied my craving for research in high school by working in my school’s archives. For years I lived with the fact that I was a keeper of specialized knowledge, a connector of dots, who was seen as appreciated but at times a novelty.  I knew that there were others like me but it was not until I got to college that I met people who were equally interested in scholarly pursuit with the level of detail that always interested and frustrated me. I realized that my interests were not novelties or a hobby but rather an ideal foundation for scholarly development. Last summer was my baptism into collegiate research, and I won a grant to study the role of the black middle-class in the upper South from the early nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century using my own family history as a subject. The research focused on themes of respectability and ultimately what it meant to be black and middle-class in one of the nation’s most segregated corridors. 

When recommended to apply for the Mellon Scholars Internship at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I could not think of a better way to spend a summer. I figured I will be surrounded by others who share my love for digging deep into history, answering the questions, and connecting themes. I will have the opportunity to work for a leading organization in the pursuit of both American and African American history. I will hear some of the foremost scholars on black history and gain professional advice and strategies from a noted historian. To apply was a no-brainer and to be accepted was a blessing. I hope to use these skills to both refine my research and writing skills but also help in charting my professional course. I have an interest in politics and hope to enter
Constitution and Rules to be Observed and Kept
by the Friendly Society of St. Thomas's African Church,
of Philadelphia
(Philadelphia, 1797).
government. But as a lover of history, the potential to research and share my knowledge with others like me is the greatest career temptation. 

During my research this summer, I will be focusing on themes of black respectability in Philadelphia from the late eighteenth century to the 1830s, specifically highlighting the community role of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the first black Episcopal Church in the country and a leader in both political and social life in antebellum black Philadelphia. I plan to look at the generational divides amongst Philadelphia’s black leadership, highlight the relationship between denomination and class, and ideas of early nineteenth-century racial uplift. 

I’m excited to see where my research takes me and look forward adding some useful research and career skills and more obscure details to my intellectual rolodex by the end of the internship. 

Ken Anderson
University of Richmond, Class of 2017
2016 Mellon Scholars Intern

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Common Touch: An Artist’s Multi-Sensory Exhibition Exploring the History of the Education of the Blind at the Library Company of Philadelphia

A version of this post was originally published on the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities blog on May 16, 2016.

View of exhibition gallery. Photo by Gary McKinnis.

As the co-director of the Visual Culture Program (VCP at LCP) at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the collections with which I work daily document the visual construction of history. In preparing for our current VCP exhibition, Common Touch: The Art of the Senses in the History of the Blind, the experience has purposefully challenged my conceptions of the privileged role of vision in visual culture studies. Funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, the multi-sensory exhibition on display through October 21, 2016, is an unconventional and benchmark one for the Library Company. Curated by Philadelphia artist Teresa Jaynes, the installations, inspired by the Michael Zinman Collection of Printing for the Blind, explore the history of the nineteenth-century education of the blind and the nature, foundation, and limits of perception.

Embossed map of Boston in Fifth Annual Report of the Trustees of the New-England Institution for the Education of the Blind, to the Corporation (Boston, 1837). Michael Zinman Collection of Printing for the Blind.
The Zinman Collection, the core of the Library’s printing for the blind holdings, contains primarily nineteenth-century raised and embossed printed texts and ephemera. Raised images of maps, scientific diagrams, and musical scores often comprise the texts that range in subject matter from natural history to religion, music, and literature. The collection also contains nineteenth-century personal narratives and textbooks, as well as reports, pamphlets, and magazines issued by educational institutes for the visually impaired, such as the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind.

Printed throughout the Victorian era in several styles denoted as alphabetical or arbitrary, raised-print materials embody a rich and complex history. By the mid-nineteenth century, alphabetical systems mimicking Roman letters (e.g. Philadelphia line) predominated in the United States over arbitrary-denoted systems of dots and symbols (e.g., braille). While produced to serve as tools to educate through touch, the line systems still fostered an embodied culture of looking that inevitably privileged sight for their presumed sighted teachers. In 1932 authorities accepted Standard English braille as the uniform reading system for the blind in the United States. Line types faded into obscurity and are the shadows of the visual culture of the sighted and those who are visually impaired.

Case of historical materials related to mathematics and natural history in the nineteenth-century education of the blind. Complements Teresa Jaynes, Gift #5, 2016. Photo by Concetta Barbera.
The overall concept of Common Touch examines variable natures of perception in relation to the history of the education of the blind. Visitors explore an exhibition with installations informed by historical first-person narratives and abstract and geometric forms—the style of active learning tools, often influenced by the Froebel educational system—used in curricula at schools for the blind.

Jaynes’s works, named in homage to the Froebel tools known as Gifts, engages four of the five senses—sight, sound, hearing, and smell. Among the seven installations, visitors interact with Gift #4, a series of nine silkscreen printed patterns representing a visual transmutation of  the noted 1880 composition March Timpani by Victorian African American blind musician Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins; Gift #5, a topographic map with a key of porcelain geometric forms and embroidered grid that represent the travels of the prominent eighteenth-century English blind surveyor John Metcalf;  Gift #6, an olfactory mechanism that immerses visitors into a cocoon of sound and scent conveying micro-narratives of the lives of Metcalfe and Wiggins; and Gift #7, an artist book of raised prints after embossed diagrams of snowflakes in the Perkins’ School for the Blind adaptation of  the 1845 science text The Rudiments of Natural Philosophy.

Integral to the creative process for Common Touch was Jaynes’s Vision Council. These advisors have experienced varying degrees of vision loss at different stages of life, and Jaynes incorporated their professional and personal experiences into the design and concepts of the exhibition through its granular historical themes. The artist-curated exhibition also hearkens back to the nineteenth-century inquiries about the hierarchy of the senses, vision, and the means to knowledge explored by optics scholars such as Charles Wheatstone, as well as brings into physicality the arguments of contemporary scholars examining the sensory turn of visual culture.

Without the touch element provided by Jaynes’s works, essential to the artistry of the exhibition, the aura of the original prints, forms, and devices on which they are based would be impotent. This essential element to the exhibition design connects the visitor with the multiple under-recognized and hidden histories represented by the collection material on display, which inspired the exhibition itself. The accessibility of Jaynes’s art works transfers to more transparent access to such hidden histories of the raised printing process, as well as the education of the blind in the nineteenth century and the historical collections documenting the role of persons with visual impairments in society.

Through this immersion, Jaynes’s art serves as a bridge to appreciate what disability does, not just what it is, as proposed by disability studies scholar Amanda Cachia. Cachia served as curator of Haverford College’s Hurford Center’s 2012 art exhibition What Can A Body Do? In describing this curatorial work in the 2014 Disability Studies Quarterly, Cachia states she purposefully strove to avoid the possible pitfall of reductionism that assumes all people with disabilities have the same experience. Similarly, Jaynes’s multi-sensory exhibition is grounded on the non-homogeneity of experience more typical of art, as opposed to special collections exhibitions. Common Touch profoundly facilitates that no two visitors have the same experience by privileging the embodied culture of looking in an exhibition that intersects art, historical collections, and disability studies.

Teresa Jaynes, Gift #7, 2016. Book with embossed paper. Photo by Gary McKinnis.

This embodied culture of looking is evoked through the disabilities of blindness and visual impairment that underlie the artistry inherent in the embossed prints, teaching tools, and sculptural forms that are on display. This “touch art” of the present and past iterates the genesis and perpetuation of kinesthetic experiences that powerfully acknowledges disability as intrinsic to their creation. Consequently, the Library Company works on display abstractly exemplify what disability aesthetics scholar Tobin Siebers acknowledged for artists as  “the discovery of disability as a unique resource, recouped from the past and re-created in the present, for aesthetic creation and appreciation” (Siebers, Disability Aesthetics, 2010, 5). Jaynes’s art serves as an equalizer and even a redefinition of disparate but complementary sensory experiences with archives. The archival material has not only been transformed into art but is often art itself.

As discussed, Cachia, the curator of What Can A Body Do?, wrote of her experience curating her kindred in nature exhibition to Common Touch. With her co-authors and fellow disability studies scholars Kristin Lindgren and Kelly George, they concluded disability studies develop through disorientation, defamiliarization, and destabilization. The Library Company exhibition, a transdisciplinary expression of art, disability studies, and historical collections, similarly destabilizes cultural assumptions about seeing, the history of blindness, and the literal and figurative untouchability of historical collections. Internal and external dialogues about our evolving connotations of sight are cultivated while the perception that the Library Company is inaccessible, as a special collections library, is challenged.

Erika Piola
Co-Director, VCP at LCP