Digital Summer School: The Lowcountry digital library

Established over a decade ago, the Lowcountry Digital Library has amassed an array of historical materials documenting the culture of the region, the lives of its inhabitants, and its connections to the Atlantic World. Charleston’s political, cultural, and economic prominence in the area means it occupies an important place in the library’s archive and exhibitions. In our latest installment of Digital Summer School (alas the only one from this summer) Leah Worthington, Associate Director, Lowcountry Digital Library discusses the LCDL’s past, present, and future and Charleston’s place in its orbit.

The Lowcountry Digital Library (LCDL) functions both as a public facing archive and a source for researchers. How do you describe the Lowcountry Digital Project at cocktail parties to both explains its role but also get at its depth?

Charleston and the Lowcountry are full of small archives and libraries that have amazing materials but don’t have the capacity to each create their own digital access to these sources. Our primary mission is to provide a space for our partners to share access to their materials with the public. This allows people from anywhere in the world to gain access to some of Charleston’s most interesting archival materials. And for folks who don’t need to research but do want to read about Charleston, we create exhibits about the region’s rich history and culture—particularly histories where race, gender, class, and labor are central to the narrative.

In making the library a reality, what were the biggest issues early on in terms of conceptualizing, pitching, and establishing it online?

I was hired after LCDL was established, so I asked our technical director, Tyler Mobley, about this. Here’s what he had to say. “The early days of LCDL had a few hurdles to clear, some technical and some personal. On a technical level, there was the simple issue that it was 2009, and we were at a smaller institution without huge technical budgets. We had to stand up a system that was sustainable and could grow. We didn’t have direct support from IT, so solving these issues was a very homegrown effort. At a more personal level for our potential partners, LCDL is a very collaborative project among multiple institutions, large and small, in the Lowcountry. The materials in these institutions’ archives are really dear to them. They’re valuable assets, a real piece of their past and present, and asking these institutions to let someone put their collections online for free was a big ask at the time. We had to work hard to ensure that we were building trust with partners and ensuring that we were adding value to their missions, not taking it away. Fortunately, this was really successful, and we have grown from a few founding partners to now over twenty and growing.” 

As an archive, the LCDL features a wealth of historical mediums: architectural drawings, correspondence, administrative records, photographs, interviews, and lots of ephemera—an underrated, diverse, and excessively useful historical source—among other materials. How do you balance competing goals, such as providing substantial and challenging sources while also maintaining an aesthetic and functionality that will encourage engagement? What are the hardest choices you typically have to make in this regard?

Our division of labor allows us to rely on project partners and staff to bring their expertise is to the project. As associate director, I work with over twenty regional libraries, archives, and museums who all know their materials well. They bring their ideas for new collections to me, and I help them conceive how the new collections can best be added to LCDL—working through everything from how to breakdown the collection for scanning, to how to approach the metadata, to training new staff. Our Technical Director, meanwhile, built and has rebuilt the digital library a few times now, consulting with non-technical experts like me and our partners to brainstorm new ideas about how to keep the website user friendly while ensuring discoverability of the materials remains high. It really is a collaborative process where our mission guides us, and, in turn, our users’ and collaborating partners’ needs are a top priority. I think letting each member of the team bring their expertise to the table while also understanding the project is by nature collaborative keeps the project running smoothly.

The LCDL also includes virtual exhibits such as Las Voces, which through recorded interviews, photographs, and artist images explores the history and current state of the Latinx community living in the tri-county region around Charleston. How have you managed to both build an archive while also curating it in a way that broadcasts public engagement and scholarly interest?  

For all of the twentieth century, Charleston’s tourism industry churned out mostly whitewashed and often blatantly false historical narratives. With millions of people now visiting the city each year, hearing the same falsehoods repeated over and over is mindboggling and distressing, especially when you are holding documents that prove those falsehoods wrong. So, it was not long after LCDL got off the ground that its founding directors really wanted a space where the public could not only find primary sources but also find a resource to learn the history and culture in narrative form. Partnering with scholars, local experts, and community members to help tell the stories that were contained in LCDL materials was a kind of natural next step for us. We not only observed a city in desperate need of resources to learn history that wasn’t fictionalized, but we also had a team that included librarians with great technical skills and a public historian who knew how much Charleston needed honest, accurate public history. And although the missions of the two projects are similar, they have important differences in scope and format. So, having the two distinct projects, a digital library of archival material (uninterpreted material) and a place for exhibits about Charleston’s history and culture (interpreted narratives), has allowed for each project to commit to its own mission.

U.S. Custom House located in Charleston, South Carolina. Carol M. Highsmith, 2010, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

In her 2005 book, The Making of Historic Charleston, Stephanie Yuhl explored the way white Charlestonians had constructed a sanitized past that was used to market the city to tourists while obscuring “Charleston’s fuller history and its public discourse about issues such as racism and poverty,” which ultimately prevented the city from really grappling with and addressing this history and these issues. In reference to Yuhl, how would you describe the LCDL’s role in documenting Charleston’s history?

With over 120,000 items from over 20 regional partner institutions, LCDL has played a major role in providing public access to Charleston and the Lowcountry’s archival collection. The cultural heritage materials in LCDL do a really great job of allowing people to explore all of the history and culture of the Lowcountry, not just the appealing parts. The early twentieth-century tourism pamphlets that effectively erased Charleston’s history of slavery are now in the same digital library as dozens of plantation journals that document the lives of enslaved people. We also work with partners to ensure that race, gender, and class are represented in any archival materials where they are present. Our robust metadata means that we include page-level description of objects, and we train partners to create metadata that reflects the presence of underrepresented groups in the object, such as enslaved and freed African Americans, women, and immigrants. We also work with different academic departments on the College of Charleston’s campus to ensure students, including graduate students, are aware of the resources. In this way, we know that they are well used locally in teaching, learning, and even thesis research.

In creating, building, and maintaining the LCDL, has your understanding of Charleston changed? Has the experience confirmed beliefs you had about the city? A combination of both?

LCDL has vastly expanded my personal understanding of Charleston and the Lowcountry. Reading books and visiting historic sites taught me a lot. And my academic background is in US Black history, so the history I have learned over the years about Charleston rang familiar. But it has been creating digital collections for LCDL that has added richness and nuance to my understanding of the region’s history. All of the people I meet in the archival materials, their experiences prevent history from being abstract. They make the larger historical narratives and events come to life in a human way.    

The LCDL covers a wide swath of subjects and periods including the sketchbooks of colonial era America artist Thomas Fraser, the Ansonborough Rehabilitation Project which pioneered preservation strategy during the mid-twentieth century, the drawings and business records of twentieth-century craftsman and artist Philip Simmons, and the administrative records of Charleston LGBTQ organization the Alliance for Free Acceptance among several others. Do you have any favorites?

I do really love the Philip Simmons collection, and we also have an LDHI exhibit about him and his work as a blacksmith. Charleston is a city that has always been built by Black laborers, and in Simmons’s ironwork you see the legacy all of Charleston’s skilled Black artisans reflected.

I also appreciate the SCDOT Photographs – Properties in the Right-of-Way collection. When the SCDOT planned for a major highway to rip through the city of Charleston, they took black and white photos to document all the houses in the right-of-way that would be destroyed. Recently, a local artist painted some of the photographs in vibrant watercolor, her childhood home among those torn down. It’s a really sad part of Charleston’s twentieth-century development, but the collection inspired an artist to preserve those homes in such a beautiful way. Our job at LCDL is to help document, so it is pretty inspiring to see what people create with the collections once they are out there.

I also love the Civil War and Reconstruction Era Stereoscope Photographs of the Port Royal Region collection because they are some of the earliest photographs we have of that region. And Civil War photographers captured everyone on film, not just the elite. So, there are photographs of newly freed people outside of their homes or their new schools. The end of the war was such a monumental moment in American history, particularly for the four million newly freed African Americans, and this collection documents the events through a local lens.

Are there any you find yourself recommending to researchers and/or the public more frequently than others? Which do you think have been so far obscured but deserve more attention?

Photographs, sketches, maps, and other visual materials get a lot of love from our users—and from me. They are immediately captivating. But we also continue to build on the manuscript collections, which are so valuable to really learning and interpreting the history of Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry. The Antebellum period is well represented in the manuscript collections of the South Carolina Historical Society. And the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture has also put the papers of many civil rights era activists LCDL. They are a great resource for anyone who wants to research or learn more about what the civil rights era looked like in Charleston.

What does the future hold for LCDL?

LCDL continues to form new partnerships with regional institutions, which in turn expands and enriches the scope of who and what are represented in LCDL. Over the last two years we have added two new partners, and we will be adding at least one more this year. It is exciting to have the first collections of new partners added to LCDL. Each one opens a new door for the public.In the next couple of years, we are also looking forward to creating primary source sets, which are going to be archival items pulled from different collections on LCDL that together collectively cover a specific topic. It will be a project inspired by the Digital Public Library of America’s source sets, accomplished through a regional lens. Users will be able to click on a single topic to find a collection of items within LCDL exploring that topic. The topics will range from things like women in the antebellum era to immigrants in Charleston, and from the Civil War to the civil rights movement. These primary source sets will be designed with the region’s K-12 teachers and students in mind, with the mission of helping educators bring Charleston and Lowcountry archival materials into their classrooms.

Featured image (at top): General View of Row of Slave Quarters, McLeod Plantation, Charleston, Charleston County, South Carolina. John McWilliams, 1990, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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