Understanding the Underground: CSUS’s Digital Slavery Archive


Most Americans have at least a general understanding of the atrocities of slavery, but that knowledge likely comes from middle school history class, the media, and works from historical figures such as Frederick Douglass. One aspect many are not aware of is how geographically widespread slavery was and how it extended far beyond the small set of Confederate states all the way to the golden state of California.

Although California was admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free state, most residents turned a blind eye to slavery and it was allowed to continue relatively unhampered for quite some time. The city of Sacramento, in fact, held public slave auctions, although a growing movement of abolitionism moved slaves through the Underground Railroad—usually north toward British Columbia.

In an effort to bring this hidden history to light, a group of professors at the California State University at Sacramento (CSUS) developed a plan for a digital archive of material on the subject. Dubbed the Underground Railroad Digital Archive, the project went live in February in conjunction with the school's celebration of Black History Month and seeks to compile all available documents and information surrounding the issue of slavery in the state. The archive operates as a part of the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program.

CSUS received a state grant to look in to the feasibility of the program and enlisted student assistants to survey the state of California in the late spring and early summer of 2003 to determine what material was available. A second grant enabled the team to begin digitizing material in the fall. While most digitizing takes place in-house, the school uses CONTENTdm, a digital collection management software package, when full newspapers or other large documents needed to be scanned.

"There are about 70 documents currently in the digital archive," according to Bin Zhang, CSUS's digital information services librarian, "with about 270 images and PDF files." Documents include newspapers, monographs, and letters, and the school hopes to expand the project down the line to include more local and personal material, such as mementos that Californians have from their ancestors.

Carlos Rodriguez, director of library and information services at CSUS, explains that there were initially two major challenges for the archive. "We didn't physically own most of what is in the archive," he says, "and the items were located all over the state of California." The team had to go out on site, receive permission, or borrow almost all of the material for the project that was not readily available in the state archive.

The second major problem, according to Rodriguez, is that the technical team was brought in late in the game and had to explain that some of the plans were simply not feasible. The original faculty that conceived of the idea were not aware of the technical issues until a few months into the project, he explains. Once the details had been worked through, the team set about digitizing material, and they expect to continue to add in phases of approximately 50 to 100 items every two to three months or so, says Rodriguez. Ideally down the line he expects to add material every week.

The Underground Railroad Digital Archive has inspired another digital archiving project at CSUS, the Japanese-American Archival Collection, which is scheduled for release by the end of June. Also grant funded, the Japanese-American Collection is expected to launch in full, instead of in blocks of documents, as the university owns all of the material for the project. CSUS views these projects as awareness and education tools to expand the understanding of those within the state university system as well as the general public.
(http://digital.lib.csus.edu/curr; www.csus.edu)