The North Carolina Digital Heritage Center is best known as the website with digital scans of yearbooks from almost every college and university in the state. And while it’s certainly fun to look at the clothes and hairstyles students were sporting in the 1990s – or the 1890s, for that matter – the center has preserved much more than yearbooks in its short five-year history.
“There are more than 800 cultural heritage centers in the state, and they have great stuff in their collections,” said Nick Graham, the center’s program coordinator. But because of the prohibitive cost of the equipment and the time and labor needed, “they would never be able to digitize it on their own.”
That’s where the digital heritage center, better known as Digital NC, comes in. A program created by the State Library of North Carolina and the University Library to provide free digitization services to the state’s cultural heritage centers, Digital NC is housed in the North Carolina Collection. Funds for its support come from the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act.
Digital NC has put 60,000 digitized objects online containing nearly 2.4 million scans from more than 170 North Carolina institutions online so far. Digital NC has also helped to gather and share more than a quarter-million records from digital collections around the state (including collections at Duke, East Carolina and Wake Forest) with the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). As a statewide hub for DPLA, Digital NC collects these records to be posted at dp.la, a searchable website housing more than 8 million items.
Digital NC will be able to do even more with a $75,000 grant received in December from DPLA and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Among the projects in the pipeline are scrapbooks and photographs documenting African American culture from the Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum in Wilson, student newspapers from Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs and even more historic (at least 50 years old) high school yearbooks from three counties.
“Our experience with Digital NC has been wonderful,” said Traci Thompson, local history and genealogy librarian at Braswell Memorial Library in Rocky Mount. “I have brought all sorts of collections – photos, yearbooks, scrapbooks, all kinds of paper ephemera – and they work with us to the utmost to get these materials online and accessible.
“It has been a fabulous resource to help libraries – particularly public ones, which are always short on funds and staff – get their priceless and unique materials out there for the world to see and use.”
Located in the basement of Wilson Library, Digital NC receives boxes of items from libraries and museums nearly every day, items the center is asked to preserve in digital form.
On a recent day, Lisa Gregory, digital projects librarian, and Stephanie Williams, digital projects programmer, examined high school yearbooks from Davie County and black-and-white photos from a Masonic lodge. “Every institution has its own priorities,” Graham said. “We get a lot of old photos, old newspapers and a ton of scrapbooks. They usually have great content and they’re in awful condition.”
Through the University Library’s Digital Production Center, Digital NC has the equipment to handle crumbling books and other distressed items with tender care. Flatbed scanners are used for small, flat items like postcards, a sheet-feed scanner for unbound documents and an archive book scanner for bound materials (like those yearbooks). The book scanner can produce about 3,000 pages per day.
The largest items and any 3-D objects are digitized with an overhead scanner, the Betterlight Super 8K-HS, that shoots from above with minimal exposure to harmful infrared and UV light. “The equipment we use is designed to be as gentle as possible on the originals,” Graham said. “It’s not like we’re mashing something down on a photocopier.”
In six to 12 weeks on average, an incoming project will be preserved in pixels, and the originals can be picked up for safekeeping. The scans go up on DigitalNC.org, where anyone with Internet access can find them. You don’t need to register on the site, and there’s no charge to download a file.
“Human history is important,” Graham said. “A lot of this material is extremely rare, if not unique. It’s accessible in libraries. You can go and see the real thing in person, and there’s no replacement for that. I see what we do as democratizing access to special collections.”
Digital NC scanning has provided many different users access to items from her library, Thompson said. “Companies looking for images to put in stores, family researchers, even NCPedia, benefited from an image in one of our scrapbooks.”
Yearbooks are by far the most popular images on the site. Digital NC has scanned more than a million pages of college and high school yearbooks, Graham estimates. He has heard from people who didn’t have any photos of their parents finding them in old yearbooks posted on Digital NC.
Other scans, like yellowed newspaper advertisements and notices in spidery handwriting, offer a glimpse of life in North Carolina from centuries past.
A circa 1895 ad informs any would-be boarder that he needs to present “a certificate of good character and industrious habits” from his minister or a county official to live there.
A handwritten notice for an 1834 estate sale lists a young female slave, a clock, hogs, corn, a horse and “other articles too tedious to mention” as available for purchase.
A privy license from 1893 assures its Davie County patrons that it has the state’s seal of approval.
But there are also more recent items, like a collection of Christmas cards from the late 1970s and early 1980s that are part of the Watson Family Collection given to the Braswell Memorial Library.
Among Digital NC’s more unusual items are some brass knuckles from Gastonia, used by anti-union employees during the 1929 Loray Mill strike, and a red, white and blue bicentennial quilt from Rockingham County. The staff had to suspend the quilt from the ceiling to take its picture, but the image is so hi-res that you can see the stitches. “It looks terrific!” Graham said.
Graham, who formerly worked at the North Carolina Collection, knows Digital NC is providing a valuable service, but sometimes he misses the personal interaction of the pre-digital days. “You don’t get the stories the way you do when people walk into the library,” he said.
Not everything in the Digital NC office is a PDF or a JPG, though. On the wall is a physical map of the state, studded in bright colors to represent each partner Digital NC has worked with. “Everything is digital,” Graham said, “so I wanted to have pushpins.”