On Gleaning the College’s History Through Documents

1830 sophomore and junior class schedules

Guest post by Zehra Madhavan ’20

When I started working at Digital Collections as a Student Assistant during the spring semester of my freshman year, my understanding of Amherst College’s history was limited to facts I had read about in pamphlets and bits and pieces of information I had picked up in various lectures and speeches; little did I know that I would soon be encountering countless documents and archival items that would shape not only the way I see the college but also the way I see my place in this community.

The project I have been working on is the digitization of past Student Publications as part of the bicentennial goal. Through digitizing student magazines on topics ranging from literary works to events and issues at the school, I have been able to see firsthand how the interests and habits of Amherst College students has shifted as the school’s population has changed. For example, the works published throughout wartime were strikingly humbling as I read articles about students drafted into war, opinion pieces about America’s role on the world stage, and advertisements referencing day-to-day wartime life—circumstances that seem far removed from our current way of life at Amherst but nonetheless make up a significant part of our history. Those times may be difficult to imagine, but reading the school’s history from the voices of its past students made it more accessible and more grounded in the reality with which we are now familiar.

It was also fascinating to see the change from publications written by and for male students to those created by staffs comprised of men and women when the college became coeducational in 1975. I remember digitizing a document where a female student had written edits on a male student’s writing submission to one of the college’s magazines; she called attention to his potentially sexist tone and urged him to consider how the women on campus might perceive his piece. Gradually, the topics discussed in these publications became more diverse and catered to an audience dealing with new issues like political activism and on-campus movements. Unique documents like these provide a perspective arguably more illuminating than that of a history book or Wikipedia page.

Another memorable project was the Dean of Faculty Minutes, which included a variety of interesting accounts of faculty discussion, student infractions, course deliberations, and more. When I read the class schedules that each student had in 1830, I was amazed at how much the course curriculum here at Amherst has changed since the college’s early history. The freshman class schedule was limited to Greek, Latin, Mathematics, Rhetoric, and Bible, and the only change between semesters was the order of these set classes. As a sophomore, students were introduced to French and “Lectures on Geographical History and Logic,” then eventually upperclassmen would take chemistry, natural history, and philosophy courses; however, just over a century later in 1939, the course offerings had already expanded far beyond those subjects. Amherst offered electives in a variety of fields like anthropology, astronomy, drama, economics, geology, art and more subjects familiar to us today.

1830 freshman class schedule
1830 freshman class schedule from Dean of Faculty minutes
1830 sophomore and junior class schedules
1830 sophomore and junior class schedules from Dean of Faculty minutes

This search prompted me to research how exactly Amherst came to adopt the Open Curriculum, which is one of the main reasons I chose to attend Amherst and a system that all Amherst students benefit from today. I learned that in 1967, Amherst announced in the Course Offerings publication that they chose to abandon the Core Curriculum in favor of a more open curriculum with three required interdisciplinary “Problems of Inquiry” courses intended to round out students’ liberal arts education. By 1972,  the college got rid of Problems of Inquiry courses and instead just required students to complete a certain number of courses, regardless of department, in addition to a chosen completed major.

Now, instead of strict offerings, we are encouraged to explore paths that we may not have considered in fields so much more varied and unique. When I compare my schedule—with its Asian literature, film studies classes, foreign language classes, and more—to those delineated in the early faculty minutes, I can’t help but feel immensely grateful for and impressed by the generations of faculty who have shifted the needle, creating the opportunity for students from all over the world to congregate and study whatever makes them passionate.

Of course, my own identity as an Asian-American woman has shaped the way I interact with the works I digitize, too. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the bulk of archival material from the college’s early days was written by, about, and for white men. Through digitizing the Amherst Alumni News documents, I’ve encountered biographies and articles about the many influential figures for whom majority of the buildings on our campus are named. While these documents have taught me a lot of interesting facts (Did you know Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, class of 1897, was the first editor of National Geographic?), they have also reminded me that we are still in the process of remaking the college’s identity, gradually gearing it toward greater inclusivity and diversity not just in terms of course offerings but also in terms of community and student identity. Delving into the college’s history through documents can help broaden our understanding and inspire this process even further, and to me, this makes the digitization job even more significant and important.

Zehra Madhavan ’20 is a junior at Amherst College. She is originally from Princeton, New Jersey and is majoring in Math and Asian Languages & Civilizations. She has worked for the Digital Programs Department since Spring 2016.

No college is an island: Amherst College chooses Islandora

Behind the letters, images, photographs, and other treasures on display in Amherst College Digital Collections is software. To the public, this software is largely invisible, with our user interface showcasing the discovery and display of the digital objects from Archives and Special Collections. Our underlying software infrastructure requires ongoing maintenance, upkeep, and upgrade as technology changes and our needs change. I’m here today to share a choice we’ve made for the future of our digital collections software, which is that we are going to start using Islandora in our software stack.

island and lighthouse
Mitchell Lighthouse on Long Island, Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Collection

This month we are beginning the process to migrate to Islandora. This software is only one piece of the complex network of tools we use to manage our digital collections, but it is an important piece. We use a few different key pieces of software to maintain our online digital collections, one of which is the Fedora repository software, an open source software platform maintained by many institutions in the cultural heritage and educational sector. We are, for the foreseeable future, going to continue to use Fedora, and participate in the development and code contribution to the Fedora open source software. It is a bit unusual to have small liberal arts college contributing code to an open source software project, and it is also fortuitous for Amherst and for the larger academic community. Having input in the governance and technical direction of the software helps us to ensure the needs of liberal arts colleges are realized in the repository software, which benefits our direct needs, and also means we can help surface the needs of many other smaller liberal arts colleges.

map of cuba
Mapa de la Isla de Cuba y plano de la Habana, Manuscript Collection

Up until the past year, we’ve been on our own for the most part in supporting our digital collections repository software. It is an achievement that we are proud of, because of the talented software developers in the library and information technology at Amherst, and for the vision of our library leadership in seeing a place for Amherst at the table of Fedora, which is largely governed by large research institutions.  Being at the table with Fedora has given us something else besides advocacy – it has provided us with a community of colleagues across the globe, who act as peers, sounding boards, and supporters. And the community has given us a much broader reward – because we are a small liberal arts college, we are a small team supporting digital collections. Participating in the Fedora community gives us so many more colleagues and resources, as well as professional growth opportunities.

In our geographical neighborhood, several of our Five College Consortium colleagues have recently developed their own collaborative digital collections platform in Compass, utilizing Fedora as well as the Islandora software. Down the road while visiting with colleagues at Williams, we’ve learned about efforts to bring together members of a group of mostly liberal arts colleges that are part of the Islandora Collaboration Group (ICG) to create shared development projects for Islandora, namely the ISLE and LASIR projects. What stands out from our conversations with colleagues is the power of collaboration, and of aggregation of resources, to create necessary change and development in digital repository software.

title page for book
David Cusick’s sketches of ancient history of the Six Nations: comprising, first, a tale of the foundation of the Great Island (now North America), Native American Literature Collection

We’ve been thinking about Islandora for years at Amherst. Before I arrived about two years ago, it was on the table, as a possible alternative to our custom user interface for our digital collections. In the time I’ve been at Amherst, we’ve had two cycles of planning for our next iteration of our digital collections software. At first, we were holding out for Islandora CLAW, which is the next phase of Islandora, and will include native linked data support, something we are strongly interested in seeing in a future repository.  And while we are still awaiting CLAW as a viable option, as time has gone on it became clearer to us that in the meantime we should start using the current Islandora.

One reason we’ve been reluctant to move to Islandora is because we’ve also been waiting for Fedora 5, which is the version of Fedora that will be based on the Fedora API specification. Fedora’s API aligns with our hopes of moving in the direction of linked data, and using common standards that allow for more flexibility in our application development in the future. We currently run a 3.x version of Fedora, which isn’t actively being supported by Fedora at this point. Based on timing of when Fedora 5 is released, we’ll end up skipping over Fedora 4 entirely, until we upgrade to CLAW in the future.

Steam boat inventory with maps, Nelson Family Juvenilia Collection

Our plan to start using Islandora, while still running an old version of Fedora, felt at first like we were making some kind of U-turn, as we hope in the long run to be off of deprecated software and using linked data more fully in our digital collections repository. As we’ve talked with our colleagues from other Islandora institutions, joined the Islandora Foundation as members, and watched the developments of our colleagues at Fedora institutions, it seems clear that this is just a bend in the road that we need to follow. We’ve learned a lot about the Islandora software and community in our explorations and planning thus far.  We hope to be better advocates for our colleagues in our work with Fedora as a result of our Islandora work, and we hope to align ourselves more closely with our neighbors so that we can start working together more in the future.

We will be installing and configuring Islandora over the next year, with the hopes of having at least a full copy of our current digital collections in place by summer 2019 for testing. We still have many questions about how we will use Islandora, such as whether or not we’ll use Islandora as the user interface. What we do know is that this feels like the right time to make this change, and it will allow us to continue to advocate for the needs of Amherst, and all liberal arts colleges, in the open source software communities of Fedora, and now Islandora. And best of all, we will grow our community of practice, our collaborators, and by aggregating, expand the reach and scope of what we are able to accomplish with our digital collections.

rikers island drawing
View of the East River or Sound taken from Riker’s Island with a distant view of the seat of Joshua Waddington Esq., Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Collection


Images in this post are from the Archives & Special Collections in Amherst College Digital Collections, all found by searching for “island”.

Este Pope is the Head of Digital Programs in the Amherst College Library. She can be contacted at epope at amherst.edu.

A Millennial in the Archives

College Photographer records, job #69-002-B1

Guest post by Avery Farmer ’20

When I visited the British Royal Observatory in Greenwich during a vacation in London this year, I was captivated by a series of rooms dedicated to a history of time. Not time, the grand spiritual and scientific setting of our own existence, but humans’ attempts in the last 500 years to measure that constant force. On display were indecipherable jumbles of pendulums, springs, and gears, exposed or half-concealed by elegant metal dials, each new model claiming some slight advantage over the last. The placards described innovations like a redesigned spring that made an early chronograph a half-second per hour more precise than its predecessor, or the first design that compressed the great workings of a five-foot-tall clock into a pocket watch. My fascination with these old instruments, clumsier and less accurate than the almost-perfect time immediately available on my iPhone, seems silly for a citizen of the digital age. If I cared about cutting-edge science and the thrill of innovation, why was I looking at centuries-old clocks instead of looking around an Apple store? Though they were once great leaps forward, the instruments that I beheld in Greenwich were no longer revolutionary; they had become redundant. So where did my fascination with them come from, and what did it mean?

I think the intense relevance that those old clocks took on speaks to a broader appeal of historical archives in the digital age: their physicality engages us as participants in ways that digital media doesn’t, and that gives us a rare feeling of connection. I’ve worked for a year now in the Digital Programs department of Amherst College’s archives creating digital images of objects from the archives. Over the past year, I’ve taken pictures of photographic negatives of college life in the 1970s, a student’s letters home from the mid-1800s, a first printing of an early collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems, a woman’s diary in Europe during World War II, and the poet Richard Wilbur’s handwritten revisions. Unlike the authors of all of the objects I’ve digitized, I’m a millennial, a citizen of the digital age. I was born in 1998. I grew up with a computer in the house, surfing the internet. My mom letting me have a Facebook was the most exciting part of becoming a teenager. All of the music I know today, I heard first on an iPod. When I took this job, I didn’t expect that it would cause me to reflect much, but a year’s engagement with physical records of people’s lives has given me a lot to think about, both the meaning of digitizing archives and what archives can teach me.

I remember being struck by the Katrin Janecke Gibney diaries, which are a series of diaries kept in secret by Gibney in Berlin during World War II while working for the Nazi propaganda ministry. I only learned that she was working for the Nazis after reading the diary for some time. I had assumed she was against them, and her involvement in the Holocaust deeply troubled me, as it ought to have. Her handwritten record of her life captures the way that her daily life was impacted, but not always dominated, by the ongoing war. Interestingly, it also references frustrations with the limitations sexism placed on her. For example, on Saturday, May 16, 1942, she writes, “No, I am not made up like other women. For instance I cannot talk about dresses and food, while men discuss about the existence of God and similar problems, as they did tonight at Homer’s party.”

Katrin Gibney Diary, 5/16/1942
Entry at middle of page, Saturday 16.5: “No, I am not made like other women. . .”

However, a few years later, war begins to dominate the diary. On April  25, 1944, she writes, “A boy that I used to know has been beheaded [for defeatist remarks,] those of the kind that we all make daily, against the war and against the regime. Everybody of us is ‘guilty’ in this sense and ripe to be killed.” She remembered him creating satirical cartoons against the Allies.

Katrin Gibney diary, 4/25/1944
Entry at bottom of page, 25.4: “A boy that I used to know has been beheaded. . .”

These objects are complicated. The phrase that comes to mind is Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil. In the entries that I read, Gibney comes across as—for lack of a better word—ordinary. She does not espouse unusually monstrous views in these pages; nor does she show a casual disregard for life. She has all of the concerns and considerations that most people of the time did: social life, politics, parties, et cetera. But at the same time, the reader has to make sense of Gibney in her own words in the context of her work in support of the Nazi regime. It’s an uncomfortable experience and requires an empathy that might be better spent elsewhere, particularly in the contemporary political moment where fascists and right-wing extremists are empowered.

The college photographer negatives that I have worked on for the past few months are far more fun and mostly pleasant to work with. I’ve digitized over 4000 images from the mid-to-late 1960s. Some show fraternities engaged in the rowdy, sometimes offensive behavior that we now associate with frats, but others depict students and professors in walkouts and protests–of what is not always clear. In 1969, there was a three-day moratorium in which students and faculty walked out of classes to hold discussions and seek resolutions on race relations on campus. The activism of black students on campuses in the late 60s produced significant outcomes across the country, with scholar Martha Biondi asserting that the Black Power-influenced black students’ movements on campus were of even greater historical significance than the white-run antiwar protests of the time. It is a privilege to be able to witness this process at Amherst through those negatives. I also enjoy seeing images of notable people speaking at Amherst. My favorite images have been those of the acclaimed poet Sonia Sanchez, who was the second chair of the Black Studies department here and gave a reading of Gwendolyn Brooks in 1974; the pioneer of rock music Chuck Berry, who performed at prom in 1967, and the titan of American literature Ralph Ellison, who spoke during the 1969 college moratorium on race relations.

College Photographer Negatives, job #01-74-24
Sonia Sanchez reading Gwendolyn Brooks, 1974
College Photographer negatives, job #67-044-01
Chuck Berry, Prom 1967
College Photographer negatives, job #67-044-01
Chuck Berry, Prom 1967
College Photographer records, job #69-002-B1
Ralph Ellison speaking at the moratorium, 1969

The most interesting effect that working on digitizing the archives has had on me is that I have begun handwritten correspondences with my grandmother, my best friend, and occasionally my mom. While at work I took analog communications and made them digitally accessible, at home I was taking communications which would ordinarily be digital and made them analog. I’m not sure which collection that I worked on here inspired me to do this, but I am drawn to the appeal of a physical record of my relationships with people. Particularly with the thoughtless ease of writing a text or email, the care and intention necessary to write something by hand deepens the emotion and expression of whatever you write. Partly because of that deeper connection, writing and receiving letters has had a significant effect on my time at Amherst, because those letters have calmed me and helped me to express myself.

Ultimately, after a year working in digital programs and thinking about archives, I’m reflecting on the relationship between digital and analog. What does it mean to create a digital source versus an analog one? What is lost, and what is gained, in choosing one or the other? I’m reminded of the imagined division between “civilization” and “wilderness”. Wilderness (analog) takes on a sense of old spirituality, and we associate time spent in nature/history with gaining perspective and wisdom. Civilization (digital), on the other hand, is often considered as the product of the best and worst of humanity: in civilization/the internet, everything is convenient but stressful, innovative but exploitative. I would like to end this entry with a quote from William Cronon about wilderness that I believe speaks to the complicated meanings of digital versus physical archives: “For many Americans wilderness [or a historical object] stands as the last remaining place where civilization [the digital age], that all too human disease, has not fully infected the earth. . . But is it? The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems. Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation.”

Avery Farmer will be a junior at Amherst College this fall. He’s originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is majoring in English and Black Studies. He has worked for the Digital Programs Department since Spring 2017.

Building Collections and Connections

The work of digitizing archival and special collections material is not a “traditional” library activity. Times have changed in libraries.

Image of Emily Dickinson "Me, change! Me, alter!" poem
“Me, change! Me, alter!” by Emily Dickinson Amherst College Archives and Special Collections https://acdc.amherst.edu/view/asc:12983

Change is a constant in our work – perhaps that is what hasn’t changed. Change is in the evolving materials that cross the desk of our archivists and metadata librarians as they organize and describe what is before them. Change is represented in the digital files with endless strings of names and numbers that fill the hard drives in our digital studio and compose the content of our digital repository servers. Change is new, too, in that we no longer deal only in the physical, but in the digital. This change to digital has in some ways been a slow burn over the past twenty or so years, with incremental adjustments made to how we do our work, moving from printed finding aids and catalog cards to digital lookup tools and websites that can convey similar collection information around the globe. In our most recent iterations of change, we are beginning to deal with scale of collections in a way that challenges our instincts around description and what information is most critical to get out on the web versus what can wait.

Some change in organizations is quantifiable, recognizable. A library building renovation begins with clearing out the space, moving to a temporary location, and then moving back to the new space. These are points in time that can be marked by a cake or a party or a ribbon cutting ceremony. For the work in building digital collections, we don’t have ribbon cutting ceremonies for the new workflows we implement with a new digital camera that captures much more resolution, or the streamlined archives processing model to increase throughput of content description. These moments happen on a regular Tuesday at 10 o’clock most likely, when someone sits down at their workstation, and begins to test out a new process. It happens in unnoticed ways. We produce life size posters of items in the collection, we create digital publications for you to explore, but we also write new workflows, commit to regular meetings, and challenge ourselves to ask one another hard questions as we work with one another in the library.

This blog post is a celebration of that invisible work that we don’t always show you, here is the cake:

picture of a sheet cake that says 'We did it!! New Workflow!"
We need more cakes.

In our work on the Bicentennial digital projects, we’ve been meeting every month for close to a year as a team to plan, review, and build not only the digital collections, but also build our team of practitioners. Recently, we’ve begun the work of helping to build a stronger team in the library with the staff working in Archives, Digital Programs and Metadata. Thanks to the support of Human Resources and the Librarian of the College, we’ve embarked on a plan to build community, to build deeper connections among all of us doing this digital work. The hope is that it will help us to grapple with the change, to identify the milestones and to celebrate with one another the accomplishments we are making in this work. We recently talked about change at a retreat with the help of our Human Resources department and were presented with a great visualization on the process of change and transition from William Bridges.

image of transition model superimposed over a tree in a field - Endings - Neutral Zone - New Beginnings
William Bridges’ Transition Model – different people can be at different phases in the transition, all at the same time.

We want to make a lot of material available to the widest possible audience from the archives and special collections at Amherst College, and we will continue to work with one another to live through the changes, and to maintain, preserve, and care for the materials and one another. Wish us luck!!!

Este Pope is the Head of Digital Programs in the Amherst College Library. She can be contacted at epope at amherst.edu.

Digitizing Negative Collections – The College Photographers Records Collections

This month the Digital Programs Group began digitizing the College Photographers Records Collection. The collection includes more than 400,000 negatives taken by the official photographers of Amherst college from 1962-2005; A visual history of the college for the second half of the twentieth century.

Using negative collections housed in archives tends to be a challenge. Generally, negatives enter the archive housed in some sort of vessel—glass plates stacked in a cigar box, a disintegrating yellow envelope or an archival glassine sleeve. Each envelope may have a description and contain a couple frames of film or many rolls of film of various formats. The jumping off point for access may be date or description of the negatives. Once you think you might have found what you are looking for, a staff member needs to view the negatives on a light table in order to find something that might fit a specific purpose. Then comes the evaluation; is the image you want in focus, properly exposed, damaged by light leaks, scratched, or covered in dust? Before the advent of digital photography, a copy negative would be created to preserve the original and prints would be made in the darkroom. With the advent of digital photography scanners are now used instead of the darkroom.

A project of this scale is a massive undertaking, and rather then try to digitize the entire collection we are looking to digitize around 10%, or about 40 thousand images, in the next three years. Currently archive staff is prepping negatives for digitization by selecting, organizing, re-housing, and transcribing any pertinent information.

Fortunately we were given the funds to purchase a new digital imaging system. Manufactured by Phase One this new camera captures about ten times the detail as a cell phone. Up until now, the library had utilized Epson flat bed scanners. While they do a fairly good job at scanning negatives, they are very slow; capture time can be a couple of minutes per image. The Phase One system will enable us to photograph a negative in a fraction of a second at a quality that surpasses the quality of a flatbed scanner. When photographing tens of thousands of images the time saved by switching to a camera system quickly adds up.

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to work on several mass digitization projects of negative collections; Leslie Jones Negative Collection at the Boston Public Library, MotorBinder ( a book focusing on the history of road racing in Northern California), and a collection of glass plate negatives of the 1919 international Panama Pacific Exhibition held at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. Between these three projects I worked with many forms of photographs; 11×14 glass plate negatives, autochomes (one of the first color negative process), 100-year-old negatives that looked brand new, and 30-year-old negatives that looked like they had been peeled off the floor of a darkroom.

Each project brings its own technical and workflow challenges; different cameras and scanners, varying levels of student staff training, and developing unique workflows. All the work allows us to—in the end—look at thousands of images from a variety of sources. I find the real excitement comes from what photography does best. We’ll call it describing and suggesting. ‘This is a picture of that’ ’That happened here and this is an image of it happening’ Most of the things and people in these archives are long gone but the images are moments that have happened that I get to experience through my job. I now feel as though I have a visual connection to the 1919 Boston molasses flood , and what it was like to race cars in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1960’s.

I’ve been working as the Digitization Coordinator for a little less than a year now, and have limited context for the images we are digitizing. We are now in the third week of the project and still working through some technical challenges, but I’ve already seen some interesting images though my firsthand knowledge about their contents are limited. The labels provide a bit of context. Other times, they add to the puzzle.

Other examples of folder descriptions.

Sit-in Westover – Bill Ward

Day of Concern for Blacks

ABC House

 What I find especially interesting are those digitized images without context;


Timothy Pinault is the Digitization Coordinator for the Frost Library at Amherst College. He can be contacted @ tpinault at amherst dot edu.


Choosing the Bicentennial Collections

One of the first tasks of the Bicentennial Working Group was to identify the collections that would be part of the Bicentennial Project. When choosing those collections, we had to balance several factors, including how closely related the topics of the collection were to the College and its history, how useful we thought the collection would be to researchers (what we called the estimated research value), and how feasible it would be to finish digitizing and describing the collection for Amherst College Digital Collections (ACDC) by the end date of our project.

In choosing the bicentennial collections, we focused on collections that were about the College rather than merely adjacent to its history. These include collections that contain a significant amount of content about the foundation of Amherst College, the administration and management of the College, the campus, College life, and statistics and information such as admission and curriculum data.

We also aimed to choose collections with such subject matter from across the time-span of the 200-year history of the College. For instance, we wanted to make available on ACDC collections with content representative of student life of 19th century, 20th century, and 21st century Amherst College students. However, there are several barriers to providing more recent content on ACDC, such as privacy and copyright concerns. Thus, collections with content that provides a broad sampling of College life from 200 years ago to today while avoiding those barriers were given high priority for inclusion as bicentennial collections. Examples of such collections include the Amherst College Student & Alumni Publications and the Amherst College Photographer Records.

man in a banana suit at a rehearsal poses
An image from the Amherst College Photographer Records. Photographs of Zumbyes reunion. (June 1999).

front cover of 1959 Amherst Literary Magazine with drawings of a green woman growing from tree roots
An image from the Amherst College Student & Alumni Publications Collection. Front cover of Amherst Literary Magazine Volume 5 Number 3 . (Summer 1959). [not yet in ACDC, but will be!]
Another influential factor in choosing bicentennial collections was the “estimated research value” of each candidate collection. Estimated research value was determined by both our assessment of the collection’s potential usefulness to researchers and our archivists’ knowledge of the past use of a collection by the college community. In that way, we hoped to include collections that we anticipated would be of high value for scholars in upcoming projects along with collections we knew were already in high demand.

The time-limited nature of the Bicentennial Project also influenced our choices for bicentennial collections. Though the library had been preparing for the bicentennial for some time before 2017, no specific bicentennial staff or library bicentennial groups were established until the Spring of that year. Therefore, the timeline for the library’s Bicentennial Project is roughly from April 2017 to our project end date of August 2020, right before the College designated “bicentennial class” will arrive.

We had to take into account what was feasible to have digitized, described, and added to ACDC within this 3 year period. Feasibility was influenced by factors such as the level of reprocessing (if any) required prior to digitization, the size of the collection/selection of the collection to be digitized, copyright restrictions and privacy concerns, formats of materials within the collection, and our digitization equipment, technological capabilities, and staffing. Given the collaborative nature of our work, we also had to take into account coordinating the workflows of 3 different departments over the 3 years. Once we had a pool of candidate collections to choose from, our review and final selection focused on ensuring that we included a variety of content, format, and voices from across the 200-year history of the College.

Choosing the bicentennial collections was a balancing act, and prioritizing beyond those choices was another seesaw of decision! It took engaged collaboration from all members of the Bicentennial Working Group to make these decisions. We hope that we have chosen bicentennial collections that will provide representative glimpses into the 200-year history of Amherst College, inspiring our students and alumni to investigate this history and to ensure that they are influential in deciding the future of the College.


Below is a smattering of images, headlines, and documents from across the 200-year history of the College. There’s much more like this available in ACDC now, and there will be even more by our Bicentennial Year!

Amanda (aka Manda) Wise Pizzollo is the Bicentennial Project Metadata Librarian at Amherst College. Manda creates metadata and metadata guidelines for digital collections pertaining to the college’s upcoming bicentennial in order to aid discovery and access of these resources. She thinks a lot about what inclusive metadata is/could be and how we can make our organizational systems work for us rather than the other way around. Aside from her work at Amherst, she engages with the broader professional community by attending conferences, reading, and serving as a member of the Five College Cataloging & Metadata Group and the Cultural Assessment DLF Interest Group.
Manda uses she/her/ella pronouns and can be reached at apizzollo (at) amherst.edu

Welcome to the Bicentennial

Partial view of a page of the Amherst Student newspaper from June 6, 1968, featuring the headline "The King Aftermath: Marches, Committees and Change"

At the Amherst College Library, we’ve been preparing for the College’s bicentennial in 2020-21 for several years. We’ve prioritized digitizing materials like the student newspapers, the yearbooks, and the catalogs because they contain a rich combination of data and anecdotes about the College, its students, its faculty, and sometimes its staff for a wide swath of the institution’s almost-200 year history. We’re aware that as the bicentennial approaches, many researchers, alumni, and other interested parties will want to dig in to the College’s history, and having these materials online gives them faster and easier access to that history. It also saves the folks in the Archives from having to respond in-depth to inquiries like “How did Amherst students react to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination?” (take a look at the Amherst Student issues from 1968-70, which include immediate reactions and also coverage of the protests that led to the formation of the Black Studies department) or “What courses were being taught at Amherst in 1945-46?” (check out the catalog from that year).

Beginning in the spring of 2017, our work on this bicentennial project has intensified. Through a combination of a retirement and generous funding from the Dean of Faculty’s office, we have been able to hire a Bicentennial Project Archivist (Jennifer Bolmarcich), a Digitization Coordinator (Timothy Pinault), and a Bicentennial Project Metadata Librarian (Amanda Wise Pizzollo). These three folks have jump-started our digitization pipeline, and their help has led us to set the ambitious goal of digitizing 24 collections in part or whole by the start of the bicentennial.

These three new employees also represent a microcosm of our digitization workflow. Our projects start in the Archives & Special Collections, where the material we digitize lives. Folks in the Archives take in, organize, and describe a wide range of material related to the history of the College, as well as materials in subject areas taught at the College which are used by faculty in their teaching. Their expertise and in-depth knowledge of their holdings also helps guide conversations about what collections we should digitize, since they know what is in highest demand by researchers, as well as what would likely get more attention if it were more freely available. Jen will be spending a lot of time with legacy collections in the Archives which need a large-scale re-organization to bring them up to modern archival standards. Archives’ organization and initial description of the collections also helps set the stage for the other two departments involved in our digitization projects.

The Digital Programs department handles the next step of the process, which is digitization. Tim starts with the finding aid created by Archives, and surveys the collection or series to be digitized, identifying any questions, problematic materials, or preservation concerns. Once all questions about the collection are resolved, the project is assigned to one of our student workers, who photographs the materials on one of our camera stands. Another student worker then crops and checks the materials to make sure everything looks as it should, and Tim does a final review. At that point, the materials are ready for metadata.

The metadata unit within the Technical Services department describes all of our digitized material following national and local standards, guidelines, and procedures. Our metadata creators (primarily Manda) create a metadata record for every digitized item in the collection. This process starts with a review of the finding aid created by Archives to get an initial understanding of the collection, an understanding that develops as they work to describe each item in the collection. Throughout the process, metadata creators work closely with Archives and Digital Programs. The metadata records they create capture descriptive information about each item that helps to place it in the context of the archival collection as well as facilitate online discovery by including abstracts and subjects. The Metadata Management Librarian does a final review of the records for quality control and consistency, and then they are passed back to Digital Programs to package the metadata with the images for our developers, who ingest the collection into Amherst College Digital Collections.

This is a very simplified overview of our process. There’s a lot of communication at every step of the process, especially in between when a collection has been identified for digitization, and when Digital Programs actually starts photographing the materials. We’re excited to share more about our processes and our team with you in the coming months and years!

Sarah Walden McGowan is the Digital Collections and Preservation Librarian at Amherst College. She oversees digitization of archival materials, does planning and policy creation for digital preservation, and thinks a lot about born digital objects. She can be reached at swaldenmcgowan (at) amherst.edu.

Welcome – what are we doing here?

In an effort to document and organize our work around building digital collections at Amherst College, this space will provide an avenue for sharing our work and connecting with the community interested in this work.

This page includes background information on our process in building digital collections, where we will include technical and workflow information about how we go about making decisions in our work. This page will also include overviews of the various projects we are working on, with links to other relevant information where needed.

Picture of computer screen with image being scanned displayed.
Digitization coordinator Timothy Pinault scans the old town map. Photo by Skylhur Tranqille ’18

We will also post entries here to document the work process, our thoughts and discoveries along the way, and will reach out to those who might be interested in the collections we are digitizing to get feedback as we work.

We hope to see you visit us here again soon!