Libraries receive federal grant to digitize pre-war slave lawsuits

| Contributing Reporter

Washington University Libraries received one of the largest grants in the institution’s history, a $376,426 National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The money will fund the St. Louis Freedom Suits Legal Encoding Project, which aims to digitize pre-Civil War lawsuits that slaves brought against slaveholders in the St. Louis Circuit Court.

A two-year endeavor, this project will involve about 30 personnel from University Libraries, the Humanities Digital Workshop, the law school library, the American Culture Studies Program and the Missouri History Museum. It will begin in December.

The project stemmed from an ongoing initiative called the St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project. As a part of this initiative, records from the St. Louis Circuit Court are being scanned to preserve judicial resources and make them available electronically.

The newly funded Freedom Suits Legal Encoding Project takes the digitalization process a step further. In addition to finishing the scanning of more than 20,000 pages of city directories and court records, the project also seeks to transcribe the documents to enable full-text searches.

While making these resources more accessible is a significant component of the project, copying history is not all that the project aims to accomplish.

“For the National Leadership Grant, [the project] needs to be innovative in a significant way,” said Andrew Rouner, Washington University’s digital library director in charge of this project.

The primary novel aspect of this project is to “develop extensions to the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) for encoding legal documents to reflect legal function, genres and roles, and employ these extensions in this collection,” according to a grant announcement.

In other words, this project seeks to develop a computer language for annotating the legal functions of documents. This language would be comparable to HTML, which is used to denote structural semantics for Web pages. Ultimately, this innovation will be integrated into TEI, the existing language, to provide a model for similar archives.

The project was taken on because there is no standard for characterizing legal documents as of now. Development of this formal scheme of resource description aims at making it easier to retrieve, use and manage these documents.

While the encoding standard would primarily be used for legal documents, there are other applications as well.

“We hope to open it up to anyone who may be interested in the development of this structure… We want it to be more applicable to just the material that we are looking at,” Rouner said.

Not only will the encoding standard be widely applicable to organizing other resources, but the multifaceted nature of the St. Louis Circuit Court cases also makes the documents a rich historical resource.

Beyond shedding light on civil conflicts within a specific geographical and temporal confine, these documents will reveal valuable information about the judicial, social, cultural and economic history of the city, county, state and nation.

This encompassing nature is in part due to Missouri’s position as a border state during the Civil War era. The cases will help illustrate the complex relationships among those involved in the lawsuits, thereby showing the complexity of the slavery issue.

“I think that people get the impression that the North is good and the South is bad, whereas there were many gray areas… [The project] will help show that slavery was a problem of the entire United States of America—not just the South,” Rouner expects.

Many are looking forward to the potential research that the project will stimulate.

“The real promise of digital scholarship is that when you digitize something, you are literally turning this kind of material into digits. That means it is quantifiable and is potentially data, and that puts humanities research onto an entirely new footing,” Rouner said.

Librarians involved with the project look forward to working on it.

“We are all very excited,” said Tim Lepczyk, a metadata librarian involved with the project.

Undergraduate students will also have an opportunity to benefit from the project. The grant funds a pedagogical component: a course within the American Culture Studies to be taught by former State Archivist Ken Winn. This class will enable students to help with digitization and conduct original research to learn more about America’s past through a learning model called Engaged Study Projects.

“The aim of Engaged Study Projects is to have students confront complex, real-life phenomena of American culture, or the records of such phenomena, and bring to bear techniques from multiple academic disciplines to understand or interpret them,” said Randall Calvert, director of American Culture Studies.