Behind the Scenes of the Freedom House Digitization Project

Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections has thousands of archival records available online through our Digital Repository System (DRS). While exploring our digital collections, you can learn more about the University’s past or dive deep into the history of social movements and community organizations in Boston. One of the library’s ongoing digitization projects is to make the Freedom House records more broadly accessible by digitizing and describing the collection, which provides a fascinating look at community activism in Roxbury in the mid-late 20th century. 

Cover of the June 1973 issue of the Roxbury Goldenaires Heart Line newsletter

Digitized during this project: The Heart Line newsletter, a source of poetry, humor, political content, and more for elderly Roxbury community members

As a digital production assistant, I help to bring these documents from the archival box to your screen. Over the course of a typical day working on the project, I split my time between scanning materials and creating metadata. With archival documents, the scanning process is a bit more involved than simply feeding papers through a scanner. Once I have turned on our scanner and let it warm up, I open our digital imaging software and check to make sure that the settings match our project standards. Before scanning, I wipe the scanner down with an anti-static cloth to ensure there’s no dust or dirt in the image. I dust the scanner after every few documents, but if the materials are particularly dusty or dirty I may wipe it down between each individual scan. Once the scanner is ready, I set the item on the flatbed and pre-scan to get a preview of the digital image and make color and cropping adjustments as needed. From there, I hit “scan” and watch as the software scans and saves the file to our server. After scanning, I write the matching file name lightly in pencil on the back of the document. This creates an easy link between the digital file and the physical material, and helps us to quickly identify whether a document has been digitized. 

Depending on the size of the folders, I may get through several in a day or just one. As I go through a folder, I watch for duplicates (which I don’t scan) and staples, which I remove to avoid scratching the scanner and creasing the paper when scanning later pages in the document. There are a couple of intermediate steps that I take care of before I start working on metadata for a folder. First, I convert all of the newly-created TIFF image files to PDFs, combining any files that make up multi-page documents – the PDFs are the files that will be uploaded for use on the digital repository. Once I have PDFs for each item in the folder, I make the files text-searchable by running them through Adobe Acrobat’s OCR tool. From here, my supervisor conducts image quality control to make sure that the images are up to project standards and to catch any personal information (like a social security number) that may need to be restricted or redacted.

Once a folder has passed through image QC, I create a new metadata spreadsheet for it using a template that our metadata librarians have developed. When I work on metadata, I like to have the spreadsheet and digital files open side by side in my two monitors so that I can easily reference each item while I’m assigning its metadata. I move through the spreadsheet, filling in all of the applicable blanks, like title, creators, genre, dates, and subject headings. These are the pieces of information that will help you search through the digital repository, and they appear alongside items in the repository to provide contextual information about digitized records. The metadata creation process is collaborative: archival material can be complex, so when I come across something that I am unsure about, I reach out to my supervisor and metadata librarians to discuss the problem and come up with an appropriate solution. Once I have finished the metadata for a folder, the spreadsheet moves through a round of quality control before the digital files and accompanying metadata are uploaded to the digital repository. 

The process requires patience and an eye for detail. What I love most about working on this project is getting to learn about the activities that Freedom House was engaged in while working toward racial, economic, and housing justice in Roxbury. It’s exciting to help connect users with these interesting and inspiring pieces of Boston history.

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