Of Books and Bytes: Electronic Texts at the University of Virginia Rare Book SchoolDavid Seaman, University of Virginia
The Watermark: Newsletter, Archivists in the History of the Health Sciences. 19:1. 1995.
It's not difficult to understand the intellectual and personal allure of attending a week-long course at an international Rare Book School in Charlottesville, Virginia -- to live on the Lawn in one of Jefferson's rooms, to spend your days surrounded by books and bibliophiles, to attend lectures in the Rotunda, and to explore the book culture from paper-making and illustration techniques to cataloging and collecting. But to come to such a gathering and to spend five 8-hour days in a lab chained to a keyboard, staring at a computer screen -- that takes a little more explaining. Yet for each annual Rare Book School since 1993 we have seen a growing number of bibliophiles, scholars, librarians, and book dealers traveling from across the USA and from Europe to do just that.
They come for one of two courses -- Introduction to the Internet and Introduction to Electronic Texts -- which draw on the resources of the University of Virginia Library's nationally acknowledged expertise in humanities computing and digital librarianship. The former course is a practical introduction to the Internet for booksellers, independent scholars, and librarians who have little experience with Internet services, but who know they need to find and to publish documents on the World Wide Web.  It is a course fueled by the excitement of discovering a new medium, and of getting to grips with it. In this article, however, it is on the more advanced Introduction to Electronic Texts that I wish to concentrate.
Introduction to Electronic Texts is aimed primarily at librarians planning to develop an etext center and at scholars keen to develop, use, and publish significant, standards-based electronic texts and images as part of their own textual research and pedagogical work.  Drawing on the experience and resources available at UVa's Electronic Text Center, the week-long course covers the creation of etext and digital image facsimiles of items from the University of Virginia Special Collections. Each member of the class creates an electronic version of a print or manuscript text, marks its structure with Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) tagging following the Text Encoding Initiative Guidelines, creates archival-quality digital images of the pages and illustrations, produces a hypertext version, and makes it available on the Internet. All in all, a very busy week.
In 1995 the class took on a group of related 18th- and 19th-century African-American resources from our collections at UVa, and the resulting collection of searchable text and color digital facsimiles is an impressive Internet publication. The items, which exist as a part of the publicly-accessible holdings of the Electronic Text Center, are worth summarizing briefly:
- 1794. Antislavery circular: a printed letter commenting on public issues including the slave trade.
- 1795. Anonymous. The Sorrows of Yambu; or The Negro Woman's Lamentation: A broadside song describing a woman sold into slavery, and her conversion to Christianity.
- 1796. Southern Planter to Citizens of the Southern States Accuses Thomas Jefferson of Being a Threat to Slavery. A broadside directed at slave holders warning of the dire results of electing Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency of the United States.
- 1816. Slavery -- Africans Halt Slave Ship. Diary of Stirling Murray, a fragment dealing with the slave trade in Havana.
- 1816. Sale of Slaves. A receipt for purchase for a slave named Nancy, sold to Jared Williams, Junior by Nancy E. Williams on June 27, 1816.
- 1837. Sale of Slaves. Letter, from Mrs. A. M. Smythe to her cousin, concerning the sale of a family of slaves, with comments on their health and skills.
- 1839. Runaway Slave: Leesburg, Va. A broadside offering $300 for the recovery of three escaped slaves (Bob, Charles, and Alfred).
- 1840. Runaway Slave: Culpeper County, Va. "$100 Reward", for the recovery of an escaped slave.
- 1841. Slaves. Buckingham County. A register of slaves owned by the Hubard family.
- 1841. Slavery. A letter from Mrs. M. L. Brooke to her husband in 1841, discussing household matters, the buying and selling of slaves, and local happenings.
- 1855. Public Hiring of Free Blacks, Fredericksburg, Va. A broadside offering for auction the labor of seven free Negroes to work off their taxes.
- 1855. Slavery -- Sales & Breeding. G. B. Wallace of Strawberry Hill reporting an "unruly slave," and describing the slaves he would like to purchase in replacement.
- 1856. Cabell, William D., letter to Joseph Cabell, Norwood, Virginia. Includes an account of a valuable slave who had died from drinking "poisonous" brandy.
- 1858. Freedman -- Letter from Mildred Carr, a freed slave, in Liberia to her former owner, James Miner, requesting clothing, commenting on life in Liberia and her family.
- 1858-59. Descriptions of Slaves, Watson family. Excerpt from an account book, with dates, sums, and descriptions of payments made to slaves from 1858-1860.
- 1864. Black Soldiers. Thomas Wentworth Higginson's petition to Congress, requesting elimination of disparities in pay between soldiers who were free before 1861 and those who gained their freedom at a later date.
Part of the excitement for the Special Collections community in the digital media is that finally we have under our control a means to disseminate high-quality reproductions of items that are unique -- such as a hand-written slave narrative -- and often physically delicate. Moreover, the economies of Internet publication mean that if we can afford to make a digital facsimile for a single user or a single seminar at a single institution, then it does not cost us any more to let thousands of other people use the item over the networks. We now routinely see well in excess of 100,000 non-University of Virginia accesses per month from all over the world on the many hundreds of publicly accessible texts and images that the Electronic Text Center makes available on-line (111,000 non-UVa accesses, Oct 1995; 138,000 non-UVa accesses, Nov 1995).  The African-American resources created during Rare Book School 1995 can be a resource for users in any college, in any high school, in any home in the world that has access to the Internet.
We are careful to ensure that the data we create will be useable long into the future -- all too often not the case with electronic files. The archival-quality images are high resolution, high color content files, often in their original form many megabytes in size, although the files we work with on a day to day basis are "poorer cousins" of these archived master copies. The text is alwasy marked up in SGML, a term I alluded to earlier: this means in essense that all the information denoting database categories and typographic structure within the text is encoded with a standardized set of tags that are typed into the file along with the words and numbers that make up the content of the file. That is, instead of using a proprietary database or word-processing program to encode database structure and typography in a way that only that program understands, we use instructions that are simply typed in along with the content -- tags that are made up of other common "ASCII" characters found on the keyboard. The resulting SGML file is not pretty to look at "in the raw", but it is stable over time, and with a piece of SGML search and display software on top of it, the user barely needs to know that the data is in SGML. A good case in point is the World Wide Web -- millions of users accessing millions of web pages, almost all of which are in HyperText Markup Language, a simple form of SGML.
We are only now beginning to think seriously about the implications of electronic texts for our teaching and research, and for the creation of "virtual" collections of related items in digital facsimile, made up of holdings from a variety of institutions. As librarians and scholars learn the techniques of creating electronic texts and images, it is becoming less unusual to find museums, libraries, societies, and now commercial publishers producing impressive World Wide Web sites full of significant content. We aim to add to this activity at Rare Book School by training people in the creation of high-quality, standards-based electronic data, and then having them take their new-found skills and (I hope) reconfirmed enthusiasms back to their home institutions.
Since 1992, the Electronic Text Center has been building a searchable on-line library of full-text and image databases, and with equal effort has been building the user community that makes use of these resources. Since the arrival of the World Wide Web, and of graphical browsing software such as Netscape and Mosaic, our users have needed less and less encouragement to become both consumers but also producers of Internet data, and we are starting to see all sorts of teaching and research projects being published from the University's web servers. Amidst all the frenzy, excitement and anxiety caused by the arrival of a major new publication and "information manipulation" medium, it is heartening to see that the library world has understood and incorporated these skills ahead of the general library patrons and ahead of the commercial publishers, and that the rare books and manuscripts sections of our libraries -- too often thought of in the popular imagination as dusty, August, old-fashioned arenas -- are firmly on the cutting edge of the educational world's use of digital publications.
 Introduction to the
Internet attendees, 1995: Catharine A. Bomhold, Birmingham Museum
of Art; Joanne Chaison, American Antiquarian Society; LuEllen DeHaven,
Folger Shakespeare Library; Blanche Ebeling-Koning, Archives of American
Art; Susan Hengel, Hagley Museum, Wilmington, Delaware; Alan Hepner,
rare book dealer; Abigail Leab, University of British Columbia; David
O'Neal and Mary O'Neal, rare book dealers; John Priddy, Richmond book
collector; Hans Rutten; Kathleen Wilson, St. Stephen's Episcopal School,
Austin, Texas; Linda Wilson, Greenwich Academy, Greenwich, CT. See
their homepage at
 Introduction to Electronic Texts
attendees, 1995: Terri Boekhoff, Rudi Publishing; Donna Bussell, San
Francisco State University; Dominique Coulombe, Brown University; John
Davenport, University of St. Thomas; Katharine Donahue, UCLA; Terese
Heidenwolf, Lafayette College; Jan Horner, University of Manitoba;
Russell Johnson, UCLA; Lisa Johnston, Sweet Briar College; John
Kneebone, Library of Virginia; Mary Lacy, Library of Congress; Phil
McCray, Cornell University; Chris Petter, University of Victoria;
William Wortman, Miami University. See their homepage at
The Electronic Text Center
University of Virginia