With the College’s Bicentennial two years away, the Amherst College Library is already thinking beyond the birthday party.

The Library has spent the past three years expanding its digital archive—a project they hope to complete by August 2020, in preparation for the 2021 Bicentennial. “That’s very typical librarian behavior,” said Este Pope, head of digital programs:  “We got ourselves organized in advance, but our hope is that it would be material that would help with all the celebrating.”

 That’s probably a safe bet. According to Pope, the Library’s Bicentennial digitization team has doubled the size of the digital collection over the past two years. By the end of this fall, they estimate the collection will have about 75,000 individual images.

 “When we finish our digitization work for the Bicentennial, we will have digitized the equivalent of approximately 25 linear feet of archival material, representing more than 12 terabytes on our digital collections servers,” Pope said.

Covers of two publications from Amherst College archives
(Left): An unnumbered 1961 issue of the Amherst Literary Magazine, a student-run literary journal. (Right): The 1966-1967 Amherst College Student Course Critique.

And just what is there?

The collections overview page breaks down in detail the materials that are now accessible, and what will be ready for the Bicentennial. In short, the newly accessible (or soon-to-be-accessible) materials include yearbooks, commencement programs, photographs and an enormous collection of student publications. The digitized content also includes books published by or relating to the College, including Mavis Christine Campbell’s Black Women of Amherst College and Theodore Baird’s English at Amherst. There is a collection of plans and documents related to buildings and grounds. There will be a selection of class albums, which stood in for yearbooks prior to 1860.

“We didn’t want to paint one picture of Amherst,” said Pope. “We wanted the many different types of stories and materials of the College history. … We thought about faculty; we thought about students; we thought about alumni.”

“One of the big challenges with this work is that there’s just so much stuff, and there’s no end to it,” she said. “We asked: How do we do this work in a way that’s going to meet the deadlines and really put the materials in the hands of all the users, the community?”

They decided to delay digitizing athletics records—a huge collection deserving of its own project, and yet a theme already well-represented in the scanned collections of student publications and yearbooks, Pope said. They opted to hold off on some of the drier administrative records from long ago, such as those of the Board of Trustees. Also excluded were more recent documents in copyright.

Este Pope poses in a dress she made that incorporates a pattern based on a drawing by Ora Hitchcock
(Left): Drawing of nautilus shell by Orra White Hitchcock. (Right) Este Pope, Head of Digital Programs, models a dress she made that incorporates Hitchcock's drawing on the fabric.

The Library team is not simply scanning and storing the materials. They need to ingest them, said Pope. No one is down in Frost eating old Olio yearbooks; “ingesting” refers to the process of indexing and otherwise making the scanned material searchable.

Students and staff have been at work coming up with metadata for the materials—basically embedded search terms that allow readers to pinpoint topics.

 “There’s a whole international standard on this, that our metadata librarians follow, and they’re all very highly trained,” Pope said. “They read everything. They literally read every letter.”

Some collections are fairly easy to ingest, while others, such as the letters of Frederick Brewster Loomis, take more time.

Plans are underway to have the digital collection accessible via a new platform in time for the Bicentennial.

“Our hope is that if you’re coming and saying, ‘I graduated in 1987,’ we will be able to point you to The Amherst Student [newspaper or] some college photographer records that show pictures of perhaps you and your fellow students,” Pope said. “We could point you at your college catalog … or your commencement program and also the reports to secondary schools.”

“The hope is that you can go into these things, and if you’re an alum, find your own story in there, but also have a lot of different voices surface,” she said.