The Birth of a Database

ljx140601webrefbacktalk The Birth of a Database

Adam Matthew is a London-based database vendor that produces collections of digitized primary sources in the humanities and social sciences. Providing researchers, students, teachers, and scholars access to exciting and valuable archival collections is a responsibility we take extremely seriously. We believe strongly that a collaborative approach between publisher and library is crucial to producing a great resource. This belief is central to our development and production processes.

The Adam Matthew editorial department is comprised of three teams: development, production, and technical, and all three work closely in the publication of a new digital resource. The content leads the vision for the project, so that while a uniform platform exists for our resources, we always start by asking: How can we best present this material? This can mean redesigning elements of functionality to better fit the content we are introducing—whatever it takes to make the material accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

Our relationship with Chicago’s Newberry Library began in 2006 when we were developing the American West resource. We have spent the last few years evolving a new collection called American Indian Histories and Cultures, centering on the Newberry’s renowned Edward E. Ayer collection, one of the world’s strongest resources available on American Indian history.

Choosing what to include

The Ayer collection is daunting. It contains approximately 130,000 volumes, more than one million manuscript pages, 2,000 maps, 500 atlases, 11,000 photographs, and 3,500 drawings and paintings, and covers not only American Indian history, but archaeology, voyages, exploration and accounts of early America, the development of cartography, Philippine, Hawaiian, and Central and South American history.

The development team decided to focus on American Indian history in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Our aim is to be as complete as possible with our resources, and for that reason we do not select single pages or parts of documents, and wherever possible try to include whole collections. Given the size and scope of the Ayer collection, however, selection was inevitable and important.

The focus was primarily on content that is unavailable elsewhere, so the starting point was several months of work poring over the online catalog, gathering in a spreadsheet details of every relevant item in the Ayer Manuscript collection. Since the Ayer collection is exceedingly strong on visual content this area was the next focus and after that our attention turned to the more modern material.

The goal to cover as wide a time span as possible made the inclusion of some of the Ayer Modern Manuscript Collections essential. Here the process of selection strongly hinged on copyright questions. The Newberry was very helpful in providing the team with leads and introductions to copyright holders, along with suggesting places to advertise. The decision to include hundreds of maps and a selection of rare printed items added context and rounded out the presentation.

Translating the idea into a reality

The Adam Matthew team spent many weeks at the library viewing material and assessing its suitability for inclusion, as well as making comprehensive notes on the content and condition of all of the items in preparation for the scanning process. After the production team took over, the scanning continued over the course of a year on site. It required months to check the images and prepare the metadata. A great deal of time is spent developing strategies for metadata, beginning with using the library’s cataloging records as a starting point and supplying additional fields, which are always dictated by the demands of the content. In this case the work involved adding detail on tribes and nations, culture areas and themes, to make the content more discoverable for users.

The production team also researches and writes content, commissions essays, designs the resource’s front end, and builds the database with the technical team. The resulting digital resource is the culmination of years of experience and passion for developing robust products that will inspire students and researchers.

Since the publication of the American West database in 2007 there have been innovations and improvements to the company’s platform and to ideas about how users can get the most out of the material. The American Indian Histories and Cultures resource is not only from the same source library but covers some similar subject areas as American West and it became obvious right from the outset that they should be cross-searchable. An updated American West site now exists on the new platform with a redesigned front end to give it a refreshed look. In applying to American West new functionality developed since its publication, the site now sits happily alongside American Indian Histories and Cultures.

The team at the Newberry provided a huge amount of assistance in a variety of ways: practical advice on how to navigate the online catalogs and stacks, suggestions on ways to conceptualize the resource and what material to include, tracking down information on hard-to-find items, and assisting with the on-site digitization of the material. For American Indian Histories and Cultures it was particularly important to get advice on which material to exclude for reasons of cultural and religious sensitivity. The knowledge of the staff at the Newberry was invaluable; their passion was essential as we navigated our way toward producing the final database.

The challenge of building projects like this is made easier by the close collaboration between Adam Matthew and our partner libraries. The enthusiasm and commitment shown by the Newberry staff was certainly the magic ingredient, not only in the end result of the databases, but in making the journey of creating them truly enjoyable and rewarding.

Jennifer Kemp is Editorial Director of Adam Matthew, a database vendor based in London, England

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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