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With Campus Open, Schlesinger Library Pushes Forward with Digitization, Collection Diversification

With Harvard's return to campus, the Schlesinger Library has also returned to mostly in-person functions.
With Harvard's return to campus, the Schlesinger Library has also returned to mostly in-person functions. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Christie K. Choi and Jorge O. Guerra, Crimson Staff Writers

The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study plans to continue its digitization efforts and diversify its collection as its staff members return to in-person work.

Several Radcliffe staff members said Covid-19 required the library to implement changes to transition online, and new adjustments are needed to accommodate the return to campus.

Ellen M. Shea, head of research services at the Schlesinger Library, said that the library accommodated students and researchers during the pandemic by digitizing requested materials.

“Through the entire pandemic, we did something close to over 200,000 pages of material digitized in house, and then another 80,000 pages of material we sent to our colleagues at Widener imaging services, who were also opened part time during the pandemic,” Shea said.

This digitization is in addition to the library’s separate “big digitization project,” which involves digitizing entire collections and making them accessible to all, Shea added. Librarians choose which collections to digitize based on copyright and on their relevance to Radcliffe’s values.

“We have a Radcliffe strategic plan called Radcliffe Engaged, and some of the subject areas that we’re focused on are law, education, and justice,” Shea said. “We prioritize digitizing collections of African American women that copyright allows us to. We digitized the collection of early women prison reformers because prisons and justice were a focus at Radcliffe.”

Librarians also had to transition the library’s instructional program to an online format during the pandemic. Tamar G. Brown, a research librarian and teaching coordinator, said she believed that prior to the transition the teaching at the library was done in-person because of the “thrill” of handling primary sources. Brown, however, added that she found teaching online “rewarding.”

“Covid was an interesting watershed moment in teaching at the Schlesinger, but also just in the world of teaching with primary sources in general,” Brown said. “We could do a lot more collective work with documents, so that was a nice discovery of how you can use digital facsimile as well in teaching.”

During the pandemic, the Schlesinger Library acquired, and is continuing to acquire, new papers and archives.

The library aims to be “partly responsive and also partly strategic” in acquiring its collections, according to library director and History professor Jane Kamensky.

Ultimately, the library acquires whatever “tells the story” of the library’s current chapter, Kamensky added.

The Schlesinger Library serves not only Radcliffe fellows, but researchers around the globe.

Because of this, Kamensky said the library makes it a priority to diversify its collections in order to create a “complex web” of diversity.

“We want to document all sides of the contest so that researchers, whether they’re from the Harvard campus or beyond, can understand those factions and points of view from the inside out,” Kamensky explained.

This past summer, the library acquired an expansive collection of materials from The Sisters of Life — a Catholic organization of women based in New York City which opposes abortion.

“From the pro-life side, it’s a huge collection,” Kamensky said. “Over 400 boxes that we’ll be able to serve up to researchers.”

The library was also able to acquire a collection of papers from South Asian filmmaker Mira Nair ’79. This was accomplished through a working group focused on acquiring materials relating to Asian American women and the history of their impact on society.

To make all of these collections readily accessible to researchers around the globe, the library set ambitious goals for its digitization project. Despite only having digitized 8 percent of its collections so far, the library’s digital archives are some of the largest in the world.

“The number digitized pages in the collection rivals that of the New York Public Library,” Kamensky said. “It really is a very big effort even though it’s a quite small part of the collection.”

With Harvard’s return to campus, the library has also returned to mostly in-person functions. Shea said, however, that the library is in the process of hiring and training a “whole new crew” due to increased vacancies during the pandemic.

She added that she hopes that the library will be back to “more normal operations” by the end of the semester.

Brown said students should take advantage of the library’s return to in-person assistance to use and benefit from Schlesinger’s large collection.

“The message that I just hope all students get is even though these barriers are there, they are still so welcome to come in and use the collections, and we hope that people do come,” she said.

– Staff Writer Christie K. Choi can be reached at christie.choi@thecrimson.com.

– Staff writer Jorge O. Guerra can be reached at jorge.guerra@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jorgeoguerra_.

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