Lessons Learned: The UNC Press ‘Long Civil Rights Movement’ pilot project summarized

Sylvia Miller, Project Director for “Publishing the Long Civil Rights Movement,” University of North Carolina Press has given me permission to post in entirety, the following.  It is a summary of the Long Civil Rights Movement pilot project, which took place over the past 14 months.

This post contains 4 sections:

1. Close of the online pilot
2. The expected, the unexpected, and in between
3. What did we learn?
4. What is next for the LCRM Project?

Coming soon:  A follow-up post on enhanced e-books

Close of the online pilot

After 14 months, the Long Civil Rights Movement Project’s pilot online collection officially closed its test period on July 18, 2011.  You can still see it at https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/voice/works, although project staff will no longer grant premium access to the full text of the experimental site’s 87 titles (books, articles, papers, and reports) to those who register except by special request.  Registration will continue to give any user the ability to see open-access content and comment on it at the paragraph level.

The commenting feature was the focus of the experiment.  During the test period, the number of registered users grew beyond our expectations, finishing at 776.  The number of annotations contributed by users was also impressive, finishing at 607.

The expected, the unexpected, and in between

As with any experiment, some desired and expected outcomes eluded us, while other developments both raised knotty questions and presented new opportunities.

In the elusive-goals department, for example, the authors of the 87 books, articles, papers, and reports in the collection did not enhance their published writing with sidebars offering further thoughts since publication, nor did they share links to archival sources–despite several authors’ enthusiasm about these ideas in focus group meetings.

Authors and other scholars saw the site as a teaching tool.  One author added discussion questions to his book,  and five undergraduate classes around the U.S. used the site. (The number of courses might easily have been higher than five, but we limited this aspect of the experiment.)  One class at Duke University, taught by an author, contributed 80 percent of all the comments in the site.  Students responded to the assigned reading about civil rights activism with candor and genuine emotion in their comments, sometimes linking to outside sources and occasionally sharing related personal experiences.  This activity led us to knotty-question territory, challenging us to think about how to design a business model for an online collection that would include or rely upon course-adoption books.

One desired outcome proved elusive until we offered participants an honorarium.  We hoped that archivists, who have an intimate knowledge of the materials in their collections, and who have worked hard to make those materials available online, would have an incentive to increase the discoverability of those collections.  A desire to link published scholarship with archival materials in a granular, contextual manner was a prime reason for the inclusion of a commenting tool in the site.  We hoped that archivists would voluntarily contribute annotations for that purpose, but—despite their stated enthusiasm—they did not find the time.  Once they were commissioned to do so on deadline, however, and offered an honorarium, they produced the most useful, scholarly, detailed annotations in the site.  Their contributions present an attractive opportunity to work with archivists on e-book enhancements in the future.

What did we learn?

In science publishing, there is attention to the importance of archiving data sets and making them accessible for reference and reassessment.  In the humanities, primary-source materials, such as diaries, letters, pamphlets, manuscripts, and oral history recordings and transcripts, are the scholar’s data sets.  Whether the archival material is linked to a searchable collection like the one we created, or linked in e-books that are sold individually; whether the archival material is embedded in the e-book, accessed via outbound links, or both; whether the material is added pre- or post-publication, slowly over time (as in our experiment), or all at once—scholars and archivists agree that having primary sources available in this meaningful way is important and opens exciting new opportunities for teaching and scholarly discourse.

In short, the core insight arising from the LCRM experiment is that there is great scholarly value as well as audience appeal in connecting published scholarship and archival collections in a precise, contextual way.  Publishers can take charge of the process of creating those meaningful links, and archivists can be key partners in the process.

The length and detail of archivists’ annotations in the LCRM pilot was a surprise.  Archivists reported that they enjoyed writing them and expressed a strong interest in writing more.  They appreciated both the recognition of their expertise and the opportunity to create new paths of discoverability to their collections.

What is next for the LCRM Project?

Having received renewal funding through 2012 from the Mellon Foundation, the LCRM Project is active in the following areas:

(1) We are talking with potential online publishing partners about developing a multi-publisher, library-subscription product based on the pilot.

(2) In partnership with the UNC Library, in September 2011 we plan to release a group of 12 print-on-demand books from UNC Library’s “Documenting the American South” online collection of archival materials.  The new imprint is called DocSouth Books.  http://www.uncpress.unc.edu/browse/page/758

(3) We are investigating the possibility of publishing several enhanced e-books using archival materials digitized under the LCRM grant.

(4) The UNC Library will digitize and make available online the entire collection of Southern Oral History Program oral histories in the Southern Historical Collection, thereby creating the largest online archive of oral histories in the world—available for linking to the many books based on these materials that have already been published and that will be written in the future.

Other projects seeking to create a searchable collection with an annotation feature might wish to consider using the open-source publishing platform that was programmed by the LCRM Project team; the software and documentation are available from UNC upon request.  We continue to blog about the project, civil rights scholarship, oral history research, and civil rights issues in the news at https://lcrm.lib.unc.edu/blog.