Texas' past is just a click away via Portal to Texas History created by university

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Internet helps us keep in step with the present but, increasingly, it also affords us gateways to the past. One of the best places online to explore Texas' past is the Portal to Texas History (texashistory.unt.edu), created by the University of North Texas libraries' Digital Projects Unit.

The portal provides unprecedented digital access to materials brought together from archives, historical societies, libraries, museums and private collections from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande and all around the state.

Even small libraries and individual collectors, whose treasures otherwise might never appear online, are participating.

"Texas history has a lot of fans around the world, so this seemed like an obvious service to provide," says Cathy Nelson Hartman , UNT assistant dean of libraries for digital and information technologies.

That's why Hartman and her team decided to make the portal a resource for everyone from elementary school students and lifelong learners to history scholars and researchers.

Hartman says the portal breaks down accessibility barriers when it comes to rare items.

"Many printed materials are fragile, and often institutions only allow credentialed scholars to see them, but when we put them online even children can see them," she says.

The portal emphasizes primary source materials - that is, materials such as diaries, firsthand accounts, illustrations, newspapers, photos, original documents, maps, personal letters and other items that reveal history from the perspectives of those who lived it.

The portal includes:

  • More than 100,000 pages of content, with scans of more than 300 books, 375 letters, 1,000 physical objects, 200 maps and 16,000 images (some 13,800 of which are photographs);
  • Twenty-five collections, such as "Lorenzo de Zavala Online: Empresario, Statesman and Texas Revolutionary," which draws together materials from 10 different institutions scattered around Texas, and "Gammel's Laws of Texas," which charts Texas law from colonization to statehood; and
  • Areas for young scholars and educators that provide history lessons for fourth and seventh grades compliant with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards, as well as teacher resources and services, and even downloadable Texas History Trading Cards.

Like to browse? The portal's subject categories and numerous subcategories make browsing fun and engaging.

Want to peruse the 1850 Texas Constitution? Just click on "Browse," then "Government and Law" and then "Constitutions."

You can also browse by collection, contributing institution and era. Researchers particularly appreciate using the portal's search functions to find resources and to search within specific books and documents.

"It really makes a difference having full-text search capability," Hartman emphasizes.

From a technical standpoint, many hours of hard work goes into making the portal user friendly. Delicate handling of fragile materials and the use of high-tech equipment are only the tip of the iceberg.

Mark Phillips, director of UNT's Digital Projects Unit, says digitization of the original documents is the easy part.

"The really difficult part is placing materials online in a usable format, so you can page through a book or zoom in on one area of a map, for example," he says, adding that each item also must be carefully described and categorized with standardized metadata to facilitate searching and browsing.

Doing everything that's necessary takes open-source software, specialized scanning hardware and considerable know-how from the staff and students who work on the project.

Other essential work involves acquiring funding and bringing new partners on board, which is the job of Dreanna Belden the UNT libraries' coordinator of grants and development. Belden works primarily with digital projects.

She points out the growing numbers of institutional and private partners with UNT - 45 in 2006 - not only add to the portal's content, but also make it possible to draw together subject-specific materials from distant locations. A good example is the portal's "Lorenzo de Zavala Online" collection.

"We figured out that a historian would have to travel about 2,400 miles to see all of those documents,"" Belden says.

Since the Digital Projects Unit began in 2003, its lab has amassed $500,000 worth of equipment. Initial infrastructure was established with a $200,000 grant from the state's Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund.

Grants for specific digitization projects come from public and private sources, including the Summerlee Foundation, whose latest grant has funded the digitization of at-risk historical materials. Organizations with collections that match grant criteria apply to be included on the portal, and those selected send their materials to UNT to be digitized or send their own scans after training. In some cases. organizations approach UNT first with requests for digitizing their collections and then work with the librarians to find funding.

"We load new portal materials at least every two weeks," notes Belden. "We plan on significant growth, and we're very open to working with other people to do that, including private individuals and collectors."

Private donors may select books to be added to the portal through the "Adopt a Book Digitally" program.

Additional materials from Denton's public library and Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum are going online this year, as is a collection from Texas Woman's University. Future plans include developing ways to make historical materials even more accessible online. The future of Texas history looks brighter than ever - and it's right at your fingertips.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108