Visiting PACSCL – Part 1: Facing Digital Transformations Together

By Tim Feind

Editorial note: Tim Feind completed his bachelor studies in Leipzig and is in the final phase of his master’s degree studies in History at the University of Vienna in Austria. His main interests are in social and economic history, the history of women and gender since the 18th century, and theories and structures of punishment in historical perspective. Active in student government, he is also interested in political questions related to working conditions in the academic field. He completed an internship at the GHI in Washington, DC from May to August 2022.

Digitization, frequently used as a buzzword and symbol for progress, often poses significant challenges for smaller institutions. Archives and libraries have had to find collaborative ways to face the challenges of the present. This post reports on a visit to an inconspicuous library in Philadelphia and its role in a larger regional collaboration, the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL).

©Tim Feind

Bettina Hess of the German Society of Pennsylvania (GSP) makes the value of participating in the Consortium evident. I met the head librarian of the GSP at her office at the Spring Garden Street townhouse in Philadelphia. The German-American Collection, the core of the society’s Joseph P. Horner Memorial Library, was begun in 1867 by Oswald Seidensticker, who was not only a professor of German and American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania but also the librarian of the German Society back then. the oldest records of the archive date back to 1764, starting with the society’s own minute books. At that time, the German Society of Pennsylvania was an important point of contact for many German immigrants arriving in the US after an uncertain and dangerous voyage. The society also aimed to provide access to literature in the German language and room for cultural exchange among the settlers. Even though the old mansion at Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia may have seen better days, one can easily imagine the vibe of its exalted times.

©Tim Feind

Today, the preservation and sharing of German-American history and culture remain the GSP’s main objectives. Digitization provides one of the main avenues for fulfilling these aims, but Bettina Hess, as the GSP’s head librarian, knows about the challenges this presents. It’s a Herculean task for smaller archives even today because they usually don’t have the funds to employ additional staff needed for digitizing. One way to compensate for this deficit is to make a virtue of necessity. The GSP decided to establish a group of citizen scholars to participate in a transcription group. “We started a transcription group which came out at the same time that we started collaborating with the GHI on the letters project, working on the letters of the Eugen and Emma Klee Collection and [with] another group working on transcribing our first minute book, because it has been used in the past by researchers, but we didn’t have anybody’s transcriptions. People did bits and pieces of it and then took them.” Although these are long-term projects that benefit from volunteers, the achievements are evident. “We actually have completed the first (minute) book, which is now available on our website. Now we are in the middle of volume two.” The ability of working in a hybrid manner, catalyzed by the pandemic, is an additional benefit. “Now we have also people in Germany who join us.” GSP membership is not necessary to participate, and establishing a network (of volunteer transcribers?) is essential. Here, organizational structures like PACSCL can help to be particularly effective in breaking down barriers between institutions that share the same interests. “One person joined us recently who is working at another PACSCL Institution in Philadelphia who needs it for her work,” Bettina Hess says. “They send me their transcriptions when they are done, I compile them, and when they are done I make them available on the website.”

The Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) is a non-profit corporation established in 1985 as an informal group of sixteen local institutions, all of which believe that the extraordinary collections of the Philadelphia area deserve to have broader support and more visibility so that they can share their precious sources with a worldwide audience. Therefore, one of its aspirations is to initiate cataloging and digitization programs of its the members holdings. Another priority is “to capitalize on members’ individual professional development activities to build cooperative programs that anticipate and serve the needs of the community that we are working to build among the staffs of member institutions […] helping its members enhance their reach and value to diverse research constituencies and educators, as well as supporters.”[2] In other words, the Consortium helps institutional staff learn new skills and get certifications for their continuing education, all while adding to the value of the collections by making them more accessible.

“It’s great to work in such a group because everyone sees something different”      – Bettina Hess, German Society of Pennsylvania

“Almost everything that has been digitized has been done through cooperation with other universities in the area and mostly through PACSCL. For example, we have a collection of the papers of John Ballier who was a general in the Civil War. He was a German American, and he had a hotel at 4th and Fairmount Street in the neighborhood of Northern Liberties. He was a member of the German Society of Pennsylvania and also founding member of the Canstatter Volksfest-Verein, which was another social German organization in the 19th century. He has a scrapbook as part of his collection that has a lot of Civil War Memorabilia – mainly letters and various pieces of ephemera. It’s very fragile and falling apart because it’s a lot of news clippings and thing that were glued on to the paper. So, we had Villanova University digitize that for us, and that’s now available on their library website.”

PACSCL, as a highly functional association, has had great impact and continues to have potential to support libraries and archives in the Greater Philadelphia area. As a consortium supporting large and small institutions in a greater metropolitan area in the US, it remains relatively unique among consortia in the US. Yet PACSCL highlights the need and effectiveness of smaller regional consortia in the LAM (Libraries, Archives, and Museums) sector, which remains chronically underfunded. The example of the German Society of Pennsylvania and its collection illustrate sharing historical records and digital infrastructure is a win-win situation. “There are a lot of historical societies and libraries in Philadelphia, and the fact that we have this consortium is unusual, but it’s great for everybody – small and large. Especially the small ones, because there are many things we could never have done without being part of PACSCL.” But also, time and practical experience seem to have changed the policy towards more solidarity in recent years. Bettina Hess admits: “We were sort of an exception when we were allowed to join PACSCL ten years ago. They changed the membership policy to allow institutions with part-time staff to join, and there is a tiered membership dues fee structure, so smaller institutions pay less. We definitely benefit from the expertise and resources of the larger institutions.”

It’s a matter of fact that archives, small as well as large ones, are indispensable for research in the humanities. PACSCL, which is based on a model rooted in archival solidarity, puts small and large institutions alike in a position to digitize some or all parts of their collections to increase online access. Because accessibility inevitably dictates the research approach, there is a direct connection between the way we organize archives and their collections and the way we generate knowledge.

[1] German Heritage in Letters is a project to find, collect, and share online a digital collection of German-language correspondence shedding light on the history of migration that is currently held in private hands or by archival institutions. https://www.ghi-dc.org/research/digital-history/german-heritage-in-letters

[2] https://pacscl.org/about-pacscl-2/

 

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Bettina Hess and to Atiba Pertilla for their assistance in preparing this article.