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Studies in Scarlet

On June 1, RLG launched an ambitious project to create a digital collection with the intriguing title -- "Studies in Scarlet: Marriage and Sexuality in the United States and the United Kingdom, 1815-1914." It will test the proposition that a virtual collection for scholarly research can be created cooperatively, made widely available, and be responsibly maintained for future use.

RLG News image 1 "The provocative title is no accident," says RLG member services officer for law Win-Shin Chiang, who has guided the project since its beginning. "We wanted this project to have a high profile so its success would make a strong impact." The particular time span was chosen, she explains, because the political, social, and economic changes that took place during it had a profound impact on the institution of the family: the social perception and legal regulation of marriage and sexuality.

The two-year project will pull together materials in a variety of formats held by seven RLG member institutions across the country and in the UK, into a single "virtual collection." This will consist of primary legal materials including laws and reports of many famous (and infamous) trials, supplemented by historical and sociological background materials -- treatises and commentaries, newspaper accounts, diaries, correspondence, biographies, and literary works. It will contain close to 400,000 digital images -- some of them supplemented by searchable encoded texts and finding aids -- all linked to bibliographic records in the RLIN database.

"'Studies in Scarlet,'" says Chiang, "will be the only database of its kind, and the most comprehensive digital collection on 19th century family law and domestic relationships in existence. As such it will be a rich resource for historians, sociologists, criminologists, political scientists, legal and other scholars." To ensure the collection meets the needs of teachers and researchers, user evaluations will be carried out during the second year. The entire user community of each participating institution as well as scholars and advisors will be invited to assess the collection's strengths and weaknesses and the resulting report will be used to further develop the "Scarlet" collection as well to guide future RLG digital projects. Results will also be shared with those planning to develop digital collections of their own.

The Project's Genesis

"The original impetus for the project," explains RLG's member services officer for digital initiatives Ricky Erway who co-manages the project with Chiang, "came from RLG's mid-decade planning group. That group urged RLG to begin to establish 'best practices' for maintaining digital archives. To do that, we first needed to have an archive to maintain! Our law library community was very eager to get involved in a digital project, so we set up a content task force made up of law librarians to get things underway."

Chair of this task force was Joan Howland, professor of law and director of the law library at the University of Minnesota. "In choosing a topic we had a number of criteria," she says. "We wanted something that was cross-disciplinary but with a single theme, that included materials in different formats to experiment with. And we wanted to create a unique, cohesive collection that would have real value to scholars."

"Trials of Love"

The inspiration for the theme came from a 1994 Harvard Law School exhibit "Trials of Love" based on its unparalleled popular trials collection. David Warrington, Harvard Law Library's Special Collections librarian, acknowledged the book "Victorian Studies in Scarlet"1 in the exhibit catalog's foreword. Warrington, also a member of the content task force, proposed the theme to his colleagues. "We were immediately 'enamored' with the topic," says Howland. "It caught our imagination so we thought it might interest other people as well."

RLG News image 2 This indeed proved to be the case. When the call went out for participants, 17 RLG members from both sides of the Atlantic submitted preliminary proposals. To keep such a labor-intensive project manageable and affordable, however, it was necessary to limit the selection to seven -- no easy task given the high caliber of the entries. "All of the proposals were very strong," says Chiang, "making it almost impossible to choose between them. Finally, the deciding factor was how well the individual collections fit together to make a coherent whole."

Creating a Living Collection

Studies in Scarlet is conceived as a test case. "We want to show what can be done," explains Chiang. "Also, how it can be done and then to see the database expanded beyond the original core and grow in a logical and useful way. Previously inaccessible materials will not only be made available but will be enhanced by being integrated with other contributions from around the world. It will be a living collection. We are not just throwing all this stuff together; very deliberate links are being built into it, including links to bibliographic records in the RLIN database."

Content parameters were negotiated among the participants over a period of months. "For example," says Liz Kelly, librarian and professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and also a member of the content task force, "we were planning to contribute statutory materials on antimiscegenation laws, but Win-Shin persuaded us to include Utah statutes as well to strengthen the Mormon polygamy materials being contributed by Princeton."

The antimiscegenation material, explains Kelly, is a good example of something that has not been easy to research thus far. "The statutes are actually spread over 39 states and the relevant case law is dispersed in different sets of books -- so getting it all together for the first time will be a real service," she says. "We know it will be helpful because our researchers here have told us that it was high time someone did this! One of our faculty members -- Mary Francis Berry, chair of the US Civil Rights Commission -- has endorsed the collection's usefulness and will help in the evaluation stage of the project next year."

"For us," says Carol Alpert, project manager at New York University, "the timing is perfect. The project dovetails nicely with the "Sanger" digitization project2 NYU's Bobst Library is doing with the History Department. We would hope to have links between the two projects." (NYU is contributing materials about the Comstock anti-abortion laws, general family laws of New York, Illinois, and Oklahoma.)

Although the timing is less perfect for Harvard Law School, which is in the midst of major construction, Warrington decided to participate anyway. "Given the importance of our collection it seemed a shame not to make it part of a project attempting to be comprehensive," he says. "Many places have the standard reports that talk about the trial, the judge's opinion, and so on. What makes our material so useful is that much of it is in the form of popular accounts often sold in the streets that provide the crime's background. We're also providing the verbatim testimony that doesn't always show up in the official court reports but contains a wealth of information about the daily lives of people in the period."

The Trans-Atlantic Connection

The addition of materials from the University of Leeds, the UK member involved, will also contribute to the Scarlet collection's appeal, according to Warrington. "Although some of that material has migrated across the Atlantic over the years, there is lots more that we don't have access to," he says.

"Researchers over here should be very pleased," says Neil Plummer, assistant librarian and project manager at the University of Leeds. "The special collections that some participants are offering obviously do not exist over here. Add to that the searching facilities the database will offer, and it becomes clear that quite new kinds of research projects will be possible." Plummer hopes that Leeds' participation will pave the way for other UK libraries to contribute at a later date.

"With the digital technology we now have available to us, we can bring in resources from overseas that we couldn't before," says Howland, "and the UK materials certainly add a great deal to the richness of the collection. There are also technical efforts going on simultaneously in both countries so there is a lot we can learn from each other."

The Technical Issues

If deciding on the final contents of the 'Scarlet' collection was difficult, the technical issues of how to go about creating and preserving it are even more complex. Thrashing out some of these issues and arriving at a set of recommended practices is a primary goal of the project. This work will be done largely by members of a technical task force, each of whom is assigned to work with a participating institution. The task force has met a couple of times since the project began, and members keep in touch via the Internet.

While many of the participants are interested in setting up in- house digitizing services, it was recommended that they contract with experienced vendors to accelerate their learning curve and fully understand the variety of skills required for digital conversion.

Says Erway: "After we have assembled all this wonderful material -- photo images, page images, and electronic texts -- we will begin to apply the recommendations of the joint RLG-CPA3 Task Force on Archiving Digital Information in order to come up with procedures and practices that others can apply at their own institutions."

For the Scarlet project, the digital collection will live in an archival server at RLG so as to provide a critical mass of materials on which to begin developing maintenance procedures. But this is not how Erway envisions housing future digital collections. "We expect that some people will want to mount their own digital files on their own servers and link them to RLIN," she says. "Others will prefer us to do it. In the future, we expect that RLIN cataloging records will provide the central access point to whole information objects on a number of servers distributed around the country and overseas."

RLG News image 3 The project will also be useful to others beyond the RLG membership. "Non-members will not only have access to the Scarlet collection," says Erway, "but will be helped by knowing our recommended procedures and specifications. What resolution should be captured for a printed page or a photograph, for example? What accuracy should we strive for in converted texts and when does it make sense to apply SGML4 encoding? Where standards already exist we will take advantage of them. 'Best practices' refers to how standards are best applied and recommends approaches to use in their absence. We will also deal with such issues as authentication and technology refreshment and migration."

Next Steps

During the project's first year beginning June 1, the focus will be on getting the selected materials digitized. To prepare for this work, the technical liaisons from the seven insititutions and some of the technical advisors met with RLG staff in New York City on April 12. "We wanted to make sure we were all using the same terminology for one thing," says Chiang. "We also talked about such things as preparing inventories and how to work with the service bureaus that will be doing the actual scanning. This is a big, complex project and we are asking a lot of the participants. We all have our work cut out for us in the year ahead."

"It is a big project!" agrees Eileen Henthorne of Princeton University who was at the meeting. "I found myself listening and absorbing more than participating. And I suspect that was true for some of the others also."

The Chance to Learn

For many of those participating Scarlet will provide an invaluable opportunity to learn more about digital conversion. Darin Fox from the University of Southern California Law Center is working with the team at NYU Law School. Says Fox: "This is the first big project I've been involved in so I am expecting to learn a lot. I pay close attention to people like Ricky Erway and Peter Graham of Rutgers, who have much more knowledge and experience -- certainly than I do."

"We have a digitization project for journal articles," adds Plummer, "but the international cooperation involved in the RLG project, and the problems thrown up by the complex material, make Scarlet much more challenging. We expect to learn a great deal."

Bob Kenselaar, New York Public Library Scarlet project co- manager agrees: "I am very impressed with the work that the technical task force has done in terms of giving us guidelines and directions for working with vendors and developing technical specifications to ensure that we have a good product at the end. We are using some of those recommendations in other digital projects we have underway so being involved in Scarlet has been a useful experience already -- even before it officially begins!"

A Cooperative Effort

The value of Studies in Scarlet is not only in bringing disparate collections together but in uniting the institutional participants in a common endeavor -- and one that has met with such enthusiasm. "For me, as a librarian," says Alpert, "working on this -- a real research project -- has been wonderful. As a feminist, I find the subject matter very interesting and still timely. For me, the research is challenging and provides an element of fun in the process."

"We see the project not only as a way to make our holdings better known," says Dick Lankford, assistant state archivist at the North Carolina State Archives, "but also as a chance for us to work closely with our peers. It is a great learning opportunity for us and we think we can contribute also. It will be a symbiotic process that we can all benefit from."

"I like the residual effects I see this project having on my professional staff," says Kelly. "It has triggered their imaginations about what else we might do and got them thinking in the mode of building our electronic library. It is really useful that RLG takes a leadership role in getting cooperative projects like this off the ground. None of us has time or resources in our own enterprise -- nor the wide acceptance that RLG has. It has become a name that opens doors for this kind of thing."

"This project would never have happened without the leadership and support of RLG," agrees Howland. "Win-Shin and Ricky have kept us on track and provided us with administrative and technological support. Everybody on the task force has worked very hard but we shouldn't forget that it is really because of RLG's commitment to new technologies and to expanding access to information that this is actually coming to fruition. It is exactly the kind of project that the library community is very supportive of RLG being involved in and I personally see this as a welcome signal from RLG that we are all going to be working together into the next century."

Content Task Force Members

Joan Howland (Chair), director, Law Library, and professor of law, University of Minnesota
Win-Shin Chiang, member services officer, RLG
Gail M. Daily, director, Underwood Law Library, and professor of law, Southern Methodist University
Richard A. Danner, associate dean of Library Computing Services and professor of law, Duke University
Elizabeth S. Kelly, director, Biddle Law Library, and professor of law, University of Pennsylvania
Robin K. Mills, director, Law library, and professor of law, Emory University
M. Kathleen Price, director, Law Library, and professor of law, New York University
David Warrington, head of Special Collections, Law Library, Harvard University

Technical Task Force Members

Ricky Erway, (Chair), member services officer, RLG
Darin Fox, assistant director, Information Technology & Computing Services, School of Law, University of Southern California
Peter Graham, associate university librarian, Technical/Information Services, Rutgers University
Nancy Gwinn, asstant director, Collections Management, Smithsonian Institution Libraries
Tom Hickerson, director, Division of Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University
Joan Howland, director, Law Library, and professor of law, University of Minnesota
Mark Roosa, chief preservation officer, The Huntington Library

Illustration Notes

Illustration 1: Advertisement for "The trial of Doctor John Wolcott, otherwise Peter Pindar, Esq. for criminal conversation with the wife of Mr. Knight." (London: J. Day, 1807). The image is from "Trials of Love" -- the catalog for a 1994 exhibit at the Harvard Law School, which was the inspiration for the project and is part of the Scarlet collection.

Illustration 2: The frontespiece to "Frauds Exposed" -- the first book by anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock. The illustration shows a rear view of the New York Post Office, with mail bags containing fraudulent and obscene circulars. On the left evil-doers are depositing the circulars, while on the right a shamefaced gentleman in a silk hat receives his mail.

Illustration 3: Letter addressed to John Abbott from his wife, telling him that she is petitioning the North Carolina State Assembly for a divorce from "you and from the bonds of matrimony" -- the only way a woman could get a divorce in the state in 1834.

Text Notes

1. "Victorian Studies in Scarlet," Richard D. Altick, 1970.
2. Margaret Sanger was an early advocate of planned parenthood and has been dubbed the "Mother of Reproductive Rights."
3. Committee on Preservation and Access
4. Standard Generalized Markup Language

A Scholar's View of Scarlet

Michael Grossberg Legal historian Michael Grossberg is Professor of History at Indiana University and editor of "The American Historical Review." His 1979 book, "Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in 19th Century America," established his reputation as a leading authority in family law; his latest, "A Judgment for Solomon: the d'Hauteville Case and Legal Experience in Antebellum America" was published by Cambridge University Press earlier this year.

The "News" talks with Michael Grossberg about the project's potential utility for research and learning.

Q: What impact do you see this project having on the study of legal history?

A: I think it's a very exciting project. As I read the initial description and then the various library proposals I was struck by the creativity of the project and the depth of the resources that will be gathered together. It will combine primary and secondary sources that would take an individual teacher or researcher an immense amount of time to collect. And it will have intellectual coherence. The contributions of the various participants taken together will create an invaluable compilation of materials on sexuality, marriage, and law in the US and the UK. As a result, students and researchers will be able to see and to make connections between legal policies and experiences in various categories, places, and times.

Q: So the fact that it involves different kinds of materials from different regions, and countries, adds to its value?

A: Definitely. One of the most interesting aspects is the participation of institutions in New York and North Carolina, so you can get a sense of the regional dynamic at work. And the British stuff gives you the Trans-Atlantic view so it will open up all kinds of ways to ask questions and explore issues with a variety of variables in time and space.

Q: Why is this particular time -- 1815 to 1914 -- so significant?

A: It is important because the legal status of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, was being fundamentally redefined throughout this period. Cases like the "d'Hauteville" trial in 1840 -- one of the first in which a mother rather the father was awarded custody of a child -- were lightening rods for major debates on gender roles. The status of the family and the status of women were explosive issues the discussion of which spilled out into the streets and newspapers.

Q: Would a collection such as Studies in Scarlet, had it existed, have helped you research your last book?

A: That case was never appealed, which means if you were trying to find it through the normal law-finding methods, you wouldn't be able to. But there was a lot of newspaper coverage at the time, and there are published transcripts, so like many other trials, finding out about them means going to different repositories. This is difficult to do logistically and financially. And it's virtually impossible for most students. So the project has real potential to add a level of materials to classes and to research that are very difficult to find in any other fashion. But the real attraction, I think, is that it will allow people teaching or writing about events to meld together what we call doctrine -- the basic rules of law stated by courts or in statutes -- with actual trial courts. The doctrine is fairly easy to find. It is the way it is implemented in trial courts and the relationship of the issues brought to trial to the creation of the doctrine that is more difficult.

Q: So you see a future for digital projects such as this one?

A: I think Studies in Scarlet will demonstrate the great potential of digital collections to enhance both teaching and research. It is the kind of project that suggests broadening access of basic research materials to more and more people -- a democratization of resources. It greatly increases the opportunity for students and faculty to become engaged with primary sources in a way they couldn't previously. It makes traveling possible while staying right where you are! We all hear so much about how new information technologies will transform our teaching and scholarship. Finally there is a project that turns rhetoric into reality!

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