Over the past decade, many institutions of higher education have begun to publicly examine and embrace their historical roles in the injustices and legacies of slavery. So far, however, there is no common, shared method for collecting, organizing, and describing historical data from the rich archival holdings of all these institutions. Despite the similarities of record types, information sources, and data elements, each institution is taking its own, often duplicative approach to its history. The absence of a common, shared approach to documenting, describing, and organizing the data derived from the archival records relating these histories limits researchers understanding of the lives and experiences of the enslaved across these institutional contexts, retards search and discovery across collections, and constrains the possibilities of a broader analysis of American educational institutions’ historical ties to slavery.
The richness and density of these myriad archives call out the need for a robust data model that can fully represent those events, their contexts, and the individuals—-black and white, enslaved and free—-who participated in them. Together, the data from these colleges and universities will provide scholars, students, alumni, and descendants with a new understanding of the lived reality of bondage at these institutions of higher education. But the fullest universe of that understanding is not possible without bringing together relevant slavery-era records from the multiple institutions. Despite the vast and varied efforts on individual campuses to grapple with their individual legacies of slavery, to date there has been no coordinated effort to establish a shared data model to describe these events, the people who participated in them, and their institutional contexts. Of the more than sixty institutions actively working on studying their history with enslavement, many have expressed the necessity of a common approach to describing and documenting their archives. Benefits of this coordinated effort go far beyond improved interoperability. Rather, taking a common descriptive approach will allow participants to build and disseminate a richly linked contextual foundation for representing and understanding the lives of the enslaved people who were bound to colleges and universities.
Given the critical mass of institutions eager to scrutinize and share their archives as they confront their complicated histories with the legacies of slavery, now is the time for historians, archivists, and digital humanists to join forces to craft a sustainable, extensible, linked open data (LOD) model to organize, publish, and share this foundational yet often undiscovered information with interested scholars, students, alumni, descendants, and members of the public.
On These Grounds is a project of a core team of experienced digital history experts, archivists, and historians of slavery from Michigan State University, Georgetown University, the University of Virginia, and the Omeka Team to
- create, evaluate, revise, and disseminate a LOD ontology focused on adequately describing the lived experiences of those enslaved individuals who labored in bondage at higher education institutions that are represented in those institutions' archival holdings;
- create a set of resources, both descriptive guidance and supports, that will enable other colleges and universities to undertake this work;
- and, aggregate the resulting data in the service of increasing the discoverability of this information and of fostering new scholarship on the lived experience of those enslaved persons who labored in the service of institutions of higher education.
In the spring of 2021, OTG recruited five external partners to test the alpha version of the ontology. Hampden-Sydney College is honored to have been selected as one of these partners. Starting in August 2021, the testing partners began collaborating with the core project team for a year, sharing feedback from their testing, and advising on revisions to the model.