Digital Durham: Past, Present, Future (2017-2018)


The Digital Durham archive project began in 1999. Since then, the project has seen continual use from academic, community and K-12 educators and students.

Digital Durham is based on the idea that understanding the past is a civic virtue. It fosters awareness of the complexity of Durham communities, including the interconnections of the white and African-American communities in the past. The project lays bare Durham’s experience of industrialization and segregation and demonstrates how that history shapes the present and the future. In addition, it promotes the thoughtful and responsible use of information technology to share and interpret historical documents.

As Digital Durham approaches its twentieth anniversary of supporting research into the post-Civil War South, the technology undergirding the project is showing its age. The site is not set up well for adding new items to the collection, showcasing student projects based on the collection or linking to external resources or other Durham-based projects. The time is right to revisit this foundational resource and to build it up for the future.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will update and enhance the Digital Durham infrastructure and content.

The team will move the existing Digital Durham website to a newer content management system (Omeka or Drupal), and provide a hub for links to related projects. Team members will also enhance the use of Digital Durham archival resources—particularly those relating to the African-American experience—by providing digitized images, metadata and TEI transcriptions for some exceedingly rare materials that cannot be readily accessed through any website. These include:

  1. James Whitted correspondence: Some of the most interesting materials will come from a folder of correspondence from the 1880s between James Whitted, the founder of Durham’s Colored Graded School and his confidante, black newspaper editor Charles N. Hunter.
  2. Maps in the Rencher Nicholas Harris collection: Many of these have been digitized, but they cannot be retrieved (by date, title or subject matter) because they lack item-level metadata.
  3. A. M. Rigsbee ledgers: These business ledgers from 1880 include general store transactions and document the store’s role as the community bank in a credit economy.
  4. 1875 Tax List for Durham: The list contains 60 pages detailing the wealth of Durham’s property owners, and whether they had paid poll taxes.
  5. Durham neighborhood Polaroids: Unpublished photographs of neighborhood homes and street scenes were created by the Durham Public Works department in the 1960s.

In addition, the team will develop modules based on Digital Durham materials for use in AP US History courses in the three-week slot following the AP exams. Through a partnership with the Shodor Foundation, a summer program for high school students will be focused on database design for the archive resources. A Digital Durham Colloquium will be presented in partnership with other Durham-themed courses and projects at Duke to showcase the team’s projects and introduce the new website.

Related Course

Digital Durham: Durham History of the 19th and 20th Centuries (Spring)

Anticipated Outcomes

Digital Durham website revamped and expanded, with infrastructure for future submissions built in; Durham History online resources and possible app based on archival content and student research; Digital Durham Colloquium in Spring 2018; conference presentations at international digital humanities conference and/or HASTAC presentation; publications based on experience developing and teaching with and through the project

Student Opportunities

Weekly team meetings/cowork sessions will take place throughout the year. Workshop sessions around technical topics will also take place. Project jams with volunteers and community members will be intensive, pizza-fueled collaborative work sessions. Durham outings will enrich student understanding of the city. These will include visits to the Maplewood Cemetery, History Hub, Durham Public Library and historical walking tours narrated by specialists. The Digital Durham Colloquium in Spring 2018 will include student panels, presentations by representatives from other Durham projects on campus and a project fair and exhibition of team members’ work.

Student team members will gain an introduction to digital humanities methods within the context of a rich archive. Skills developed will include fundamentals of TEI markup for transcriptions, fundamentals of Dublin Core for metadata creation, scanning and cropping of images, database construction and data manipulation, spreadsheets, introduction to Omeka or Drupal content management systems and introduction to file-naming conventions and archiving of digitized images.

Opportunities for graduate/professional students also include project management experience, digital archive development, alternative forms of scholarly publication and experience working on a cultural heritage project. Graduate students ideally would come from the humanities and interpretive social sciences and be interested in archives, digital humanities and new forms of scholarly communications.

Graduate students would have backgrounds and interests in digital art history/computational media and/or experimental and documentary arts as well as teaching. Undergraduates (8-10 in course, 3-4 in ongoing project team) would likely have backgrounds and interests in visual arts, visual and media studies, history, African and African-American studies, information science and studies, computer science, education or engineering.


Summer 2017 – Spring 2018

  • Summer 2017: Shodor foundation work on the MySQL database infrastructure for tax rolls; infrastructure development for future home of site; summer M.A. student work on relocating Polaroids and georectifying maps
  • Fall 2017: Faculty roundtable around Digital Durham writ large (other faculty doing Durham projects); testing and refinement of new website; group independent study; student internships with History Hub; Transcription Tax List Jam event at the Durham Public Library with Durham and Orange County genealogists
  • Spring 2018: Digital History/Digital Humanities course, draft encoding of letters, test projects with maps and online tours; website development and launch; public symposium around Digital Durham; student project presentations; student projects refined for public consumption; integration of partner project representation on website


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding

The Franklin Humanities Institute provides additional support for this project.

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Trudi Abel, Duke Libraries & Informational Technology - Rubenstein Library*
Joel Herndon, Duke Libraries - Data Visualization Services
Hannah Jacobs, Trinity - Art, Art History & Visual Studies
Naomi Kraut, M.A. in Teaching Program
Leanora Minai, HR Communications
Brian Norberg, Trinity - Technology Services
Victoria Szabo, Trinity - Art, Art History & Visual Studies*

Undergraduate Team Members

Philip Moss, Computer Science (AB)

Community Team Members

Multiple Contributors, Durham History Hub
Bob Panoff, Shodor Foundation

* denotes team leader