Get To Know CSL: Leigh Jeremias on Archives, Digital Collections, and Our Connections to History

In a series of conversations, we are finding out about how the people of Colorado State Library (CSL) derive meaning from their work, as well as some of the challenges and successes they have experienced. In this fifth installment of #GetToKnowCSL, the first to be carried out via video conferencing, we have Leigh Jeremias, the Digital Collections Coordinator for the Networking and Resource Sharing (NRS) unit of the State Library.

Leigh coordinates the Plains to Peaks Collective (PPC), a partnership with the Wyoming State Library that serves as a Service Hub of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA); DPLA Service Hubs are state, regional, or other collaborations that host and/or bring together digital objects from institutions within their respective communities. Leigh also runs the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection (CHNC), a database of 400+ digitized newspapers published in Colorado from 1859 all the way up to the present day, totaling almost 2 million pages in total and ever growing.

With a BA in History from West Virginia University and an MA in History with a concentration in Archives and Manuscripts Management from Temple University Graduate School, Leigh dedicates her career to saving historical objects for posterity. Before joining the State Library in 2015, Leigh worked for venerable institutions such as the American Philosophical Society (APS) and History Colorado. As I’m sure anyone who has worked with Leigh knows, her expertise is deeply entwined with her unending curiosity for the work.

Leigh

Mike: Shall we get the elephant in the Zoom room out of the way? How has the pandemic affected you?

Leigh: Because I already work from home, a lot of my interactions with partners for CHNC and the DPLA are already remote. That hasn’t really changed so much, and things are still moving forward with those projects. I’m sure there will be a slowdown period, because of budget cuts and funding, but surprisingly, CHNC keeps going strong, and I’ve had a couple of people who want to do new projects now, which I think is amazing, amazing that people are still thinking about that kind of thing. Personally, it’s challenging. I wasn’t used to working from home with two children and a husband who is working from home too. The balance between being a parent and working is hard, but I keep thinking that there’s plenty of people who are going through the same thing. The starting and stopping going through your work day is difficult and a challenge to adjust to.

M: It’s a whole new level of fatigue.

L: Yeah, a whole new level of fatigue. And I think that the additional Zoom meetings – and when my kids were in school, managing their Zoom meetings – was somewhat exhausting.

M: But you’ve adapted.

L: Yeah, and it’s summer now, so the kids are having a free-for-all. [laughs]

M: Well, that’s what we’re so very good at as human beings, and in the library and cultural heritage community, adaption is a natural mode of operation.

L: And the work that I do is digital collections – so on some level, people might think that this is the time to be doing that kind of work. Staff have more time to think about it. Also this is a real-world example of people’s need to have information online. We think about people not able to see historical collections in person, because they’re out of state, but now we have people only a mile away who can’t see things in person, but they still want access to that information. In some ways the pandemic will highlight the importance of digital collections work.

M: Here’s a hypothetical: say we lived in some alternate universe where the internet didn’t exist, and the pandemic hit – what would libraries and museums be doing?

L: That’s a hard question. I think they would revert back to a physical publication format maybe.

M: It seems like back in the day, everyone was starting newspapers.

L: We always say that newspapers were the Facebook of the time. People still want information and knowledge, so there would have to be a way to get it out, more newspapers, more glossy publications of your collections.

M: The immediacy of the internet cannot be replicated in traditional media formats.

L: It’s like the dark ages now, right?

M: Agreed. So, you’ve been coping overall?

L: Coping overall.

M: It’s always good, at least for me personally, to be mindful of the privilege I have.

L: Exactly. And my husband and I say it all the time. We’re so lucky.

M: In future, I expect employees will have to be more flexible about working from home where possible.

L: Right. I think there’s a misconception that people “work” from home, but they are not working.

M: It’s a cynical view, because people in general have personal accountability and wouldn’t want to abuse that system.

L: And I’m not chatting and having coffee and going to a break room. I do think that this will change the mindset, and many people realize that there isn’t a need for a centralized office space to go into everyday.

M: Well, unless you want to talk a bit more about Coronavirus—

L: No.

[Both laugh]

M: I usually ask a little bit about background. How about education?

L: My master’s was in archival management. Nowadays, there are many master programs in archival management that would be a library science degree. I knew I wanted to work with historical collections. In my undergraduate degree, I gained some experience in archives, so I knew I wanted to go in that direction – there just weren’t that many degrees with archival concentrations at the time. So, that’s why I went for the master’s in history with the concentration in archives. And I do know that has served me really, really well, because I have a great background in historical theory and subject matters. For that degree, you had to do a lot of your own research, so I did a lot of research in archival collections at that time. If I had to do it all over again now, I would probably do some sort of information sciences degree – databases and metadata, my mind just works in that way and can follow that sort of a structure. But I feel good with where I’m at.

M: How far back does your interest in history go?

L: As far back as I can remember. Every time I went to my grandparents’ house, I always had to have them tell me who the people in their photographs were, how we were related, and I distinctly remember feeling as if I was connected to these people. I remember being in my grandmother’s house and there was a photo of a boy who looked exactly like my brother, and I had to have her tell me everything about him and explain how we were related. I would have them get the photo albums out or explain about their antique furniture. Just to see how I was connected to it.

M: It’s interesting you use the word connection, because we really are connected to our pasts. Interesting that as a child you were thinking like that.

L: I don’t think I could have articulated it like that, but they always meant something to me.

M: You had that curiosity.

L: We lived in Pennsylvania, so we were close to New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Gettysburg – a few hours’ drive from all those places. So, my parents took us to those places all the time as a kid. So, I spent a lot of time in museums as a kid, and I liked it. My brothers didn’t so much. And my dad is a reader. There is one memory of being in the State Museum of Pennsylvania and he had the three of us without my mom, and he lost us because we wandered off and he was reading every label [laughs]. But, later, I did an internship at that museum.

M: It sounds like you’ve always been drawn to that type of institution. Why do you think that is?

L: I don’t know if it’s just the lifelong learner in me, or just as you said, the curiosity I have. As an adult, I can really say that the past does inform from the future. We can really look to the past to see the mistakes we’ve made and learn from them. Those stories are not over, they always have more to tell, and every time we look at them they can tell us something new. You just need to look at it maybe with a different lens to learn something new.

M: I feel like that about World War II. It was such a momentous event that you can study it and learn everything you need to know about humanity, when we were simultaneously at our best and our worst. Do you think we have a tendency more to repeat history–

L: Yes! Rather than learn from it. But, yeah, going back to graduate school. Where I went was a big factor for me. Because it’s kind of a niche career to go into. I always had people say, what are you going to do with that history degree? I didn’t want to teach, so I went down this route, but in going down that route I knew I was going to need to get experience, so I needed to put myself in a location where I could easily gain that experience. That’s why I went to Temple in Philadelphia, because I knew there would be a lot of opportunities to work in museums, archives and historical societies there that I wouldn’t necessarily get in another city.

M: What work experience did you gain at that time?

L: With my graduate degree I got a job at the university where there was a biographical dictionary project of Pennsylvania legislators. I was going from archive to archive researching these early Representatives, so I got a lot of experience working with historical documents in that setting. My archives professor worked at the American Philosophical Society. I started working there essentially as a greeter at the door, and when books came into the collection, I did some of the accessioning and intake. A lot of the early work I did was on grant projects for processing archival collections, meaning organizing and describing them so that people can come in and actually make use of them. I also worked in the reading room and helped people with researching their topic.

M: Do you enjoy research?

L: Yes. And having a history degree, I was that researcher, so I knew then how to help another researcher. They may not have known what they were looking for, but I could help them figure that out, because I was that person.

M: Is it like a sixth sense that you developed?

L: Yes, it kinda is.

M: Is that just pure experience on your part?

L: And knowing the resources and knowing the limitations of those resources. Especially nowadays, knowing how to navigate a database. I think the CHNC database is great and easy to use. But there are tips and tricks about knowing how data is input into a database in order to know how to get it out.

M: I’m curious about your time at the American Philosophical Society.

L: That was the best place I could have been at that time. I’ve worked in all sorts of places that have benefited me to get to where I am now. That was a very small specific research collection that had the papers of the Founding Fathers. They have the journals of Lewis and Clark. That is crazy.

M: Really? Wow. How does it feel to hold such a thing?

L: Handling those, I don’t know how to explain that connection, or that thrill. They had these amazing collections: Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine – it was incredible as a historian to be able to work with them. So, when we moved out to Colorado and I interviewed at the Colorado Historical Society, one of my thoughts was, how am I going to go from these fantastic collections of people who built our nation, to Colorado collections that I don’t have a connection to – I’m not from the West, I’m from the East. But what I found was that I can find fascination and interest and curiosity in just about anything. Going from the journals of Lewis and Clark to coming here and working with maybe a diary of an early settler was just as fascinating.

M: It all speaks to that human story.

L: Definitely. APS was a research library and archival collection, and had a museum side which I wasn’t involved with at all. So, to go from that to the Colorado Historical Society, which is a museum was a shift too. While I was not charged with the care of the 3D objects, they were related to the things I was caring for. What was fascinating to me is that in this large historical society, a whole collection would come in and would be parsed out: objects would go to the object curators, archives would go to the archives, and photographs would go to the photo curator. All those connections would be lost, some of the story would be lost. One of the interesting things that we did was to bring all those items back together into one collection. There was one story where this woman was a Unionist in the Confederate South, and she would have secret meetings of her Unionist friends, and they would bring out their flag and display it during the meetings. So, we have the letters where she wrote about that, but we didn’t know that the flag existed. So, doing enough research, I was able to make the connection and figure out, oh we have this flag in the collection. Before that, that flag was just a flag, without a story. Now it has a story.

M: Is that your calling in life, to reconstruct stories?

L: That’s one of my passions, yes. These objects can’t speak for themselves – I mean, yes, they can, but they need a little helping hand in order to fully tell their story. And that’s what we’re here to do, I feel.

M: And recording it for posterity.

L: So people understand why they’re important, and we’re not just keeping things to keep things. And this is why digital collections and describing your collections are really important. If you keep that knowledge you have in your head, it’s no use to anybody.

M: But for the past five years you’ve been a digital collections person.

L: Yes, I was used to dealing with the physical thing, so at first, I did wonder if I would feel the same amount of connection for digital collections.

M: Can you give me an “explain like I’m five” overview of CHNC?

L: The Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection is an online database of Colorado newspapers. The word “historic” is not what everybody thinks of – we have content from 1859 to 2019. CHNC started in 2005 as a multi-institutional grant from IMLS. Those partners were the State Library, History Colorado, and the State Archives. The first 100,000 pages were from grant funds. Shortly after the grant ended, the question was, how are we going to sustain this? How do we add new content? Who’s going to manage it? The management of the database continued with the State Library, and it shifted to a community-funded model.

The State Library supplies the funds for managing the technical infrastructure of CHNC, and our partners – libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, friends groups, private individuals – they pay the direct digitization costs for adding content to CHNC. We digitize from microfilm or original newspapers, or partners supply their own digital files to us. The secondary process is having those files indexed and segmented into articles, illustrations, and advertisements. The scanned image is read with the OCR – optical character recognition – making the newspaper issues searchable in CHNC and Google.

M: CHNC has volunteers, too, right?

L: One of the great features is that any user can correct the OCR text. OCR is not perfect all the time, and for a variety of different reasons: either the original newspaper was in poor condition, or the original microfilm was done poorly, which can affect the quality of OCR and the resulting transcription. So, people can go in and correct the mistakes in the database. All they have to do is create an account, which is free and easy to do. And why we ask people to do that, and why it’s great that they do, is that if you correct mistakes, it improves the search functionality for users that come later. In this time, projects like this and having the ability to do things online, open up opportunities for so many different things. When people can’t visit you in person, your volunteers can’t help you and work with your collection hands on, but they can still do this, this is still helping the historic record, so I think that’s a great thing that CHNC offers.

M: Some of our editors really seem dedicated to text correction.

L: Right, and they are often dedicated to their community newspapers, as well as specific research topics, like family research or local geographic research. Some editors correct everything, others correct just proper names and locations. I think that’s how a lot of people start – by correcting something of interest to them personally, and then grow from there. I’ve had some people contact me and talk about why they correct and it’s about giving back to us. Our partners have given them access to this information and they feel the need to give back in a way, and this is a way they can do it.

M: A lot of folks are interested in genealogy. Why are newspapers a good way to research that?

L: Some of these really small communities have never had someone preserving their history, newspapers are their record of their community. Because the newspaper was like the Facebook of the day, you could really track a relative. On Sunday, they took a trip to Denver. On the next Friday, their family from Saint Louis came to visit – all of these mundane things that we wouldn’t think to put in newspapers today were part of a newspaper during that time.

M: Did people consent to that? It sounds a little bit “Big Brother-ish” by today’s standards.

L: That’s a good question. My guess is that people welcomed that type of reporting. So and so got married in their living room today, and so and so was the maid of honor. It was sort of exciting to see your name in print I would think at that time.

M: It’s the same sort of urge people have today sharing a status or a tweet.

L: Exactly. I’ve had people send me emails of thanks because they have found information about their birth family, or stories about their dad being in the War but never talking about it, so never realizing their father received the Medal of Honor, and the only record of it being in the newspaper. I feel really honored to help these institutions help their communities. I feel like CSL is just a small part of it. Some of these institutions do not have a lot of funds, and they see this as so important, the work that they do to raise money for this is incredible for me, and I feel honored to be a part of it. The same can be said about the Plains to Peaks Collective – it’s not just about getting online, some of the work we’re doing is about helping people work with their physical collections, and I feel like I can take all the knowledge I have gained from the places that I’ve worked and experiences I’ve had and share it with these individuals so they can care for the collections that they have. I find joy in that too.

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Michael Peever