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Putting Archives within Reach

Students created an open-access history of the incarceration of enslaved people.

Teriyana Cohens, Michelle Medici, Pam Qian, and Patrice Miller, all members of the class of 2019, collaborated on “Digitizing Incarceration: A Database of Unfreedoms.” Their project, chosen for a keynote presentation at the 2019 Undergraduate Symposium, was funded by the Computing Research Association and the Institute for African-American Mentoring in Computing Sciences. Amber Stubbs ’05, assistant professor of computer science, and Jessica Parr ’00, ’05LS, assistant professor of history, served as advisors. 

The project is an effort to digitize historical prison records that exist on paper and as such cannot be explored using modern data processing tools. The group created a MySQL database on the Simmons web server and imported data from historical court and incarceration records of enslaved people from the 18th and 19th centuries; now they can be available on an interactive website. They identified metadata categories in the records, allowing them to encode the data for digital processing. 

The transfer of these records is invaluable. “Court records are scattered all around the country, and doing research on them requires quite a bit of time and financial resources for travel,” said Parr. “The lack of centrality is a big obstacle to doing research. That’s what this database aims to address.” 

“It’s exciting to see computer science and information technology students use their knowledge to support research in other fields,” said Assistant Professor Amber Stubbs ’05.

The project was based on Parr’s research. She provided all of the court records the students worked from, the guidelines and programs model for the project, advice on the history, and secured permission to use the records that were included in this prototype. 

The students developed a prototype that allows users to access these records to their best advantage. Parr and Stubbs have submitted an application for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to fund further development of the database, which would also provide funds for more Simmons students to work on this project in the future. 

“The students and I really enjoyed this project,” said Stubbs. “Interdisciplinary work is important for making use of all possible resources. It’s exciting to see computer science and information technology students use their knowledge to support research in other fields, and build up their own skills along the way.” “Digitization and database projects like this one help address a lack of archives that are centered on African American history,” said Parr, “and particularly gaps in who gets to do research, since archives themselves are often not welcoming of African American researchers.”