Rescuing and Digitally Preserving the Cultural Heritage of the Great Smoky Mountains

Judaculla Rock (section). Postcard in Hunter Library Special Collections, archived in Hunter Library Digital Collections.

Postcard of Judaculla Rock, a Cherokee heritage site. Hunter Library Digital and Special Collections, Western Carolina University.

In western North Carolina, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, rests a boulder covered in prehistoric petroglyphs attributed to the Native Americans who have resided in the area for thousands of years. Experts debate the specific origin and meaning of the glyphs but the general interpretation describes Judaculla, a human-like giant with supernatural powers, who protects the Cherokee Nation and the land that nourishes and supports them. This cultural record of Cherokee society, called Judaculla Rock, has been accessible for millennia because it is recorded in stone. With protection and preservation, it might continue to be accessible for thousands of years to come.

A few miles away, at Western Carolina University (which was built on the site of a Cherokee village) in the town of Cullowhee, Anna Fariello has helped create digital cultural records of Cherokee society, which she has preserved and made accessible online as the Cherokee Traditions collection. Given the potential longevity of digital collections, Cherokee Traditions — with protection and appropriate preservation — might be accessible for many years to come. Maybe even as long as Judaculla Rock.

Anna Fariello

Anna Fariello, Head of Digital Initiatives, Hunter Library, Western Carolina University. Photo: Lucas A.A. Rogers

Fariello, the head of Digital Initiatives at Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library, does not limit her preservation work to the Cherokee culture. She is trying to digitally preserve as much of the rich cultural heritage of the western North Carolina Smoky Mountain region as she can and make those collections available online.

She spent the early part of her career creating exhibits for museums, which is evident in how she stages each of Hunter Library’s online collections. But the transition from displaying material objects in a museum to displaying digital objects online did not happen quickly for Fariello. Creating an appealing online collection involved more than just displaying photos and text in a browser; it required conceptualizing and planning for the browser medium and the user experience. The process also required some trial and error. For example, she points out the text-heaviness of Hunter Library’s first online collection, Craft Revival, and notes that with each collection they moved further away from dense explanatory text toward showcasing the richness of the cultural artifacts, within the limitations and the possibilities of the medium.

Cherokee Traditions: From the Hands of our Elders website and digital collection

Cherokee Traditions: From the Hands of our Elders website and digital collection

Soon after Fariello started working at Hunter Library in 2005, she began scouting her community for primary source material for possible collections to put online. There was the Craft Revival, of course. Cherokee culture was also an obvious choice. “When I first moved here, I knew of the Cherokee people here but I didn’t realize we were at the seat of the Cherokee homeland,” said Fariello. “That collection developed out of my growing awareness of that and reaching out to our partners, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Qualla Arts and Crafts, the Cherokee’s artisan guild. The project won a major recognition last year from the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums.”

Each digital collection that she developed presented a new challenge. The Western Carolina University Herbarium seemed promising and uncomplicated because the content — 100,000 plant specimens — is archived at the university. And while The Western Carolina University Herbarium was historically relevant (among the specimens collected over 150 years, it contains specimens from the decimated American Chestnut tree), funding was a challenge because the collection is a natural history collection and the grants that Fariello was pursuing applied to cultural history collections.

Cornhusk doll with green dress. Mountain Heritage Center, Western Carolina University.

Cornhusk doll by May Ritchie Deschamps in the collection of Mountain Heritage Center and Hunter Library Digital Collections at Western Carolina University.

She traveled throughout Appalachia — county to county, museum to museum, library to library — to talk with archivists and librarians and gather material. When Fariello researched content for Hunter Library’s Great Smoky Mountains exhibit, she found very few historic photos and digitized artifacts online relating to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When she went to the national park to assess its collections, she discovered that they had many well-preserved photos and artifacts but they had no plans to put them online. “Digitization is outside the scope of what they can do in the current economic climate,” said Fariello. She took that as a confirmation that Hunter Library should digitize the Great Smoky Mountains National Park materials and develop a digital collection.

Some of the collections Fariello digitized were not organized to begin with. “There’s quite a bit of curating that needs to happen with those,” said Fariello. “How to tell a coherent story and find the important aspects of that story. How to figure out what to leave out in order to build a strong collection.”

Fariello gave a presentation last fall at the American Folklife Center’s Cultural Heritage Archives Symposium. During the presentation she spoke about how Hunter Library acquired and archived a unique oral history collection through serendipity and rescued it from possible digital loss. She said she was approached for an interview for Stories of Mountain Folk, a highly polished radio show produced near Cullowhee. She was impressed by the mission of the show, the professionalism of the interviewers and the show’s high production values. When the producers told her they record the show digitally and it had been around for five years, Fariello’s digital-preservation instincts kicked in. She said, “I asked them, ‘You’ve been doing this for five years? Where are all the sound files?’ And the answer was, ‘On GoDaddy.’ I was surprised, to say the least.”

Children On Their Way to School. Hunter Library Digital Collections, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC 28723

Children on their way to school,” as pictured in the “Photo Album of the Great Smokey Mountains.” Hunter Library Digital and Special Collections, Western Carolina University.

Fariello immediately began to make arrangements to archive the program at the university, which resulted in Hunter Library hosting the Stories of Mountain Folk collection. Hunter Library’s website describes the collection as, “Over 200 half-hour and hour-long recordings capture ‘local memory’ detailing traditions, events, and the life stories of mountain people. A wide range of interviewees include down-home gardeners, herbalists, and farmers, as well as musicians, artists, local writers, and more.”

Except for the digital audio files from Stories of Mountain Folk, most of the digital files in Hunter Library’s digital repository are photographs and documents. The library’s Digital Production Team scans each photograph and document as a 600 dpi TIFF master copy for preservation; these TIFFs reside on servers at Western Carolina University and are also backed up onto gold CDs. The team also creates a 300 dpi JPEG copy of each scan to display online in the collections. They enter the related metadata into a database.

Hunter Library uses a content management system to transfer the JPEGs to a vendor, who displays each digitized item along with its metadata. Fariello likes the convenience and reliability of using a vendor — for which Hunter Library pays an annual fee — but doesn’t like that the URL changes in the browser from WCU’s to the vendor’s when a user is on a Hunter Library collection web page and they click on an item for a closer look. That “closer look” page displays its contents from the vendor’s server.

Cherokee Indian Making Pottery. All rights reserved. Hunter Library Special Collections and Hunter Library Digital Collections, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC 28723.

Postcard showing Cora Wahnetah, Cherokee potter. Hunter Library Digital and Special Collections, Western Carolina University.

In other words, the collections’ top-level introductory pages reside at WCU and the individual item-level pages reside on the vendor’s server. Fariello would like to keep the entire online collection on campus, but Hunter Library lacks the financial and technological resources for that right now. The vendor service is an affordable compromise.

Like most libraries and museums in the U.S., Hunter Library’s small staff and tight funds limit the number of online collections it can create. Their vision exceeds their resources. Fariello said, “It seems to me that all over the country, digitization projects -– and digital tools for preservation -– are not always a funded part of core library services.” So she doggedly pursues grants. In the ten years she has been at Hunter Library, Fariello has raised more than a half million dollars to support their digital projects. She especially appreciates the way the state of North Carolina distributes the Library Service Technology Act funds, by way of IMLS. “In North Carolina those funds are administered by the state library,” said Fariello, “which created a grant program to get the funds out into the community at a local level.”

I asked Fariello if she saw Hunter Library’s online collections as a future direction for all libraries and her response was both realistic and hopeful. She said that the determining factor is whether a library has archived any collections to begin with. “The next phase for them would be to make the collections accessible through digitization,” said Fariello. “Not all libraries have an archival focus. If they don’t have collections, digitization is not going to part of their responsibility.”

She said that libraries are changing with the times and librarians, especially young librarians, accept digital services as a natural function of a modern library. “It’s no longer a future function, it’s a present function,” said Fariello. If a library is interested in developing digital collections, the tools are available and standards are in place.

“In 2005 when I started, the standards weren’t clear,” she said. “We wondered, ‘How do you do this?’ Now the standards are standard. Sites like the federal digitization standards site (Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative) and the Northeast Document Conservation Center are well established. You don’t have to invent how to do it. If you want to achieve a certain level of professionalism, follow those guidelines. Things have changed. It’s not that hard once somebody figures out how to do it.”

Dome Cascades Roaring Fork Creek, Mount LeConte. All rights reserved. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, TN 37738, Hunter Library Digital Collections, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC 28723.

Dome Cascades Roaring Fork Creek, Mount LeConte by Jim Thompson Company. Photograph in the collection of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Hunter Library Digital Collections, Western Carolina University.

Most researchers begin online and they expect to — or hope to — find what they are looking for or something related to what they are looking for. Fariello said that, for researchers, online collections are equally as useful as eJournals and Wikipedia. Online collections do not replace research at a library or a museum but online collections do make digital versions readily accessible.

“Access” has always been a guiding principle for Fariello in developing collections. She concentrates on making them useful and friendly for people. “The collections have been successful because I approach their development from the standpoint of someone who would use these collections,” said Fariello.

Librarians, curators, archivists and other information professionals provide a unique service by developing digital collections. And not just by digitizing the collections that reside within their institutions but also by looking outside, into the surrounding community, to rescue collections that are at risk.

“My position has never been to work within an ivory tower institution,” said Fariello. “I try to be aware of what is out in my community. Public institutions need to look to our communities and see where content is being created, especially by non-academic folks who don’t really know what to do with it once they pull it together.”

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