Exploring Black History Month

As we celebrate Black History Month taking time to honor the invaluable contributions of Black and African American individuals to history, culture, and society, it’s an opportunity to highlight the wealth of resources available for delving deeper into Black/African American history and heritage available through the University of Texas Libraries. While we celebrate the contributions of African Americans throughout the year, this month offers a chance to delve into a collection of resources that amplify the voices, struggles, triumphs, and contributions of Black individuals throughout history.

The Black Diaspora Archive (BDA) at the Benson Latin American Collection is dedicated to documenting the experiences of people of African descent globally. From historical documents to oral histories, the BDA offers a comprehensive look into the complexities and nuances of Black life, spanning continents and centuries. This invaluable resource serves as a testament to the resilience and resilience of Black communities across the diaspora.

For those navigating the vast landscape of African American studies, the African American Studies Research Guide offered by the Libraries is an essential resource. Curated by subject specialists, this guide provides a curated selection of databases, journals, primary sources, and other materials tailored to the study of African American history, culture, and society, offering a roadmap for exploration and discovery.

1935 map of Austin, Texas, with redline demarcations. Online PCL Maps Collection.

The Libraries has collected historical newspapers in print format for more than 100 years, including unique holdings of African American newspapers in the microform collections, as well as online African American (and African) newspapers. The development of resources on U.S. and Southern History have been funded since 1914 by the Littlefield Fund for Southern History including the addition of significant selections related to African American history, from antebellum days to the civil rights movement of the sixties. The Libraries provides access to the Papers of the NAACP, records of the Black Freedom Struggle and other primary sources online. And plantation records are available online and on microfilm, supplemented by original documents in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History (notably the Natchez Trace Collection). Also, see the featured collection, “African American History and Culture in Texas,” for a curated selection of resources on the Black experience in the Lone Star State.

The Black Queer Studies Collection features over 1,000 unique holdings in the area of African and African Diasporic Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Studies. Books and media from the collection are held by various library branches, including the Perry-Castañeda Library, the Benson Latin American Collection, the Fine Arts Library as well as digital materials.

Resources available from the Libraries (Perry-Castaneda Library and Benson Latin American Collection) are just the tip of the iceberg on campus, though, augmented by the collections of the Harry Ransom Center, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and the LBJ Presidential Library, along with a significant collection of African American art housed at the Blanton Museum of Art.

Black History Month reminds us to not only reflect on the past but also commit to amplifying Black voices as the integral part of our shared experience. Through the resources offered by the Libraries, users are empowered to engage with history in all its complexity, gaining a deeper understanding of the struggles and triumphs that have shaped our world.

The First Book Ever Borrowed

“Art is long, life short, judgment difficult, opportunity transient. To act is easy, to think is hard; to act according to our thought is troublesome. Every beginning is cheerful: the threshold is the place of expectation.”

from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship by J.W. von Goethe, 1795-96

Goethe’s sentiment borrowed from Hippocrates and distilled in his novel of personal discovery as a charge to the protagonist Wilhelm Meister could equally represent a characterization of the experience of visiting a library — equal parts joy and labor, with the promise of new knowledge as a provocation to learn.

It’s also appropriate, then, that the passage comes from the first ever volume borrowed from a library at The University of Texas at Austin, which occurred 140 years ago on March 7, 1884 — a small act of history committed by a person who created a notable history of his own.

District Convention, Juneau, Alaska, Oct. 9, 1899. Delegates to District Convention pose with their hats on. Juneau-People-17 [detail] Alaska State Library Photo Collection. Courtesy of the Alaska State Library.
District Convention, Juneau, Alaska, Oct. 9, 1899. Delegates to District Convention pose with their hats on. Juneau-People-17 [detail] Alaska State Library Photo Collection. Courtesy of the Alaska State Library.
John H. Cobb. Juneau-People-17 [detail] Alaska State Library Photo Collection.
John H. Cobb. Juneau-People-17 [detail] Alaska State Library Photo Collection.
A response from Cobb to an inquiry about his attendance at an upcoming reunion that was published in "The Alcalde," vol. 2, no. 7, May 1914.
A response from Cobb to an inquiry about his attendance at an upcoming reunion that was published in “The Alcalde,” vol. 2, no. 7, May 1914.

John H. Cobb was a member of the inaugural class at this university back in 1883, when the Forty Acres was composed of the original Main Building in its Victorian Gothic splendor and more open land than is imaginable by a modern-day visitor to campus. He studied law, but even beyond the serendipity of being the first library borrower, seems to have had some predisposition toward pioneering. Cobb used his legal training to help draft the constitution for the Ex-Students’ Association, placing him as one of the co-founders to the Texas Exes.

Much like Goethe’s Meister, Cobb wasn’t content, either, to remain comfortably in the confines of his home state of Texas after earning his degree. He traveled to the relative wilds of what was then the District of Alaska in 1897 and by 1899 he had formed a law partnership with John F. Malony in Juneau.

The Cobb House in the Chicken Ridge Historic District, Juneau, Alaska. Built ca. 1912.
The Cobb House in the Chicken Ridge Historic District, Juneau, Alaska. Built ca. 1912.

He was active in the formative political and governmental structures in the fledgling District, and when the region was reorganized and renamed the Territory of Alaska in 1912, Cobb was appointed the first Territorial Counsel by the Governor John Franklin Alexander Strong in 1913. He served in that role until 1915 when the 2nd Alaska Territorial Legislature created the Office of the Attorney General, and a successor was appointed.

Detail of page 753 from "The Federal Reporter," volume 267.
Detail of page 753 from “The Federal Reporter,” volume 267.

Cobb argued and won one of his most high-profile cases, Tuppela v. Chichagoff Mining Co., before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1920, reversing a fraudulent land grab by the mining company and returning several valuable gold mines to private citizen and rightful owner John Tuppela.

Shortly after settlement of the suit, Cobb and his family resettled in Santa Barbara, California, where he died on December 23, 1925.

The details of that tome first borrowed by Cobb is in question, though it could be a volume flagged as “missing” in 2013 and now superseded by a digital version in the Libraries’ catalog. The title’s long history on the Forty Acres, however — both in the hands of the first borrower, and with subsequent generations of Longhorns — attests to the idea that the Libraries, too, play an integral part in the belief that “What starts here changes the world.”

Spirit of Viche: Black Ancestral Traditions in the Colombian Pacific

by CAMILLE CARR

The Benson Rare Books Reading Room hosts a
student-curated exhibition, funded by an Archiving Black América–Black Diaspora Archive Acquisitions Grant

Spirit of Viche presents scenes of Black life and culture from the Colombian Pacific and features artistry from its four departments—Chocó, Cauca, Valle de Cauca, and Nariño. Its focal point is viche, an artisanal distilled sugarcane drink whose recipe has been passed down from enslaved African women to their descendants for centuries. Viche has medicinal properties, healing general ailments and aiding women during the process of childbirth. Viche is also deeply spiritual, constituting an integral component of everyday life for Black Colombian Pacific communities.

Several glass bottles sit on a wooden table, their contents range in color from orangish to amber yellow to clear. Different bottles have different colored labels.
Bottles of Mano de Buey viche sit on a table. The different labels and colors illustrate the varieties of distilled spirits offered by the brand. (Photo: Camille Carr)

Join us on Feb. 29 for a special exhibition talk with student curator Camille Carr, LLILAS Director Adela Pineda Franco, and visiting scholar Dr. William Mina Aragón, Universidad de Cauca, and Biblioteca Afrocolombiana de las Ciencias Sociales at Universidad del Valle, Cali
Event information here

Black women have created viche from sugarcane for centuries, also producing derivates that are important in spiritual and traditional healing practices of the Colombian Pacific. The first step in the artisanal process involves harvesting sugarcane along rivers and grinding it using a mill called a trapiche. Once ground, the sugarcane stalks release a juice called guarapo, which is fermented and distilled for up to three months. During the distillation process, guarapo is cooked over an open flame until it becomes transparent, resulting in viche puro. Viche makers, or vicheras, then infuse the drink with local herbs, fruits, and spices to create the traditional derivates of viche, known as viche curado and tomaseca. Black Pacific communities use viche curado to heal general ailments and tomaseca to aid women with menstruation, reproduction, and childbirth. As a spiritual and medicinal drink, viche functions as an ancestral technology for Black survival.

A Black woman holds a bottle and faces the camera. The bottle contains greenish-yellow herbs and liquid and has a pink label. There is a batiked cloth tied around the top. The woman's earrings are large turquoise hair combs and her hair is natural, very full, and reddish.
Vichera Mayra (Maja) Arboleda Mina (photo: Camille Carr)

In November 2021, the Ley del Viche (Viche Law) recognized viche as the patrimonial beverage of Black Pacific communities and permitted its commercialization. Presently, vicheras/os aim to protect the drink from cooptation by people outside the Pacific who wish to profit from the efforts of Black communities. With that in mind, this exhibit endeavors to recognize and reiterate this ancestral craft as a practice original to Black Colombian women and their communities.


The materials on display were collected in 2023 by LLILAS master’s student Camille Carr as part of the inaugural Archiving Black América-Black Diaspora Archive Acquisitions Award. The award allowed Carr to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in Cali, the center of Black life and culture in the Pacific region, and build a small archival collection that includes print media, photographs, bottles of viche, artworks, and other materials.

The acquisition of these materials reinforces the Black Diaspora Archive’s mission to document Blackness in the Americas and reifies the presence of Black Colombian culture within the Benson Latin American Collection.

This exhibition was curated by Camille Carr (MA ’24) in collaboration with Benson Exhibitions Curator Veronica Valarino.

Read, Hot and Digitized: Italian Poetry, Translated and Sonorized

Read, hot & digitized: Librarians and the digital scholarship they love — In this new series, librarians from UTL’s Arts, Humanities and Global Studies Engagement Team briefly present, explore and critique existing examples of digital scholarship.  Our hope is that these monthly reviews will inspire critical reflection of and future creative contributions to the growing fields of digital scholarship.


For most of human history, poetry has been an oral tradition, with poets singing their verses to an audience rather than writing them down and disseminating them in print. Italianpoetry.it, an independent digital humanities project without academic affiliation, aims to share the beauty and lyricism of recited Italian poetry with a wider audience, offering recordings of Italian poems alongside the original text and English translations.

The site, which is frequently updated with new poems, focuses on a simple but very effective content model. Poems are published in their entirety in the original Italian, with the English translation of the text beneath each line. An audio file containing the recording of the poem is embedded at the top of each page. When the audio file is played, the word being read is highlighted in both the Italian and the English translation, allowing users to follow along with the recording and to see how the word order and phrasing in the translation compares to the original text. This allows for a streamlined, user-friendly experience that facilitates appreciation and enjoyment of the original text—both for its sonority and its meaning—regardless of the user’s knowledge of Italian. Each poem also has a brief write-up by the site’s creator at the bottom of the page, providing additional context for the work. A guide to navigating the site is also provided to make it easy for new users to interact with its content.

Screenshot of a poem from the site.
The page for the poem “A una zanzara.”

The site is intentionally simple and, per the author, “unapologetically retro-looking” in its appearance, allowing users to focus on the site content without interference from unnecessary or distracting web elements. Focusing on simplicity is not only an aesthetic choice, though, as it helps make the site more accessible for users with slower or unstable internet connections who may have trouble browsing more complex webpages. The site uses the BAS Web Services set of tools to synchronize the poems’ texts with the audio recordings. The BAS Web Services are provided by the Bavarian Archive for Speech Signals, and provide a broad and valuable set of tools for speech sciences and technology.

Screenshot of a list of poem titles available on the site.
The selection of all poems available on the site, including options to sort by composition date, date added to the site, author, and title.

In addition to the main pages created for each poem, there is also an audio-only podcast version of the poems for those who would like to listen to the audio without the interactive elements of the main site. The site’s creator makes clear that the poems selected are in no way representative of Italian poetry as a whole, and that they were chosen at the author’s discretion. This adds a personal touch to the site sometimes absent from more comprehensive digital projects.

Screenshot of the site's podcast offerings.
The podcast audio files included on the site.

Italianpoetry.it is a valuable resource for those wishing to explore Italian poetry, regardless of their experience with the Italian language or knowledge of its history. While intentionally a personal selection rather than a wide-ranging survey of the Italian poetic tradition, its content offers a great introduction to that tradition that can spur further interest and exploration. It also provides a very interesting and accessible way to explore the relationships between written and spoken text, sonority and textual structure, and translation and original texts.


For more information, please consult the UTL resources below:

Picchione, John, Lawrence R. Smith, John Picchione, and Lawrence R. Smith. Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry : An Anthology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019.

Lind, L. R. (Levi Robert). Lyric Poetry of the Italian Renaissance; an Anthology with Verse Translations. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.

Lucchi, Lorna de’. An Anthology of Italian Poems, 13th-19th Century. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922.

Bonaffini, Luigi, and Joseph Perricone, eds. Poets of the Italian Diaspora : A Bilingual Anthology. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.

Staff Highlighter: Yi Shan

What’s your title, and what do you do for UTL?

Yi Shan: My title is East Asian Studies Librarian. I manage all East Asian language materials at the UTL and support the research and teaching of East Asia-related topics and disciplines on UT campus.

Any library (UT or otherwise) memory worth sharing?

YS: I can never forget my research trip to the Seikado Bunko Library in Tokyo. It’s a relatively small private collection but holds some of the rarest and most valuable premodern Chinese books. The reading room rules are very strict. You have to leave your shoes outside (like many Japanese places), wash your hands, and leave your electronics before entering the reading room. Interestingly, however, you can eat (!) your lunch inside the reading room. There is a designated lunch table at least by the time of my visit in 2019.

I found a lot of valuable primary sources for my dissertation there, and the librarian was so kind, knowledgeable, and helpful. The most exciting story is that I was so lucky to stumble upon a presumably Ming dynasty (1368–1644) manuscript that one 18th-century collector that I studied rescued from a stack of old scrap paper.

You’ve lived in many places. How does Austin compare?

YS: Austin is such a lovely city! Having lived in a few giant cities, I find the size of Austin perfectly manageable. In some way, I surprisingly find that the view of Zilker and Barton Springs area resembles a lot to my hometown, Taiyuan, at least in the way it appears in my memory. I used to say that I was okay with the cold but not the heat. Now I guess I am getting there to make my body think otherwise. Anyway, I spent my college years in one of the most notorious four “oven” cities in China, and having survived last summer in Austin, I guess I can cope. But how the heat has been trending for the future does scare me a lot.


What’s something most people don’t know about you?

YS: I love to cook. This interest in culinary art started during my grad school, and I always went to the occasion cooking lessons at the student union. Another version of myself always dreams to own and operate a restaurant. I’m pretty familiar with cooking in Chinese, French, Italian, and Japanese styles, and now I am foraying into Thai. I like to bake as well, but the oven has not been treating me as kindly as the stove has. Or when I bake a cake, it starts to hate me. 

As a historian, what makes you gravitate to the past, and how does it influence your perspective on the future?

YS: Trained mostly as a premodernist, I think what makes me excited about the past is you really have to use imagination to understand it. There’s the saying that “past is a foreign country,” but I think it is more than that. It’s like a whole different phenomenological and ontological universe. By imagination, I don’t mean that historians are inventing things and events that never existed or happened. It is that we so often need to question the take-for-granted categories and ways we thought what the past was like.

I think the future, like the past, invites bold imaginations. Building a better future, like understanding the past, needs us both to engage and work with the structures we have today but also to break free from their constraints. It’s all about defamiliarizing the familiar and bravely embracing the unfamiliar with an open and empathetic heart.

I understand you may be a train enthusiast. What is it about trains?

YS: I think my enthusiasm for all mass-transportation vehicles, trains, civil aviation, etc, all comes down to my like to travel to faraway places. I spent a big chunk of my childhood in my grandparents’ apartment right next to a train station (the complex and the station share a wall). My grandfather would tell me, “Look, this train is bound for Beijing, that is for Shanghai, that is for Xi’an,” and I always wanted to take the trains to those places.

And most times I just like the feeling of being on the way, and it has to be a long way that you don’t have to constantly worry about missing your stop. The sound of a train ride or the engines of an aircraft kind of calms me down, and I like to read and write on my way. However, I do hate packing for a trip and spending time at a train station or an airport. 

Favorite book, movie or album?

YS: Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko is my favorite of all fiction (very few) I’ve read since 2019. Dream of the Red Chamber/Story of the Stone (Honglou meng) is an all-time favorite. Since 2022, I’ve been following the #readingthestone reading-together project (mostly listening to their podcasts) started by Prof. Eileen Chow at Duke University. If you are interested in getting small doses of this greatest piece of Chinese literature (in both original and translation), this is the perfect place to start.

Recently I’ve started Four Treasures of the Sky, a fiction inspired by the Dream of the Red Chamber, and I am loving it.

Favorite food or drink? Make it at home or go out (and where)?

YS: My favorite food recently is Cantonese roasted duck. Ho Ho Chinese Barbecue’s roasted duck is, so far, the best that I’ve found in town. It’s very difficult to make at home, and best to leave for the pros. 

What’s the future hold?

YS: There are so many new developments in Higher Education that make the future both exciting and scary. But knowledge/expertise and a strong collection should always be our best assets to embrace the challenges and grow from them. Right now, I am exploring OCR and automated textual processing of CJK (the library jargon for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) texts and also identifying strategic growth points for our East Asian collections.

In the long run, together with my UTL colleagues and the learning community on campus, I hope to build such a collection that makes UT a strong and unique resource for East Asian studies in the world. I hope this collection will not only serve the existing and emerging research and pedagogical needs but also foster, nurture, and inspire scholarly and pedagogical innovations.

Scholars Lab Newsletter – February 2024

Digital Humanities Workshop Series

Digitization, Digital Projects, and Copyright Issues

When: Feb. 2, 2024, 12 pm – 1 pm 

Where: Perry-Castañeda Library Scholars Lab Project Room 6 (2.218)

Join us in-person for a discussion about some of the common copyright issues that pop up when digitizing materials or creating digital projects. We’ll have some scenarios to talk through as a group, but feel free to also bring your questions and we’ll try to discuss some of those scenarios as well.

In-Person Registration

Interactive Writing in Twine

When: Feb. 9, 2024, 12 pm – 1 pm

Where: Zoom 

Twine is an open-source application used to write interactive narratives ranging from fictional adventures to practical decision trees. This workshop will introduce the basics of Twine story creation: creating your first passage of text, linking passages, incorporating HTML and variables, and publishing a Twine project. The session will include a variety of example Twines of different complexity and purpose, and by the end, participants will have their skeleton decision tree that they can expand into a larger text. 

Zoom Registration

Getting Started with Scalar

When: Feb. 23, 2024, 12 pm – 1 pm

Where: Zoom 

Scalar is a free, open-source publishing platform designed for long-form, born-digital, and media-rich digital scholarship. This workshop will give an overview of Scalar and discuss what differentiates it from other content management systems, before demonstrating how to build your Scalar site.

Zoom Registration


Data & Donuts Workshop Series

 Research Data Management Best Practices

When: Feb 16, 2024, 12 pm – 1:15 pm

Where: Perry-Castañeda Library Scholars Lab Data Lab (2.202) and Zoom

This workshop will go over helpful strategies and techniques for effective research data management in all stages of the research lifecycle, from the drafting of comprehensive data management plans to successful publication of research data. Join this session to learn how to overcome data management challenges and stay in compliance with research data management regulations.

Zoom Registration


The Institute for Historical Studies in the Department Workshop

“Mapping Trauma: A Workshop on Space and Memory”

When:  Feb 19, 2024, 12 pm – 1:30 pm 

Where:  Perry-Castañeda Library Scholars Lab Data Lab (2.202) and Zoom 

Anne Kelly Knowles has been a leading figure in the Digital and Spatial Humanities, particularly in the methodologies of Historical GIS, for more than twenty years. She has written or edited five books, including Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (2008); Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry, 1800-1868 (2013); and Geographies of the Holocaust (2014). Anne’s pioneering work with historical GIS has been recognized by many fellowships and awards, including the American Ingenuity Award for Historical Scholarship (Smithsonian magazine, 2012), a Guggenheim Fellowship (2015), and three successive Digital Humanities Advancement grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (2016-2022). She is a founding member of the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, an international group of historians and geographers who explore the spatial aspects of the Holocaust through digital scholarship. She is currently developing a public website to share data on over 2,200 Holocaust camps and ghettos and nearly 1,000 survivor testimonies to enable students and scholars to map the historical geographies of named and unnamed Holocaust places.

Levi Westerveld is a geographer and award-winning cartographer with broad experience in spatial data gathering, analysis and visualization. He has 8 years of work experience in GIS and mapping for environmental modeling, impact assessments, community engagement and communication. Levi has international project management experience overseeing multidisciplinary teams with delivery in the Arctic and Pacific, and thematic knowledge in land and marine environmental issues, including climate change, waste and biodiversity. He is the lead editor of the forthcoming Arctic Permafrost Atlas. He is currently employed as senior engineer in the section for digitalization and innovation at the Norwegian Coastal Authority.

For In-person Registration email: cmeador@austin.utexas.edu

Zoom Registration


Digital Scholarship in Practice

Computational Approaches in the Study of History: The Case of People’s Daily

When: Feb 21, 2024, 12 pm to 1 pm 

Where: Perry-Castañeda Library Learning Lab 3

In this talk, we will explore what computational approach and methods may look like in historical studies. Alongside the potential advantages, the talk will also discuss the limitations and pitfalls in computational historical analysis. We will focus on a case study of the People’s Daily 人民日报, a prominent national newspaper of the PRC, to demonstrate the outcomes and limitations of applying computational methods in historical research.

A Boot Camp for Researchers: Successes in Systematic Review Support

On a Monday morning before the semester started in January 2024, members of the Systematic Review Interest Group gathered to prepare for a multi-day event. The Systematic Review & Evidence Synthesis Boot Camp, to be precise, took place over the course of three days, and was designed as an educational series of short workshops describing best practices for conducting systematic reviews, from idea formation through content screening (with many steps in between). Content sections were interspersed with opportunities for one-on-one, customized consultation sessions with a librarian, for working through questions and creating actionable takeaways.

A systematic review starts with a very specific question and then reviews a variety of empirical sources of literature that offer a response to that very specific question.

Systematic reviews are the most common and best-known type of systematized evidence synthesis methodologies. Originating in the field of medicine, they have spread across other disciplines such as education, engineering, sociology, criminal justice, public health, environmental sciences, and beyond. A systematic review starts with a very specific question and then reviews a variety of empirical sources of literature that offer a response to that very specific question. Because this review type attempts to be highly thorough (or systematic) in finding sources to include in the review, librarian assistance is often sought. The support offered can take on multiple forms, from advising on database selection and helping with search strategy development to recommending and training on tools to ease the steps in the process. If the librarian’s schedule and bandwidth permit, they may take on a request for more intensive assistance with a review project and be a co-author on the final published review. 

In the spring of 2021, the UT Libraries’ Systematic Review Interest Group offered a 6-part workshop series on evidence synthesis methodologies. Though the series offered thoughtful content that was well-received, discussions persisted about whether scholars were receiving adequate support, given the multiple weeks between sessions. We thought they may instead want to progress at a faster pace and need more individual time with librarians, so this more concentrated and intensive session was conceived. Teamwork was required to pilot the Boot Camp approach – with eight librarians working together to contribute content similar to what is on our shared library guide page, coordinate and present the prepared sessions, and provide the one-on-one breakout consultation sessions – in a “many hands makes light work” model.

On that opening morning, Boot Camp participants and providers consumed a welcome breakfast of tacos and enjoyed coffee in the new PCL Scholars Lab. Jenifer Flaxbart, one of the Boot Camp’s sponsors and UT Libraries’ Assistant Director for Research Support and Digital Initiatives, provided an official welcome to both the Boot Camp and the newly introduced Scholars Lab. The Scholars Lab turned out to be a great space for the event. On each of the three days, librarians offered presentation sessions and then we broke out into individual work sessions for one-on-one support. The flexibility offered by the multiple, yet nearby, spaces in the Scholars’ Lab made the transitions seamless. In addition, the spaces supported back-and-forth communication without causing strain to hear or be heard. 

This intensive Boot Camp method of delivery presents a unique opportunity for both librarians and scholars. The support offered falls somewhere in between having a few librarian consultations with a research team and serving as a co-author on a project. At a large campus like UT Austin, it is not feasible for librarians to support every request received at the co-author level. We need to budget our time and yet we also want to offer our expertise to scholars wherever we can. This method allowed us to deliver three days worth of content and one-on-one support. It is yet another mechanism in our toolbox to help meet the growing demand for evidence syntheses here on the UT campus. In addition, it was a rare pleasure to collaborate in building this experience with colleagues and learn from one another in the process.

At the end of the three days the participants, hopefully not too overwhelmed with information, took a survey to inform possible future Boot Camp planning efforts. The coordinators were pleased to see positive responses on the survey and an increase in knowledge about the concepts covered. Just a few quotes are evidence of the positive reception: 

  • THANK YOU for this amazing learning opportunity
  • Interaction with the amazing Librarians and their support [favorite part]
  • The small group session is really helpful to establish the appropriate search strategy which is the one the most important steps to do systematic review. [favorite part]
  • Learning about all of the tools available (e.g., searching, deduplication, and screening) which will make future literature reviews, including systematic and more general reviews much more efficient and comprehensive. [favorite part]

As illustrated through these comments, many participants gained the knowledge and confidence needed to go forward and conduct their planned review project. It will be exciting to follow these projects through to publication and track the impact made in future years by the results of the evidence synthesis collaborations resulting from the Boot Camp. 

Librarian Lens: Customer Reviews Data

The Librarian Lens is an occasional column featuring librarians who support the research lifecycle across a range of disciplines sharing research tips, updates about both Libraries-provided and open source resources, and related topics intended to intrigue, demystify and highlight topics of interest to the research-curious. Posted columns are provided or curated by librarians from the University of Texas Libraries STEM and Social Science Engagement Team.


Customer reviews data are what you look at when you’re deciding which product to buy, which restaurant to eat at, or which hotel to reserve. The data consists of star ratings and the written or video reviews from customers. Most people consult customer review data when making online purchasing decisions.

Customer reviews are also considered a form of advertising. In advertising lingo, customer review data is known as “electronic word of mouth,” meaning it comes from a customer’s experience, not the manufacturer or service provider. Traditional “word of mouth” advertising, especially from people we know, is the most trusted form of advertising. Electronic word of mouth can also influence purchase behavior. Academic researchers have measured that influence and concluded that the most trustable and influential reviews are those that are high quality, i.e., they contain a lot of detail and the reviewer posts regularly.

However, is trusting reviews from people we don’t know a good idea? Like the answer to many questions involving human-centered behaviors, the answer is, it depends.

On its face, customer review data is a compilation of crowd sourced wisdom. If we believe that people are genuinely reporting their experience with the product or service, then why not rely on customer review data?

Guilt

There are many reasons why people don’t always give their honest opinions in a review. They may feel guilty about leaving a poor review. This is common for services such as ridesharing or house rentals in which a consumer’s written opinion can impact the service provider’s ability to earn income. It also happens because service providers can review the consumer. No one wants to be labeled as difficult. These reviews are not always reliable.

Distraction/Hidden Agenda

Other reasons for consumers not giving honest reviews may be unrelated to their experience with the product or service. They could be hungry or in a hurry or they may not read the product’s instructions. Or they could have a political disagreement with the company. There is no way for you as a consumer to know about these conditions unless you research the reviewer and check their other reviews. You may not have time for this kind of investigation.

Consumer Reports tests electric lights in different ways, including for longevity and brightness. Consumer Reports, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Expertise

Another reason to consider not using customer review data is because people leaving the reviews may not be experts in the field. In fact, most reviews are from people who do not have special expertise. You may have noticed this in movie reviews. Film critics review films differently from most people, such as in the case the Netflix show Squid Game: The Challenge. This is why it is interesting to look at a site like Rotten Tomatoes which contains reviews from both experts (Tomatometer) and regular folks (Audience Score).

In situations in which you are not spending a large amount of money, it may not matter all that much what the reviewers write. After all, how much difference is there between one type of hand lotion and another? More details help. The reviewer could write I live in a dry environment, and this product improved my skin’s texture. This why sites that sell clothing often ask reviewers to fill in other criteria such as age and body type so that you can try to choose a reviewer that matches you so that you can use their review to make your best guess about whether to make a purchase.

If you are spending a large amount of money, or procuring something for a child, it’s a good idea to use expert reviews. For investment advice or car purchases, please turn to the folks who work in this field. Or for safety considerations for items such as car seats or booster seats, consult the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For technical products, such as hardware or networking equipment, use sources such a CNET or PC Magazine.

Another consideration is durability. Some organizations, such as Consumer Reports and Wirecutter are testing experts. They don’t specialize in a particular industry, but they have expertise in testing. For home products such as microwaves or washing machines, it’s a good idea to read reviews from these organizations, because they’ve done the kind of tests where they’ve held a watch under water for 8 hours, or slammed an oven door repeatedly, unlike the regular consumers who post reviews to Best Buy or Lowes. 

Fake Reviews

In a recently published article, New York Times reporter Stuart A. Thompson said that fake reviews are so pervasive that nearly every online shopper has most likely encountered one.  Amazon blocked more than 200 million suspected fake reviews last year and Google said it removed 115 million rule-breaking reviews from Maps in 2022. It is an on-going problem. In some case, people are paid to write fake reviews, so the reviews are coming from individuals, not bots. Sometimes fake review writers are given a script to use, so searching for a phrase that comes up repeatedly could indicate a fake review.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence, or AI could help or hinder the fake review problem. You may have noticed that Amazon now provides summaries of reviews for products. If you click on Reviews, there’s a section that says “Customers say” which summarizes comments about product attributes. In small text beneath the summary paragraph, it says “AI generated from text of customer reviews.” It’s likely that fake reviews are included in this collection, and that skews the summary to be more positive, since fake reviews are almost always positive. One way to combat this is to read the negative reviews.

Customer Review Data was the subject of a UT Libraries’ Data & Donuts Workshop in October 2023. Please link to the Zoom recording for more information on customer reviews.

Back by Popular Demand…New Books!

After a bevy of construction projects in recent years real estate previously inhabited by New Books at the at the Perry-Castañeda Library’s entry, the new titles section is making a return.

Now situated just inside the UFCU Room on the opposite end of the ground level from the front doors, the “Selection of New Books” will feature 70-80 books per month selected by the Libraries’ Content Management staff and drawn from recent arrivals. Books will rotate off and into the general stacks on a monthly cycle as new titles arrive and selections are made.

Whether you want a break from serious scholarship, need to kill some time between stops or just want to see what’s new and available, stop by and peruse the latest offerings hand-selected by our experts.

Theory & Practice of Digitization Community Symposium: Projects & Reflections

Throughout fall semester 2023, a cohort of UT Austin graduate students worked overtime to examine the ethics of digitization and create frameworks for approaching their research in a digitizable environment. They took on the  “The Theory & Practice of Digitization Community Symposium” program (co-sponsored by the UT Libraries and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship for Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Heritage at the Rare Book School) in addition to their regular coursework and thesis/dissertation research and writing commitments. This program aimed to expand the graduate students’ researcher skill-sets and build reflective approaches to their future professions. The cohort’s efforts culminated in a community symposium that was held on November 9, 2023, in the PCL Scholars Lab, where students, faculty, staff, researchers, and Austin community members came together to learn more about the digitization of cultural heritage.

Each of the students presented on their research, experience in the program, and reflections on digitization of cultural heritage. We have collected their insights to share with you here in the hope that their observations will enlighten the work of others, too.

Saghar Bozorgi (PhD student, Department of Middle Eastern Studies)

I started the Theory & Practice of Digitization program thinking about ethical considerations when in/using archives, but mainly looking to get myself familiar with digital methods and whether they can help my project. By the end of the workshop, I learnt how emphasizing a researchers’ project over the archives can reproduce power relationships and hierarchies between different communities and people, especially between the researchers usually located in the “Global North” and the archives that are assumed to be “waiting” for digitization in the “Global South.” As a result, I am now thinking about going beyond my own project and broadening my horizons and considerations when approaching an archive.

In my letter of interest to attend the workshop I wrote about my near-frustration with “the laborious nature” of data collection and its initial analysis, which for my project translates to an infinite period of data collection, leaving little time for writing. This problem “brought me to the idea of digitization and processing texts using digital methods to speed up the process and broaden opportunities for what can be done.” Using digital methods proved to be way more complicated for a Windows user working with primary sources in Farsi. I learnt that OCR programs work with images rather than pdf, so I changed my approach to using Google Docs, which I had tried before in unsuccessful attempts.

While digitizing parts of Ittila’at Mahiyaneh, I was able to recognize some aspects of archival processes and a tiny bit of “what gets to be archived” or “heard” in my own thought process and decision-making. When selecting samples to show during my presentation, I was conscious about the reason why each piece is important. I was hoping to give voice and power to the material that is less visible or invisible in today’s academic and public discourses. One of the pages that I wanted to show was a page in a 1948 issue dedicated to “Palestine” which was continued in several issues. Nevertheless, I persuaded myself to go with other material in order to protect myself and those around me from possible “trouble” and funding cuts, especially because of a recent scary border-crossing experience and the fact that I was not sure about the costs and benefits in a room with a relatively small (and probably sympathetic to Palestinian cause) audience. I remember a point raised in the very first session of the workshop regarding how the archival process has to be considerate of the communities it is serving today so as to not hurt them by using hurtful descriptions. Thus, I have learnt that digitization is not just about scanning material and making them available, but it is also about how archival material, now empowered with a digitized medium, can be talked about. The contrast between my own self-censorship to show the name of Palestine and the keynote speaker’s powerful discussion of the silencing of archives in Israel makes me wonder not only about “what gets digitized and how it gets digitized,” but also who can digitize.

Marcus Golding (PhD student, Department of History)

The Community Symposium on the Theory and Practice of Digitization has provided a valuable hands-on experience for graduate students in digitizing historical records while fostering critical reflection on these processes. Throughout the four sessions, we learned about the best practices in handling cultural heritage materials and digital tools to explore the materiality of these objects. Our interactions with archivists, librarians, and scholars also delved into the politics behind digitization, power imbalances, access to sources, and the significance of community involvement in such initiatives.

For me, the Symposium offered a chance to delve deeper into the issue of privacy within archival collections. Specifically, the complexities arising from balancing open access to materials from historically marginalized groups with the issues of consent regarding the publication of historical documents originating from these communities. Often, the resolution to this issue is complex. The potential to restore the voices of minority groups can sometimes clash with a community’s desire to shield certain aspects of its history from external viewers. Additionally, the Symposium broadened my understanding of digitization best practices and digital tools. I found the insights into setting up camera stands particularly relevant due to the ongoing digitization projects undertaken by my non-profit organization, the Venezuela History Network, in Venezuela.

During the Symposium, I worked with two annual reports (1973) from a Venezuelan oil company, Mito Juan Company, and an American firm, The Creole Petroleum Corporation, both of which operated in Venezuela during the twentieth century. I applied OCR to these texts to facilitate textual analysis, identifying silences and points of convergence between these enterprises in the context of the impending state-takeover of the national industry scheduled for 1976. Through this hands-on experience with digitization equipment, digital tool literacy, and critical reflection on historical documents, the Symposium underscored principles that I firmly uphold. These principles revolve around democratizing access to historical knowledge and community engagement in digitization projects. The end result is to help build collections that safeguard the cultural identity and historical memory of various groups or institutions for posterity.

These are the same guiding principles driving our initiatives with the Venezuela History Network. Our organization is currently involved in at least six ongoing or upcoming projects in collaboration with public institutions, private individuals, and NGOs. The Community Symposium on the Theory and Practice of Digitization has highlighted the importance, as well as the nuances, of making historical knowledge openly accessible. This experience will continue to shape my dedication to the preservation of cultural heritage in the years ahead.

Junika Hawker-Thompson (PhD student, Department of African and African Diaspora Studies)

This archival manuscript is from an 1822 court trial titled “Trail of a Slave in Berbice for the Crime of Obeah and Murder” from the Black Diaspora Archive here at the University of Texas at Austin. Broadly, my dissertation project explores how colonial violence shapes race and gender relations within the Demerara region—which is another river region not too far from the Berbice region where this incident takes place. So, when I came across this document, I was interested in thinking through how this colonial document––which is well preserved, clear in its text (meaning, it was instantly machine readable post-digitization), and was bound tightly before my digitization process––plays a role in how law, criminality, and blackness interact within colonial British Guyana.

This case is invested in convicting an indigenous, or Black man, Williem, of murder and “obeah.” The court documents oscillate between calling Willem, “negro” or “native.” For further context, obeah is understood as an African root working, herbal, and spell-casting practice that can impact physical illnesses and metaphysical situations that may require assistance. This practice can be traced back to maroon societies and enslaved people enacting care of each other, themselves, and their larger communities. Obeah can be understood as a practice of agency, liberation, resistance, or care. When considering this brief history, what does it mean for “obeah” to be in a relationship with murder—the worst offense based on Christian morals and law?

I focus on this document because I am interested in how the colonial gaze of this case constructed law and criminality in colonial British Guyana and post-colonial Guyana. I am also interested in what isn’t documented–the dance that allegedly led to the murder of another enslaved woman, the embodied routine of this obeah practice, and obeah being synonymous with murder. While I am not attempting to suggest that murder is correct or should be overlooked, I am more interested in this process of equating a spiritual practice established in maroon societies to murder. I am interested in a practice of witnessing—beyond the colonial gaze—that might highlight the depth of this practice and the presence of ritual.

The future implication of this project is a continued witnessing to honor the complexities of spiritual practice and criminality under colonial regimes.  I also wonder about the limits of digitization. Is it possible to make clear this witnessing of ritual and practice in this technological space? I plan to continue to work with this document with the hope and goal that this manuscript will assist in understanding the intimacies of race and gender formation in Guyana.

Raymond Hyser (PhD student, Department of History)

Pierre Joseph Laborie, a French coffee planter in colonial Haiti, fled the island during the throes of the Haitian Revolution and took up residence in nearby British Jamaica. As a thank you, Laborie used his expertise and experience as a coffee planter to write a book to benefit Jamaica’s British coffee planters. Published in 1798, Laborie’s The Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo provides an intimate look at the cultivation and manufacture of coffee in colonial Haiti prior to 1789. Although Laborie’s target audience was the British coffee planters of Jamaica, his work quickly went global. It found its way to Brazil, where its Portuguese translation significantly influenced Brazil’s coffee culture. Laborie’s book also reached Cuba, where a publisher there translated it into Spanish. As the nineteenth century progressed, Laborie’s book spread as far as the British colonies of Ceylon and India. Laborie had written the equivalent of an eighteenth-century New York Times Best Seller.

Because of its fame and widespread distribution, Laborie’s book is readily accessible online and at many libraries. A quick WorldCat search reveals dozens of libraries across the world have physical copies, and most of the editions are fully digitized. However, the 1845 edition, printed in Ceylon, does not share the accessibility of the other editions. There is no digitized version, and I have only been able to find two physical copies. One of them is, coincidentally, at the Perry-Castañeda Library. Boasting torn pages, damaged bindings, and held together with several pieces of Scotch tape, UT’s edition looked every bit like a 175-year-old book that had, quite literally, traveled around the world. After I first discovered the book in the fall of 2019, my form of preservation work was keeping it locked away in my desk drawer, where even I rarely consulted its contents. It was not until the Theory & Practice of Digitization Community Symposium that I gained the knowledge, and the courage, to take concrete steps for the book’s preservation through digitization.

Along with being exceedingly rare, this particular edition perfectly lends itself to digitization because it provides a fascinating window into a globalized network of knowledge circulation from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century. The number of editions and their geographical spread allow for a comparative study to trace how Laborie’s work changed, or did not, over time and in different geographical contexts. Using OCR (optical character recognition) and text mining methods on the newly digitized 1845 edition, I uncover the genealogy of knowledge contained within Laborie’s work. I highlight how little that knowledge changed in the approximately 50 years that separated the original from the Ceylon edition. Besides a new three-page preface, three short appendices, and different formatting, the Ceylon edition is identical to the original. Even Laborie’s footnotes from his 1798 edition persist within the 1848 edition. The digitization of the Ceylon edition of The Coffee Planter of Saint Domingo increases the accessibility for an otherwise nearly inaccessible work. It also provides a means for scholars to apply digital methods to uncover a global network of knowledge development and dissemination.

Mercedes Morris (Dual master’s degree student, iSchool & Center for Middle Eastern Studies)

 

I am a student in Middle Eastern Studies and Information Sciences, with a focus on paper preservation. During this symposium program, I worked on digitizing al-Waraq wa al-Waraqun fi al-Asr al-Abbasi, a book on paper in the Abbasid Era. The Abbasid Era is an important era in Middle Eastern history for the rapid increase in written works due to the new technology of paper. There are many myths attested to explain the transfer of papermaking technology from China to Iraq, but these are not verified, and papermakers of the Abbasid Era quickly made this technology their own and quickly built on it, with improvements from these papermakers making their way back to China.

While digitizing this book and reading through it about the history of paper and papermakers in the Abbasid Era, the parallels between the new technology of the Abbasid Era–paper, in this case—and the digitization technology of the present day became clear to me. Paper, like digitization, allowed for increased access and production. Paper, even as a new technology, was cheaper and less labor-intensive to produce than papyrus and parchment, allowing more works to be produced and disseminated. Digitization also allows for greater access for people around the world to physical, written materials today, including rare documents and documents too fragile to be handled.

While written history, recordkeeping, and literary works have been around for several millennia, paper offered both the lightweight quality of papyrus and parchment with the permanence of clay tablets, all of which had been used in the area between modern-day Iraq and Samarkand that became known for paper technology and manufacturing. Clay tablets, while more permanent and also less sensitive to humidity than papyrus and parchment, were cumbersome and heavy. Ink could be easily erased by scraping it from papyrus and parchment, allowing for contemporaneous and much later changes to be made to documents almost invisibly and allowing for the erasure of certain histories. 

Paper often has sizings applied, which are substances applied to paper to change the absorbency. Even with sizings applied to prevent too much ink being absorbed, paper would tear before the ink could be successfully removed, leaving evidence of attempted manipulation. This is because paper, even with sizings, absorbs ink; whereas ink sits on the surface of papyrus and parchment.

Now materials like papyrus, parchment, paper, and anything else that anyone would want digitized, can be subjected to sophisticated digital manipulations that cannot be discerned easily, bringing the issues of papyrus and parchment back to paper. On physical paper, even with the use of graphite, erasures and changes are still often visible. I suggest that perhaps the future of digitization lies in the metaphorical properties of paper that allow changes to be made visible to better track history.

Miriam Santana (PhD student, Department of English)

For this semester, my project has focused on recovering the presence of black people and characters in early Mexican American literature by placing them in critical conversation with colonial archival manuscripts. This was my attempt to imagine Black life as more than what these novels give us access to. Now that’s not to say that these colonial archives don’t come with their own silences and omissions, but my goal is to supplement these novels with other written texts. Where is black life in a Mexican colonial context? Voice? Body? Name? And location? 

I chose manuscripts from the Black Diaspora Miscellaneous folder for their content, but also because they make a reasonably-sized collection. The selected manuscripts are documents by the Spanish crown that required all free people of African descent in colonial Mexico to pay a tax based on their African ancestry. It was the first time I worked with archival material that had yet to be digitized. I wanted, in the span of the semester, to choose something that was feasible and that wasn’t overwhelming. My research process following the following steps:

  1. Digitize the selected manuscripts using a flatbed scanner. The scanner turned the manuscripts into PDF files.
  2. I used Transkribus to apply optical character recognition (OCR) to the PDF. I used a model, created by LLILAS Benson digital scholarship coordinator, Albert Palacios, to perform this OCR.
  3. I took the text and inserted it into a Word document. In that Word document, I removed numbers and corrected for dashes, so that I was only left with the bare text.
  4. I used NameTag. NameTag is an open-source tool for named entity recognition (NER). NameTag identifies proper names in text and classifies them into predefined categories, such as names of persons, locations, organizations, etc.
  5. I took that table of information and entered it into an Excel spreadsheet, which resulted in a dataset of names and locations of people rendered in the manuscripts.

In a future project, I aim to follow the same process, with all of the manuscripts in this collection. I hope that it will result in a large dataset of names and places spanning the 18th and 19th century. I plan to create metadata for this collection and use the dataset to create a StoryMap.  My hope is that this map represents the lasting and enduring presence of black life in these Mexican colonial archives. Below are some lingering questions that I will continue to think deeply and critically about:

  • What are the ethical ways of working with these colonial documents?
  • How do we then think about representation in a way that is ethical?
  • How do I make sense of my own bias and desire to represent?
  • How do I think about consent when the people who are in these collections are not alive to give consent?

Natalya Stanke (Dual master’s degree student, iSchool & Center for Middle Eastern Studies)

In our first symposium session as a cohort, we unpacked the term “digitization” to understand the various facets of the digitization process. Taking an iPhone snapshot or scanning a document in a flatbed scanner can be useful; however, it’s ultimately only one step in the entire process of digitization. It’s important to keep in mind the many layers of labor involved from physical examination, image capturing, file processing, metadata description, repository ingestion, and more. It’s also important to continually learn about how to approach workflows of digitization both thoughtfully and equitably.

For this symposium, I chose one book from UT’s library collections and imagined how I would approach this item in a professional setting for digitization. My book is titled Quitábuca or “Your Book” from the original Arabic. It was written by a Syrian priest living in an Arab diaspora community in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The book is written in Arabic and consists of a collection of personal essays, published articles, letter correspondence, and opinion pieces from a variety of publications around the world. It contains biting commentary on French colonialism in the Levant, personal stories about immediate family members, guest author pieces discussing politics, organizing documentation for civic diaspora groups, and more.

  • First, current American/English-language standards for describing diverse materials with global interconnectedness are insufficient at capturing the richness of the material reflected.
  • Second, multilingual metadata is the future! Multilingual English/Arabic description (or Arabic/English/Portuguese, in this case) for materials like this book need to be prioritized for institutions seeking to maximize equity of digital dissemination when publishing collections online. I understand this is massively labor-intensive, but limiting the vast majority of rich metadata to the English-speaking world limits the discoverability and accessibility of many relevant materials.

In particular, the interconnectedness of different geographic and cultural regions sparked my curiosity about how to describe this book with useful metadata. When contemplating the description portion of digitization, I ended up with two major (and related) takeaways:

There are organizations building digital collections that serve as great examples of how to approach incorporating multilingual metadata. Two examples that inspired me in particular are the Digitization Project of the Memory of Arab Immigration in Brazil from the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik and the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at NC State.

Overall, this was a fun exploration for thinking through professional challenges in digitization and how labor-intensive, but important, it will be to include multilingual and multicultural approaches to my future work in librarianship.

UT Libraries