A New Home on the Web for the Becker Collection: Drawings of the American Civil War Era

Post by Stephen Sturgeon, Senior Digital Scholarship Librarian & Bibliographer for English

In fall 2018 the Digital Scholarship Group launched The Becker Collection: Drawings of the American Civil War Era, a digital archive of nineteenth-century drawings with a substantial history of curation. We created the site in collaboration with the drawings’ owners, Sheila Gallagher and Judith Bookbinder, both of whom are faculty in Boston College’s Art, Art History, and Film department, but this was not the first time the drawings had been prepared and contextualized for public consumption, nor the first time they had been rendered digitally. In the fall of 2009, Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art exhibited them and published an accompanying catalogue, and it was alongside these events that BC’s Instructional Design and eTeaching Services department (now known as the Center for Teaching Excellence) built a website that hosted digital surrogates of the drawings, offered metadata records for each one, provided biographical entries for their artists, and used the metadata and a set of tags to enable searching. By 2017 the architecture of this website began showing security vulnerabilities, and the Libraries agreed to design and a build a new digital presence for this archive of drawings.

The collection is named after Joseph Becker, whose works figure most prominently in it. Becker, like the sixteen other men whose drawings the collection features, was an artist-reporter working for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a weekly periodical founded in 1855 that specialized in visual depictions of contemporary news. When the Civil War began, Becker and his colleagues were dispatched to battlefields and military camps to document what they saw in drawn sketches, and the artists would then send their work to the newspaper’s offices for adaptation into print engravings. In addition to these drawings of military events the archive contains depictions of other nineteenth-century American topics that the newspaper featured, dating to the war years or in some cases to just before or just after, such as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad throughout the 1860s (major themes and topics are outlined on the site’s Browse Collections page).

Thanks to Professors Gallagher and Bookbinder, we were not tasked with creating a web resource from scratch that would do justice to this rich primary source material: the difficult conceptual labor of contextualizing items in the archive in ways that would stay true to the complexities of their genres and histories and also accommodate diverse web audiences was, essentially, already done. Professors Gallagher and Bookbinder and a team of students had years ago created the item-level metadata for the archive, written the artists’ biographical entries, and established what search functionalities would best suit the material and researchers. In 2017 the Digital Scholarship Group’s job was to decide on a platform for hosting that content, migrate it into its new framework, revise erroneous or corrupt metadata, and keep our eyes open for opportunities to make the archive more interactive.

We settled on Omeka for the archive’s new platform, using a slightly customized set of the Dublin Core extended metadata elements. The Becker Collection’s many drawings of military scenes come with consistently precise geographic and temporal information: because Becker and his colleagues made drawings for the sake of illustrating the news, the artists nearly always specified what they were depicting as well as when and where it was happening. And so we revised all items’ geographic and temporal metadata into the formats recommended by the International Organization for Standardization, in the hopes that doing so would make it more widely accessible, as well as more readily malleable and linkable in spreadsheets and website architectures. This in turn led to our creation of a new feature within the Becker Collection, a mapping tool designed in Carto that plots the locations of Civil War battles according to year.

The Boston College Libraries is very happy to give a new home to the Becker Collection’s digital presence, and the Digital Scholarship Group depended on staff in many Libraries departments to get the work done. Special thanks to Chris H-P for composing the site’s design; to Ben Florin and Jesse Martinez for customizing Omeka’s search function; and to Chris Mayo for help with metadata migration. Lastly, thanks to the staff at Boston College’s Center for Teaching Excellence, in particular Cristina Mirshekari, Tim Lindgren, and Jamie Walker,  for giving the Becker Collection its original home on the web and handing it off to the Libraries seamlessly.