Digitized History of Africans in the Atlantic World Finds Permanent Home in Heard Libraries

In February 2023, the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries announced the transition of the Center of Digital Humanities to its portfolio. This transition includes the stewardship of ongoing research projects that contribute to the university’s research profile and scholarly footprint, including the Slave Societies Digital Archive, which, after a long history of support and collaboration, finds a permanent home in the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries.  

The Slave Societies Digital Archive (SSDA), formerly known as the Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies, is directed by Gertrude Conway Vanderbilt Professor of History Jane Landers and hosted at Vanderbilt University. Launched in 2003, its mission is to identify, catalog and digitally preserve endangered archival materials documenting the history of Africans and their descendants in the Atlantic World. The SSDA’s largest and oldest collections were generated by the Catholic Church, which mandated the baptism of African slaves beginning in the fifteenth century and later extended this requirement to the Iberian New World. The baptismal records preserved in this archive are the oldest and most uniform serial data available for the history of Africans in the Atlantic World and offer the most extensive information regarding their ethnic origins. 

The libraries have provided infrastructure and program support to SSDA since its inception. University Librarian Jon Shaw noted, “The research interests of our faculty are always evolving. Our goal is to provide faculty with the space, resources and expertise that bring their digital projects to fruition. The libraries are building a dynamic culture of project management for Vanderbilt faculty and their research.”  To enable the access and organization of digital records, Landers partnered with the Library Technical & Digital Services. To support consistent and reliable access, Director of Library Technology and Digital Services Dale Poulter maintained the project’s infrastructure, adding collections as they arrived, and managed the migration of the project to different platforms as the requirements for supporting digital projects evolved over time. When it comes to project management, Poulter stated, “When the libraries take on a digital project, we always take the technical requirements into consideration. It’s part of our commitment to faculty research.”  

In addition to technical support, Librarian for Latin American, Iberian and Latino Studies Paula Covington participated in digitization trips to Cuba and Colombia. In February 2005, Covington traveled with Landers and a small group of graduate students and archivists to preserve more than 40,000 images from churches in Havana, Regla, and Matanzas, Cuba. While working with these documents in Cuba, Covington recalled, “I saw firsthand how fragile and endangered these materials are, some beyond recovery.” Landers added, “We race against time to save these unique documents that are endangered by climate, political instability, and the poverty of many of the locales in which we work. Some of the records we digitized in Cuba no longer exist in material form, but thanks to the support of the Heard Libraries, they are freely available to researchers online through SSDA. 

The libraries have also provided invaluable program support by connecting the project to different funding streams through Vanderbilt’s Trans-Institutional Program, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2016, a series of additional grants from the British Library Endangered Archives Programme, the Historic St. Augustine Research Institute, and the Diocese of St. Augustine enabled the expansion of the archive’s preservation efforts. The archive now holds more than 700,000 digital images drawn from nearly 2,000 unique volumes dating from the sixteenth through twentieth centuries that document the lives of an estimated four to six million individuals. Covington and Poulter’s work on this project, along with that of Chief Digital Strategist Clifford Anderson, has been featured in numerous workshops, presentations, and panel discussions, often drawing connections between this project and related library collections, most notably the Manuel Zapata Olivella collection. Mellon Assistant Professor of History and Digital Humanities and Executive Director of the project Daniel Genkins noted, “As the SSDA project enters its third decade, we’re extremely grateful for past support from the Heard Libraries and are looking forward to working together even more closely in the years ahead, combining our expertise to build innovative and robust digital infrastructure for SSDA and related library collections.”