Collaborating Partners and the Next Phase of Testing (March 25, 2021)

Sam Smith
March 25, 2021

As we laid out in our last blog post “Laying the Groundwork,” the team has been busy the past eight months! The initial phase of designing and testing a linked data ontology that describes events experienced by enslaved people who labored at colleges and universities is almost over.

The next stage of our work not only entails the release of the alpha version of the On These Grounds Event Ontology, but also the recruitment of collaborative testing partners. While the alpha model is incredibly exciting, so is the next phase of the project. The collaborative partners will further test the alpha model within the context of new and different collections and workflows.

So, who will these collaborative partners be, and who can apply?

Colleges or universities with an institutional history of involvement with slavery and enslavement are encouraged to consider applying. The On These Grounds project seeks four collaborative partners in total. Applicants and staff at each college and university must be willing to implement a testing protocol with their collections over a nine-month period and provide feedback about their experiences. At the end of the nine-month testing period, the collaborating partners will have a model for doing this level and type of descriptive work in the future.

Collaborating partners will be given the alpha model so as to test their archival holdings; a testing protocol and a feedback collection instrument; supporting materials, including documentation and suggested descriptive practices; and $10,000 to support staff time and wages.

This next phase of testing and the expansion of the On These Grounds team to include collaborative partners is incredibly exciting. The discussions and dialogue happening within the team already about the description of events experienced by enslaved peoples that archival materials reflect are not only good but critical. The work the On These Grounds team is doing is part of a larger network of archival, genealogical, and historical work on and about the histories and legacies of slavery and enslavement. All of this work is critical for not only the access and description of records themselves, but for those whose families, loved ones, and ancestors experienced and survived as enslaved peoples at universities and colleges.

As the historiography shows, archival holdings often do not center the lives of enslaved peoples. Moreover, records about enslaved peoples are usually not written or authored by them. Historians for many decades have read against the archival grain and pieced together fragments to narrate the lives of enslaved people to broaden and deepen our understanding of the history of slavery and enslavement.

The labor is not the historian’s, genealogist’s, or ancestor’s alone. At all levels of the archival and historical process, there is work that can be done. The role of the On These Grounds project then, is to help better describe the lives of enslaved peoples at universities and colleges as reflected in archival material. An event-focused linked data ontology shifts the interpretation of archival documents because it emphasizes what prompted a document’s creation, who is involved, and why – which is often multi-layered. Seeing events through documents helps to change the landscape of understanding the past, and to create a useable tool for not only description by archivists, digital scholars, historians, librarians, but for people who need these tools to do research, be it academic or genealogical.

While the team now consists of archivists, digital scholars, librarians, and historians at Michigan State University, the University of Virginia, and Georgetown University, so many institutions are doing important work on these topics or have been trying to start it.

If this work speaks to the goings on at a university or college you work at, please consider applying and joining us for the next round of testing as a collaborative partner! And, if you are really interested in seeing how this work progresses, please keep checking back and reading updates on our blog!

Ciao for now!