Member Story: UH Digital Library

An image from the Luiz Marquez Photograph collection in the University of Houston Digital Library.

The Suffrage Movement through the eyes of a Texas socialite. Yearbook photos of 1950s-era bobby soxers. Letters from a Revolutionary War officer. Historic hand-tinted photographs and tourist postcards collected over many decades. What do they have in common? They are all part of the rich collection of photos and other primary materials to be found in the University of Houston Digital Library.

Over the past year, the UH Libraries has developed an exciting set of digital collections focused mainly, though not exclusively, on Houston and Texas history. The continually growing set of items includes about a dozen collections, including a set of historic Houston photos and one that contains images of the devastation caused by the 1915 Galveston Hurricane.

Leading the development of the UH Digital Repository is Michele Reilly, Head of Digital Services, who came to the University of Houston in 2009. Reilly and her staff have built on limited digitization efforts that preceded her to launch the collection of photographs, postcards, scanned scrapbook items and letters that together comprise the UH Digital Library.

From Suffragettes to Cougar Spirit

“Our ultimate mission,” says Reilly, “is to provide our faculty and students with a really great resource for primary objects, so that they can further their own research.”

To that end, Reilly and her team have added – and continue to add – collections of primary materials that have the potential to enrich scholarly understanding of life in Texas and in Houston, as well as historically important materials owned by the libraries that are outside those geographic parameters.

A particular favorite of Reilly’s is the Ewing Family Papers, a collection of scrapbook materials from Mrs. Kittredge Ewing, a Houston socialite and suffragette of the early 1900s. The materials include newspaper clippings and other materials that detail Ewing’s connections with the national Suffrage Movement and other activism on health care and women’s issues.

“To read through [the clippings], you get a real sense of what it was like in Houston at that time and what they were fighting for – better schools, no child labor,” Reilly says. “It’s a very, very interesting collection and one that, for instance, the women’s studies college on campus uses in the classroom, because it has so much importance for their work.”

Other Texas-related collections include a set of Houstonian yearbooks from the 1940s and 50s (“the drawings crack me up,” says Reilly) and sets of photos of historic Houston, the university campus, the Galveston Hurricane of 1915, and the Texas City industrial explosion of 1947.

Additionally, the Digital Library includes collections that are not Texas-centric. A collection of beautiful hand-tinted photos by Mexican photographer Luis Marquez, for instance, only has a tangential connection to Texas. Marquez gave the photos to Mrs. Joe Betsy Allred, wife of Governor James Allred, after she visited Mexico in 1937.

Other collections, like a set of correspondence written by Revolutionary War soldier Israel Shreve, have no direct connection to Texas but are important enough historically to include in the online repository. Other Israel Shreve letters exist in collections at other universities, including Rutgers and LSU, but the University of Houston is the first to display theirs online.

Collection Development and Workflow

The UH Digital Library officially went live in September 2009, though a pilot collection was up and running a few months earlier. “We started with about 2,500 items that were already scanned before I arrived,” says Reilly. “Then we wrote a collection development policy and a checklist for people to go through.”

The development of that collection policy – and a detailed standardized workflow for the Digital Projects team– have been crucial to the Digital Library’s success.

Collection development begins with a project proposal that comes either from a collection’s owner — either a private collector or an institutional holder of a collection. The proposal process allows the Digital Projects team to determine whether there are enough items to constitute a collection and to prioritize groups of items for digitization.

Once the team has set priorities for entering the proposed collections, students (under the supervision of digital photo technician Nicci Cobb) begin the scanning of collection items using the UH’s Bookeye overhead scanner and flatbed scanner. Students also begin compiling available metadata for the items and upload them to ContentDM, the collection management software used by UH Libraries.

From there, metadata librarian Mingyu Chen and staffer Shawn Anderson determine the first 10 items of Dublin Core metadata and work with the collection’s owner to determine what other fields are necessary to produce a usefully curated collection.

Along the way, the team uses a blog, Excel spreadsheets, and a carefully maintained email policy for logging progress on each project and keeping all team members informed about the various stages of digitization and curation.

“Doing the backend stuff like policy development is truly one of the most important things,” Reilly claims. “My staff and student workers know what’s happening at any moment and they know where they can go to find it out.”

Reilly credits her staff with making the creation of the UH Digital Library possible. “I’m so proud of my staff and the work they’ve done,” Reilly said. “They have picked up this ball and run with it – they are creative and come up with terrific ideas. I really couldn’t have a better group to work with.”

For more information about the University of Houston Digital Library, visit

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