Documenting the American South (DocSouth) is a digital publishing initiative providing access to collection items sourced from across the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s library system, offering a navigable digital library to the general public. The opportunity presented itself from the expansive texts and materials already in the university’s southern holdings, and was meant as a ‘long-term’ space in which such records and collections, archived so their “Southern perspectives on U.S. history and culture,” could be shared online. The website establishes DocSouth Books as its publisher, sharing “affordable, easily accessible editions” ebooks and print books to a new generation of scholars. Interestingly, the only non-working link on the site is to the editorial board who guides development for DocSouth—attempts to click on it were met with the message: ‘cannot be found.’
The materials are organized into sixteen major collections. Ten of those collections focus on North Carolina history, experiences, writings, mappings and infrastructure, personal documents and media propaganda, as well as other ephemera (i.e. oral histories, slave narratives, sheet music). Considering the majority of the collections belong to UNC, three of those ten North Carolinian collections are dedicated to documenting the history and lived experience of either those involved in the construction of the University of North Carolina or who have attended or worked at the school since its foundation in 1875.
The ‘Usage Statement’ in the FAQ suggests that the archive is open and available to students and instructors of all educational levels interested in sharing findings and research developed from resources from DocSouth. Though not originally intended as a tool for genealogical research, enough users have reached out to the archive to warrant an addressal of such needs in the same FAQ. Links are given to the Genealogy/Family History Research at the main UNC-Chapel Hill library website, as well as to the state library system in Raleigh, North Carolina.
There is also a geographic index that offers historical context for how the South is mapped, meaning what data is identified and articulated as forming the boundaries and borders of the region. The two primary sources for this designation are the drawing of the Maison Dixon line in the 1700s between the then-colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and the establishment of the Confederacy in 1860 between eleven seceded states. The loudest erasure within this digital publishing project occurs here. There is no mention of Native American genealogies and geographic formations in the ‘South,’ a complicated history that is instead relegated to a brief ‘Highlights’ page from the DocSouth staff created in 2010 but is otherwise not pedagogically addressed on the website. Though an entire collection is dedicated to U.S. slave narratives and the quotidian life of Black people, there is comparatively much less in the archive regarding Indigenous ephemera that isn’t from the perspective of settlers and arrivants. This elision speaks to the complicity of academic institutions in the continued occupation of Native lands and dispossession of Indigenous peoples from them. The history of the ‘South’ as a confederacy of slave-owning states was predicated on the forced removal and violent disappearance of Indigenous nations, and their claims to sovereignty, self-determination and the illegitimacy of U.S. empire fracture the relatively tidy narrative of the South as belonging to the confederates who seceded from the Union, and even the incorporation of the demands of enslaved and indentured arrivants to be included in those settler states can only speak to a framework of multicultural liberalism, and not one of indigenous sovereignty.
As for the design of DocSouth: the search engine is powered by Google, allowing visitors to easily search the archive’s contents using keywords and phrases. A tab on the main page also leads to a Facebook page for the general UNC Library Digital Collections, revealing a much larger set of archival materials. Upon clicking on another tab titled ‘K-12’ it becomes clear that the curation of DocSouth was intended to be for people (including children) who perhaps are not as adept at pouring through the often dry and endless scroll of materials in most university collections. The tab leads to ANCHOR, an online textbook for North Carolinian educators teaching 8th grade and up. The bright pictures, clean visual format and focused topics show a desire to offer learning tools the folks grappling with this history in their everyday lives, from school work to exploring local history.
As an addendum to the larger digital archiving and publishing project, DocSouth Data was designed for “researchers who want to use emerging technology to look for patterns across entire texts or compare patterns found in multiple texts.” DocSouth Data is slowly converting the collections into .zip files that are compatible with emerging technologies like Voyant, a tool that helps conduct word-counts and visualize data across collections to model the frequency of topics. The skills needed to run a digital publishing project like this are multiple and manifold. Having access to a vast repository of university archives, to using a high-grade scanner, basic web coding and design, text mining and data analysis tools, the Library of Congress’ data transfer method Bagit, and creating metadata.
Future projects might learn from DocSouth’s accessible format, clear intentions, and multi-pronged approach to making their archives useful to teachers and scholars across public and private sectors of education. Offering updates on Facebook allows them to highlight new materials, or give updates on digital and physical exhibitions, and the application of the archives to an open access high school textbook is useful in encouraging open engagement with the archive by not just those who are not employed to undertake the rarefied labor of higher education and/or the library sciences. It would be wise for future projects to create more transparency around Indigenous histories in North Carolina. Though that information is included in other UNC archives, and is highlighted digitally elsewhere (for example, in this UNC student curated exhibit, ‘Justice, Sovereignty, Resistance’), it is telling that it is not a foundational part of DocSouth, considering it is perhaps the most publicly accessible curation of the university’s expansive digital repository to young people and educators.