eBio Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships 2009


Library Archival Sciences

#1. Back to Life. Build a cemetery archive. For a specified abandoned cemetery or cemeteries in a given remote area, attempt to create an archive of meaningful material that documents the cemetery including:

  • Locate burial records and gain permission to scan them. Arrange for the scan.

  • Map the location of the graves and who is buried where.

  • Arrange for someone to take photos of every headstone.

  • Research the biographical history of each person buried there using other archival material (e.g. is there a microfilm of old newspapers…perhaps the town’s whole, now defunct, newspaper ought to be digitized to facilitate the searching of the biographical details? What method would you use? Ever heard of 35mm positive vesticular film? What about article recognition OCR? Lots to learn.

  • Create metadata that creates interest in the archive. For example, who are the descendants of each one buried there? Where are they now? How do you post a PDF of your archive’s contents so that search engines pick up the best metadata to bring people to your archive?

Some thoughts:

The old Jewish cemetery in Sioux City, Iowa. There was a vibrant Jewish community there from 1850 to 1950. Now, they are all gone. Start with the cemetery and you will end up with the whole community history. Want a challenge? How about a cemetery in the Ukraine? There is a huge Ukrainian community in Chicago. Pick a cemetery that links to them. Genealogy? Immigration records? Emigration records? Birth Registers?


  1. We place a big premium on use of archival sources that are not currently digitized. If you can build this archive through secondary sources and a search engine, we would have little interest.
  2. The model should be replicable. How many other cemeteries could be added to the archive using your methods? Our interest is less about the data, more about what methods you use to get it.

#2. A Tree Grows in Burlington. The first Federal Census of Vermont was taken in 1790. There were roughly 80,000 residents. Using every method possible, attempt to find their descendants today. Every link must be documented with a primary source or secondary source – ideally with any biographical data that you find along the way. There are three research objectives:

  1. Identify the archives that already contain some of this data. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. The Vermont Historical Society and the University of Vermont are two obvious choices. Vermont is perhaps the best documented state when it comes to genealogy. Can you pull the existing archives together in a more meaningful way?

  2. How many descendants can you find today? Remember every link must be documented, with a strong preference for primary sources that aren’t currently digitized.

    Also, you may go sideways in this quest. If a Vermont descendant married a non-Vermont descendant, we are just as happy to have you find the spouse’s family’s descendants. They all count equally. If a Vermont man marries a Oregon woman with ten siblings, we expect you to calculate where you get the most “bang for your buck” in tracking descendants. Think of it as a business decision where you get paid based on the final tally. Perhaps you want to abandon the husband because the wife’s siblings had many kids or that family is well documented.

    For a living descendant, we want a meaningful piece of data. Any of the following would be “meaningful”: Address, Schools attended, etc.. If a descendant dies with no offspring, you can count that person as a “current descendant”.

  3. What is the multiplier from 1790 to 2009? If we start with a married couple in Vermont in 1790 and track all their direct descendants, how many will we get on average in 2009? That number is of great interest to us.

Again, we want the methods documented so that they are replicable. If we took another state, would most of your methods apply there? Or, is Vermont unique because of its relatively homogenous population demographic?

#3. Your own Topic. Pick an area of your own interest that illustrates some of the issues described above, including:

  • A topic with a genealogical component.

  • Remotely gathering archival material.

  • Making archival material more accessible through digitization at the lowest cost.

  • Making digitized archival material more accessible with better metadata.

  • Crossing language barriers to create more powerful archives (e.g. Ukrainian graves to Chicago newspapers.)

Keep in mind that we are offering logistical support – an archivist’s dream. Use it wisely. If, for example, in Project #1, Back to Life, you determined that the only way to get photos of all the headstones was to run an ad on Craigslist in Iowa and find a student that we could pay via PayPal to go take a digital photo of each stone, we would consider that, depending on the cost.

We are looking for the least conventional approaches, especially ones that could be applied anywhere.


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