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ECU library develops searchable guide to rare documents

(July 8, 2002)   —   A treasure trove of old books, papers and manuscripts at East Carolina University's Joyner Library is about to become more accessible to everyone.

The library has announced that it has received a $50,000 grant by way of North Carolina's "Exploring Cultural Heritage Online" (ECHO) program and the federally funded Library Services Technology Act. The grant will enable the library's Special Collections Department to complete its work on a searchable guide for the Internet that lets anyone with a computer find out what's stored in the library's holding area for valuable materials.

Dr. Jonathan Dembo, the head of the library's Special Collections, said the papers include handwritten manuscripts by North Carolina writers and letters from 18th, 19th and 20th century soldiers, sailors, missionaries and political leaders that are too fragile for the usual page-riffling habits of normal library browsers.

The grant will let the library complete work on a system that encodes descriptions about the materials to produce a "finding aid" for the department's more than 850 manuscripts and collections. Researchers will be able to locate genealogical and historical materials quickly on the Internet and bypass the time-consuming work of flipping through card catalogs.

"It will greatly speed up the process and help people find materials," said Dembo.

He said that being part of the ECHO program will allow cultural heritage searches across the state. "It will also make us a participant among research libraries throughout the country," he said.

The project began last year with a $26,000 grant to demonstrate how well the process works. The results were even better than expected. About 400 of the library's special manuscripts and collections of papers were encoded with descriptions that can be viewed online at

The second grant will cover work through June 2003, the project's completion date.

The grant will support a contract with Apex Data Services in Herndon, Va., a company that produces Encoded Archival Description (EAD) for academic and research libraries. The grant will also train members of the library staff to encode and add newly acquired materials to system.

Historic collections and papers at ECU include a vast amount of information about maritime activities involving ships and sailors. Among the materials are the letters, diaries and other papers from the graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy's Class of 1941. In these papers are descriptions of World War II battles at Pearl Harbor and at other locations around the world.

Joyner Library's Special Collections area is also one of the best places to find historical material about eastern North Carolina and its people. Included are papers contributed by families in the region along with oral history interviews. In addition to family history there are materials about tobacco, the Civil War, social issues, towns, counties, businesses, politicians and published writers.

Diana Williams, the Digital Projects Manager at Joyner Library, called the Special Collections a "hidden treasure chest."

"I'm constantly amazed at what is here and I think that anyone from Eastern North Carolina can expect to be touched in some way," she said.


Contact: ECU News Bureau | 252-328-6481