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The Digitization Process
The digitization of these court records is a collaborative venture between the St. Louis Circuit Clerk, the Missouri State Archives, and Washington University in St. Louis. The initiative emerged from a shared commitment to provide access to the rich materials of the St. Louis Historical Circuit Court Records. All of these digitized records are available free of charge and without access restrictions. For additional details, see the Copyright and Reproduction Rules for the project.
Background
This collaborative digitization project emerged from discussions in 1999 between the Missouri State Archives and Washington University in St. Louis. As the value of the materials became clear, the collaborators sought the means to present them to the largest possible audience. Not only does digital delivery provide that level of access, but case file images could be integrated with an on-line searchable database, which presented immediate benefits for users who wanted to focus their research. In addition, the expandability of the digital medium means that records could be made available in discrete series while other materials were still undergoing conservation and cataloging.
The first materials to go online were the eighty-five documents related to the freedom suits brought by Dred and Harriet Scott (view additional resources). Those materials were scanned at the Washington University Library. The success of that initiative led to a broader commitment from the participating institutions. The Missouri State Archives and the St. Louis Circuit Clerk provided space for digitization at the Circuit Court Record Center, the same facility where the Archives staff directs the initial cataloging and preservation work. Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis provided funding for equipment to digitize the records, and American Culture Studies funded and directed the digitization process.
Selecting Materials
The standard method for editorial projects is to proceed chronologically from the first document to the last. The size and scope of the St. Louis Circuit Court records made this approach impossible, for it would require years of digitizing to reach some of the most fascinating materials. Instead, the court records have been organized by discrete, topical themes, selected by the State Archives and the project's advisory board.
Scanning the Cases
The scanning process was carried out on two Dell Dimension 8100 desktop computers and two Umax 2100XL scanners. The large scanning bed of this model (12 x 17 inches) accommodated the physical size of the records, many of which exceeded the dimensions of standard commercial scanners.
After scanning, the digitization team created three versions of each image to address archival and internet-viewing printing needs. Full-color TIFF (Tagged Image File Format) images were scanned at 100% with a resolution of 400 dpi and then sized down slightly to 2500 pixels wide. From these images, a 1000 pixel wide JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group) image with a quality of 8 was created to be the larger internet image. One additional JPEG was produced - 750 pixels wide - to server as the initial internet viewing image.
Digitization is conducted by students in American Culture Studies under the supervision of Washington University faculty and staff. The staff of the Missouri State Archives provides oversight to assure the condition of the documents and their handling.
Building the Database
The Missouri State Archives supplied data on the case files. This material, referred to as "metadata," catalogs the essential details about each case (i.e. plaintiff, defendant, date). The digitization team from American Culture Studies took this data and supplemented it with data regarding the processing and scanning of each case and information about the scanned images. The search tool combines this information on the cases and the images to enable users to explore the records.
Any search of the records examines the content of the metadata rather than the text of the cases themselves. All of the records currently available online consist of hand-written documents. Although optical character recognition (OCR) software can recognize typed characters with a relatively high degree of accuracy, it is substantially less reliable with hand-written materials. Knowing how best to use this metadata is therefore essential to making effective use of digitized records. Users are encouraged to consult the search help and the Questions sections for this site.
The central goal of this site is to deliver useful materials in a way that any user can learn. The digitization team in American Culture Studies welcomes comments that will help this site better realize that goal.
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Case files are scanned for inclusion on the project website.
Case files are scanned for inclusion on the project website.