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Digital Scholarship Profile: University of Wisconsin–Madison

University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center

Established in 2001

Staff: 5 FTE

University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center

Lee Konrad, associate university librarian for technology strategies and data services, and Peter Gorman, assistant director for digital library and preservation strategy, offer a glimpse into the history of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center (UWDCC), and its role in supporting digital scholarship within the libraries at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The center collaborates with UW faculty, librarians, and staff, as well as public libraries and cultural heritage institutions throughout Wisconsin, to create and provide access to digital resources supporting research and teaching needs for the broader UW community, to help document the history of the university and state of Wisconsin, and to help preserve and make accessible rare and special collections. The UWDCC is not the sole means of digital scholarship support within the libraries, but it has a particularly deep and rich history of digitizing a range of materials and developing these collections for the library in collaboration with faculty. Work promoting and supporting digital scholarship is distributed across the campus and the center is often brought in as a consultant or virtual team member when other units, such as campus IT, provide primary material assistance for a project.

Although the UWDCC was not formally established until the summer of 2001, its kernel began to germinate when Peter Gorman, who now directs the center, set up the library’s first web server in 1994. As with many other ARL members, the library’s support for digital projects began in the 1990s. At UW–Madison this early support focused on digitization: scanning photos, books, lab notes, and a range of other analog materials, then burning these digital copies to CDs as requested services. For example, in 1996 a Scandinavian studies professor, Dick Ringler, who understood how the web worked approached the library staff with a plan to develop a digital monograph using hyperlinks and map-based navigation. Gorman worked with Professor Ringler to develop this scholarly monograph as the website Jónas Hallgrímsson: Selected Poetry and Prose, launched in 1997, a portion of which was later printed in monograph form as Bard of Iceland (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002). The primary sources were digitized and transcribed, then encoded using Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) XML and derivative HTML, which has since been upgraded and remains hosted on the library’s servers and available to scholars, students, and the public today.

The Jónas Hallgrímsson digital monograph is only one example of the small, faculty-led projects that were among those first supported by the libraries, signaling the need for more formal support of digital scholarship. As the UWDCC became established in 2000–2001 its staff stepped back to reconsider how to more efficiently support the development of digital collections and projects by looking to set up more consistent software platforms, tools, and best practices.

Located within the Memorial Library, the UWDCC has concentrated on building digital collections and expanding their variety and depth as an extension of the UW–Madison Library’s core missions. The center is not yet a tool developer, but is an end user of digital tools and software platforms, many of which are open source, and moved to adapt and adopt best practices from technology companies and the nascent Internet industry. In the center’s early years, staff worked with faculty whose projects fit within the center’s project parameters, a model that promoted high quality and efficiency in digitizing and reformatting materials, but that did not easily lend itself to broad experimentation or tool development. Most of these projects began with individual faculty in academic departments from across the campus: biology, African studies, literary studies, and other units.

Since 2001 the UWDCC has also created a number of publically accessible digital resources by partnering with cultural heritage institutions and public libraries throughout Wisconsin. These collections are loosely organized and span a range of subjects, including art, ecology, literature, history, music, natural resources, science, social sciences, the State of Wisconsin, and the University of Wisconsin. These digital holdings have expanded from text-based materials, such as books, journal series, and manuscript collection, to also include audio, video, photographic images, slides, maps, prints, and posters in more than 60 distinct collections. These collections contain nearly 100,000 audio and video minutes, 200,000 images (photographs, slides, etc.), 2.3 million pages, and have been integrated with the library catalog for discoverability. The vast majority of these materials are free and open to the public, although a few remain restricted to the university community.

The staff of the UWDCC has both grown and shrunk over time, yet much of its work is part of virtual teams and collective efforts, which have sometimes seemed fragile. Desktop and network support within the library extended into web support, some of which required “pieces” of other staff—their contributions to efforts on an ad hoc basis when capacity was available. The earliest phases of the center often had the collective equivalent of about two full-time employees, with many of these contributors involved in supporting the repository, storage, imaging, metadata curation, and quality control. Today the UWDCC still operates as a virtual team and community in many respects, with full-time support for digital reformatting and other dedicated staff, as well as sharing developmental staff and system administrators, and others contributing from across library departments. Much of the content creation is also handled by faculty contributors and their students, often after training by the center, to help keep costs down.

The UWDCC remains committed to using open source and scalable solutions whenever possible. Staff use TEI and Digital Library eXtension Service (DLXS), XML-based OpenText, Fedora Commons, and other off-the-shelf software tools and platforms. Other projects have required the center to acquire and customize software platforms such as Open SiteSearch and to integrate application program interfaces (APIs). The center continues to work toward scalable solutions and to improve the usability of its content. Staff also help scholars think through their project’s life cycle and issues that lie beyond the outcome of research, such as dissemination, data management plans, and discoverability. Because of their expertise, the CIO or Academic Technology group sometimes suggest that UWDCC staff be asked to offer their advice on projects outside the library. These external connections also exist with the new iSchool and more of its students will likely be working with the center to develop knowledge and expertise in the future.

The staff of the UWDCC have learned a lot over the past 20 years, yet such issues as content discoverability, sustainability, and faculty education and outreach remain challenges. Konrad and Gorman point out that faculty and other researchers have become more savvy about the web and its technologies, and more familiar with the possibilities of visualization tools and data, but long-term preservation and sustainability or interoperability tend to remain beyond the scope of most faculty for now. Even the more technically oriented do not often approach projects with a holistic view or appreciation of scale, but the center continues to work to educate as part of supporting digital scholarship. Center staff strive to help faculty and students better understand images and primary sources as data sets, to understand which outputs and formats are preservable and sustainable for the long term, and to ask what can be derived from this work.

Featured Projects

Africa Focus


Africa Focus is the digital African studies collection, containing more than 3,000 slides, 500 photographs, and 50 hours of sounds from 45 countries. These research and teaching materials include unique collections and provide access to digitized fabrics, for example, images with accompanying text and content that describes the historical, religious, political, and sociological significance and use of these materials.

History Collection


The History Collection contains a wide range of material, including published materials and archival content, selected by librarians, scholars, and subject area specialists. Books, manuscripts, photographs, audio recordings, maps, and other resources have been digitized and organized into blocks by period, geographic region, and social signifiers, such as the Crusades or the American Founding Period. The collection includes material of the German Reichs, Belgian-American research, East Asian and Southeast Asian materials, Italian life under Fascism, and the Wisconsin Historical Society, among others.

Eastern European and Slavic Studies Collection


The Eastern European Collection aggregates digital versions of primary and secondary materials relating to the study of this region including its history, literature, language, political science, and more. One point of focus is the Lawrence Monthey Photo Collection from a 1959 tour of the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries by Monthey—a UW alumnus and staff member—and a group of UW alumni. The project Islam and Eurasia: Bridging the Information Divide presents 10 digitized English-language accounts of 19th-century and early 20th-century travel through Muslim regions of the Russian Empire. These are primary-source documents that present cultural, ethnographic, and geographic information for an English-language audience.



The UWDCC is one part of UW–Madison’s digital research and learning ecosystem, along with the Digital Library and a robust IT community, which also work to support research, teaching, and learning across the campus community. Konrad and Gorman see the center moving from project-based development to a coherent program of support integrated with the virtual, campus, digital scholarship community. They look forward to collaboratively building programmatic services that help scholars better use the digital library, including born-digital and hybrid works, content systems, and the institutional repository. Having joined the Unizin consortium of institutions working toward digital education on a national scale, the staff of the center plan to contribute to even wider-ranging virtual teams in the future.

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