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USM Professor Wins $350,000 Grant to Digitize Governors’ Papers, Employ Dozens of Students

Tue, 04/14/2020 - 11:57am | By: Margaret Ann Macloud

A digital history project based at The University of Southern Mississippi recently won a three-year grant totaling $349,987 from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant, which was awarded to the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi (CWRGM) project led by Dr. Susannah J. Ural will also help to employee dozens of graduate students to work on the project.

CWRGM is a digital documentary project that is digitizing Mississippi's Civil War and Reconstruction-era governors' papers as a way to better understand this definitive period of American history and make that information available for free to educators and the public. Because Southerners — regardless of class, race, or gender — contacted their governors with abandon during the Civil War and Reconstruction, these papers offer insights into nearly every major issue of the age in Mississippi, making CWRGM a wonderful opportunity to engage scholars, teachers, students, and the public with the historical lessons of democracy. Grounded in nearly 20,000 documents that span the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction, CWRGM is uncovering the voices that, despite scholars' efforts over the last several decades, remain buried in vast archival collections.

"This funding through the NEH Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program will employ over two dozen USM graduate students, a digital developer, social studies teacher-advisors, and a digital archivist over the next three years. Their work will ensure that the first 20 percent of the project, or about 4,000 documents, are available online and fully transcribed, with historical context and K-12 lesson plans,” Dr. Ural explained. “I am part of an incredible and dedicated team based at MDAH, MDL, and USM. We've been working tirelessly with minimal funding because we believe in this project and hoped to convince the granting agencies of its worth. It's wonderful to see this early recognition by a second major funder; this support is absolutely key for a labor-intensive project like ours."

CWRGM project partners at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) are digitizing all of the Civil War-era governors' papers, while the Mississippi Digital Library and the USM Digital Lab write metadata for the records and place them online. Ural and her research team then transcribe and annotate the records, work with a digital developer to make them readily accessible and searchable online, and partner with secondary teachers to create plans to link the records to state and national learning standards to ensure that the CWRGM documents are utilized in secondary classrooms across the state and the nation. All of these materials will be freely available to the public.

“We are excited to see these important resources become so much more accessible, and we're grateful to Dr. Susannah Ural and USM for taking the lead in this initiative,” Director of the MDAH Katie Blount said.

“The development and use of digital methods in the humanities is revolutionizing how research is conducted in the field,” USM College of Arts and Sciences Dean Chris Winstead explained. “Dr. Ural’s work is critically important in allowing access to these important records, not only for researchers from around the world, but for the public as well. These papers provide a detailed view into the workings of society during this period and represent a treasure trove of new information for researchers and the public alike.”

Thanks to separate grant funding through the Watson-Brown Foundation awarded late last year, CWRGM is in the process of hiring a digital archivist for one year who will oversee metadata creation and quality review from May 2020-April 2021. NEH funding begins in June 2020 and runs through May 2023. Thanks to the digital nature of this project, all of this work can continue remotely despite the current COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions.

Susannah Ural is a Professor of History and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at The University of Southern Mississippi. She is also a member of USM’s Center for the Study of the Gulf South.