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the citizen petition project: digitizing early settler's voices, 1836-1891: part one

The Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS), located in Madison, WI, among many other estimable and considerable roles, serves as the official archives for the State of Wisconsin. Last year they received funding from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission to arrange, describe, and preserve a physical record collection called “Petitions, Remonstrances, and Resolutions,” with dates ranging from 1836 to 2009.

Citizen petitions are legal documents—early in the state’s history, they were the only means by which residents could request assistance from the legislature with issues that impacted their homes, families, farms and businesses, and communities. Included in the grant were funds to digitize the years 1836-1891 as a way to make these primary source, early legal records more accessible to a variety of researchers, including National History Day students, residents of Wisconsin wishing to know more about their state’s history, and scholars and historians studying the ways in which Wisconsin’s story reflects the larger story of the nation.

I was hired as the project librarian, and I started the position in February 2020. I was tasked with creating metadata for 2500 petitions and then readying that metadata for import into the digital platform CONTENTdm, which involved creating a separate spreadsheet for each petition’s metadata record. Other work on the project by other staff included flattening the tightly folded petitions, rearranging them in folders and archival boxes, and creating indexes for each box; sending damaged petitions to the conservation lab for repair; scanning the petitions; importing the scans and my metadata into CONTENTdm; and creating an online finding aid.

That first day, I started up the elegant, marbled staircase of the headquarters building as I had every day for the past four and a half years. I had always taken the stairs to the second floor, which houses the library stacks and the library reading room; I had worked on this floor as a serials assistant with the WHS’ extensive periodical collection. But on this day I continued on up to the fourth floor, which houses the archives, the rooms where incoming archives are processed, and the archives reading room. Those who have worked in libraries or archives, or both like I was about to do, know that this is not a trivial thing—passing between the two behemoths of the classical information world. I was thrilled to have been invited to make this passage, and curious about the new learning opportunity awaiting me.

I began to meet with the other team members working on the project, and over the next several weeks, we hammered out a variety of critical decisions about the metadata: how many fields to include and which ones. CONTENTdm is based on Dublin Core, so as we began to establish metadata fields, I had to ensure that each field mapped to an existing DC element. I examined a number of other WHS digital collections from the same time period, and I looked at similar digital collections on the Digital Public Library of America site, as well.

We also spent some time considering the role of the Subject field; some of the first questions we wrestled with were these: how broad to make the subject terms? how granular? how best to support the myriad subject searches users will bring to their research when visiting this online collection? And we talked about the Title field, and how we might consistently supply meaningful titles across the entire set of 2500 petitions that I would describe.

We finally established the following metadata fields: Title, which would be a derived title; Original Title, which would be transcribed from the petition; Date, which would simply be the year or a range of years indicated on the petition, following the YYYY format; Description, a short summary of the petition; Place, which would name rivers and lakes noted in the petitions; Community, which would name towns, townships, villages, cities, military forts, and the military camps established during the Civil War; County, which would name the county at the time the petition was written; and State/Territory; Subject; Genre; and Notes.

Once I started working on creating the metadata, the question of granularity of subject terms became more pressing. Especially with regard to the different levels of government—village, township, city, and county. Early residents of Wisconsin Territory continually sought to divide and incorporate villages and townships. They continually sought to divide counties, as well, which were vast and often required that residents travel 10 or more miles to conduct town or county business or to serve on juries. Many petitions state how the “traveling public” was greatly inconvenienced by having to travel great distances on "incommodious" roads to conduct town or county business.

One of our team members landed on a practical solution—go for the middle ground: instead of a term like “government,” which would be unnecessarily broad and wouldn’t capture any of the complexity of the various civil, territorial, and state jurisdictions reflected in the petitions, and instead of terms that might be too granular, he suggested we go with terms that sat along the middle of this continuum. That way we wouldn’t have numerous subject terms for government topics, which could easily complicate a user search, but we could also offer the user some valuable clarity. So, we decided on “county” to stand in for all of the various county topics I had so far identified in my work; likewise I went with “cities and towns,” “territorial government,” and “state government” to encompass the different types of government jurisdiction represented. Further granularity could occur elsewhere, like in the Description field.

As I thought more about the Title field, and the 2500 titles I was going to have to create, I decided to apply a formula so that the titles could be consistently and quickly formed. I settled on the following pattern: Petition for [+ -ing verb form] [+ thing] [+ location], which translated to: Petition for building a road in Sheboygan, or Petition for establishing a ferry at Merrimac, or Petition for incorporating Lake Mills, and so on. This way both the thing being requested and the location of the request could be captured for the user, allowing them to quickly scan search results, which in CONTENTdm display the Title.

Other things had to be established as well those first weeks on the job: the server space I would work in, the spreadsheets I would work in, and the most effective workflow. Once I got to work on the metadata, I viewed images of the paper petitions, digital surrogates created by another team member. Initially I viewed TIFFs, but these took a long time to load, so another team member created jpgs for me. I had to quickly scan each petition for content and the main ideas being presented: most of these were handwritten in an older style of script, and most of the writing had faded over time. I had to interpret and decipher a different style and register of language. Sometimes the language used was derogatory, and then I had to devise ways to address this in the metadata. As I made metadata decisions, I entered my choices for each petition into a master spreadsheet. All of my work had to correspond to the initial physical work undertaken to arrange and summarize the paper petitions—throughout I had to align my work with already established box, folder, and image identifiers.

I had been working on the project for six weeks when suddenly we had to address the potential impact of COVID-19 as the virus began to spread across the country. The state of Wisconsin closed on March 25th, and my colleagues and I started to work from home. Luckily my work transitioned easily to a remote setting: my supervisor put the spreadsheets I needed onto a shared Google Drive, and another team member copied jpgs onto a shared folder in MS Teams; I also dropped completed spreadsheets into this space.

In May, WHS requested and was granted a two-month extension to the project, because the physical work on the petitions had had to be halted for a couple of months. I took advantage of the extra time to finish the metadata and spreadsheets I was building, to build the subject term list, to write the metadata application profile, to prepare other documentation for the digital site that was being created, to write social media posts and a short article promoting the collection, and to contribute to interim and final grant reports. I worked from home for eight months and completed the remainder of my work from my home office; I never returned to the headquarters building. This proved to be somewhat bittersweet; while I communicated with colleagues weekly on zoom and MS Teams, I really missed the chance to work alongside them in the headquarters building.

I was very thankful, however, that I could do the work from home. As the horror of the virus began to unfold and escalate from week to week, each day, for several hours a day, I was able to escape and immerse myself in the spirit of a people seeking to establish themselves in those heady, early days of transformation on this midwestern frontier.

For more on this project, and what early residents wrote about in the petitions, see part two. To view the collection, click here.

Image is taken from Wisconsin Citizen Petitions, 1836-1891


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