DocSouth 1000th Title Symposium
March 1, 2002
Remarks by Joe A. Hewitt
University Librarian, UNC-Chapel Hill
Again, I want to thank all of you for being here this afternoon to join us
in this event. (And I thank Bob for that stimulating keynote. I have
every confidence that DocSouth can fit into your vision of a
Learning Place in Cyberspace.) As I've said several times over the course
of planning this occasion, I certainly believe that the University and the
Library, and the faculty and librarians involved in this project, deserve
a self-congratulatory moment for what we have achieved with Documenting
the American South. On the other hand, I wanted this occasion to be
more than a backslapping, high-fiving celebration, and be primarily a
moment of reflection when we begin to understand the meaning and ultimate
potential of this enterprise that we are engaged in. Perhaps the most
important view of Documenting the American South comes from the
users themselves and that's what I would like to talk a little bit about
I have for some time been monitoring messages to DocSouth as
they have come in on a daily basis and was quite impressed by their number
and the variety of uses that DocSouth seems to be serving for its
audience. But over Christmas I got printouts of 2½ years' worth of
messages and I spent a lot of time reading, categorizing, coding, and
making notes on these printouts. It was my work with this corpus of
messages, some 500 pages in all, that has really affected my own thinking
Before getting into the themes of the comments I want to mention
briefly a couple of technical issues that will be dealt with more fully
when I do a report on this study in the professional literature. First is
that we know that these messages sent to DocSouth by self-selected
volunteers represents a very small portion of total use. We know that
DocSouth is a heavily used site, but for today's symposium I have
decided not to dwell on the numbers because we know from previous
discussions that they can lead to detailed technical debates of just how
best to count website use.
Our approach here has always been in line with our State's motto
"Esse Quam Videri," "To be rather than to seem." I have personally
always been suspicious of the huge numbers you get from counting "hits" or
even in some projects I've seen, counts of "page views" or "files
retrieved" which on an annual basis of a course amount to millions and
millions for a heavily used site.
We worked several years ago with former SILS faculty member Charles
Viles to develop software for counting that reduced the numbers down to
what corresponded as closely as possible to a "check out" of a book from a
print collection, eliminating hits on the higher level pages of the
website, on indexes, on image files, and so on, so that they measured only
interaction with the texts themselves. We call these statistics
"Charlie's Check Outs."
These run between 4 and 6 thousand a day. To give you a typical
example, on Feb. 12 DocSouth had 136,549 "hits" as counted on the
ibiblio web-server, which converted to 6,465 "Charlie's Check Outs." Keep
these numbers in mind as you read "Keep Up the Good Work(s)." These
messages are just the tip of the iceberg—they give voice to an audience
of DocSouth readers that is very large.
Another preliminary point. I'm sure that if you've found the time to
browse in "Keep Up the Good Work(s)," you will have noticed that all of the
quotes are positive. This is not a coincidence—I did the selection. But
I do admit that in the full record of 1500 there were some messages that
were negative. But there weren't that many, really—take my word for
it—and most of these were what I would consider constructive criticism
and, as part of my study, I will make a list of all of the suggestions for
improvement that have appeared in the comments. We will be evaluating and
prioritizing these and I am sure that a number of them will be included in
our plans for improving DocSouth in the future.
In terms of criticism of the content, we did have a strong message
about the lack of Native American material and we are taking that
seriously as we think about future segments. But on the whole, objections
to content selection are surprisingly few. DocSouth seems to
appeal to persons from all points on the political spectrum. Reenactors
and confederate heritage groups have found just as much to praise as
African-American historians and civil rights activists. Somehow, the
primary sources in DocSouth seem to help people from different
backgrounds to find their way back to a common culture.
Another point that I would like to make has to do with why I have chosen
to call these messages "readers' comments." Up until the time I sat down
with the 500 some pages of printouts I had been referring to them as "user
comments" following the pattern of the term "library users." It became
clear to me, however, that most of the comments had to do with people's
experiences as readers of the works and that the term "reader" would be
Certainly a number of comments were from persons who came initially to
DocSouth to seek specific information, but most of these became
"readers." They wound up browsing in the texts much as they would in the
stacks of a library. It is certainly the experience of reading the Doc
South texts that stimulated most of the response that we have gotten
from our audience, not their use of the site as a database of information.
This finding contradicts the stereotypical image of Web users as busy
Internet searchers seeking a quick information fix from the most
convenient sources possible, however fragmented they may be. The Doc
South reader seems to correlate more closely with our idea of a more
reflective traditional library user. I take that as a positive sign—that
a carefully selected body of electronic texts will be used as such when
made available on the Web.
Now let me give you a few of the raw statistics about the messages from
readers. Minus spam and a few uninterpretable messages, 1468 messages
were tabulated. Of these, 25% came from academic readers, 15% from K-12,
and 60% from the general public. There were 394 reference questions in
the messages, representing 27% of those received. There were also 90
permissions requests of various types, constituting 6% of the messages.
Now, let me review very briefly some of the comments by category. First,
academic readers. By academic, I mean any message from a reader
associated with an institution of higher education. The original purpose
of DocSouth was to serve the needs of the large Southern Studies
community on the Carolina campus and those of scholars and students of the
South around the world. It is clear that DocSouth is indeed
serving this purpose, although messages from academic readers constitute
only 25% of those received. We also have information about academic
readers from other sources, particularly contacts with faculty and
students on campus and from meetings of scholarly and professional
associations that confirm the impressions we've gotten from the email
The messages from academic users come from all levels—undergraduate
through faculty, and from all types of institutions, community colleges to
Ivy League universities with libraries that are among the largest in the
world. Here are a few bullets that summarize these comments:
- Faculty comment more frequently about the use of DocSouth in
instruction than in their own research.
- Graduate students appear to be especially heavy users of DocSouth.
- For some students, DocSouth is the principal source of
materials for their research papers and even masters theses, and are an
important resource for dissertation research. The availability of DocSouth has, in fact, influenced what graduate students have adopted as research topics in many universities.
- In some cases the materials are in the campus library in print or
microforms, but the electronic format is preferred for convenience.
- Most academic users who reported how they discovered DocSouth
said that it was through referral from a faculty member or fellow student.
A fair number mentioned that they had discovered it through catalog
records in their library's online catalog (through the OCLC collection
records set program) and they thought this was truly a terrific service.
Somehow, finding these works in their local online catalog was much more
impressive than finding them on the Web through a search engine.
- 20% of the academic messages ask reference questions, the lowest rate
of any group of readers.
- The most frequent area of improvement suggested by academic readers is
MORE texts, sometimes accompanied by specific suggestions, but usually
simply—MORE, MORE, and MORE.
- They also would prefer deeper indexing of some of the segments and
sometimes mention that certain types of supporting materials would be
useful, but the improvement that is stressed most emphatically is their
desire that the scope of the content be expanded.
- Several academic readers made the observation that access to these
kinds of primary sources has traditionally been a part of what
distinguishes an education in the great institutions, and that the effect
of making them widely available is to raise the quality of education in
institutions of all types. (An astute point in my opinion.)
- The point was also made by several (who I suspect to be Carolina
alumni) that Carolina is a leader in historical and literary scholarship,
that the State and the South depend on UNC, and that DocSouth is
an excellent example of our meeting these obligations and high
- It is interesting to note that while 25% of total messages come from
academic readers, almost all of the international messages are from
All in all, I think these messages indicate that our service to the
academic community confirms the assumptions of our original goals, and
they also point fairly clearly to future directions for improving services
And now a brief report on K-12 readers. Included in K-12 are the
students themselves, teachers, and parents who report that they are using
DocSouth to help their children with classroom assignments. Here
are a few bullets about the K-12 messages:
- Students tended to find DocSouth through a search for
information on the Web for a homework assignment or research project.
Unlike academic readers, few K-12 students report being referred to the
site by a teacher or a fellow student.
- In fact, a number of students said that they were going to tell their
teacher about DocSouth and that, in doing so, they hoped to
improve their grade; they were excited about the discovery and considered
it an important achievement on their part to have discovered DocSouth
and discerned its value for their class.
- Teacher messages often talked about how limited their library
resources are in the subject areas covered by DocSouth and how
important our site will be in providing enrichment materials for their
- The "Slave Narratives" were noted as especially important by K-12
readers, which was not surprising. But I was somewhat surprised at how
important the literature section is for K-12. High school teachers report
that their school libraries are completely unprepared to support courses
in Southern literature, which are often taught as advance placement
courses where teachers are left to their own devices in developing
materials. A couple of teachers mentioned that now that they had found
this site, they were going to propose an honors course in Southern
- More so than academic users, K-12 students share the sentiment of the
general public for "experiencing history" rather than "studying history."
- Some teachers reflected on how access to primary sources such as those
in DocSouth would change the way they teach history and commented
on the value of autobiography and "First Person Narratives" in new
approaches to teaching.
- One comment coming both from K-12 teachers and from academic faculty
was that DocSouth is especially useful in teaching how to use
- As for suggestions for improvement from K-12 readers, there were
frequent requests for outlines and summaries, reading lists for various
grade levels, and things like more biographical material about the authors
of the works.
- From other sources, we have been advised that to serve the school
population well, we need to produce the content on compact disk because of
the lack of connectivity and bandwidth in the schools. This confirms our
experience in that most K-12 students seem to be accessing DocSouth from home and teachers frequently mention the need to download
and even print out DocSouth texts for use in the classroom.
All in all, it is clear that DocSouth is providing a useful
service to the K-12 population, but the texts alone, without supporting
materials, are not quite as useful for K-12 as they are for academics and
the general public. We recognize that we have a ways to go in serving
this sector well and are beginning to work with Prof. Cheryl Mason of our
School of Education, to plan some workshops for teachers this summer.
Sixty percent of the messages tabulated were from the general public. This
category includes in effect all messages that are not K-12 or academic.
It is a varied and wide-ranging category that constitutes a much larger
proportion of our audience than we had anticipated. The majority of
general public readers came to DocSouth because of personal
interests, but a fair number are persons using DocSouth in their
work when that work isn't associated with K-12 or higher education. These
include journalists, creative writers, foundation employees, museum
professionals, and managers and volunteer docents of historic sites and
houses. Also there were a substantial number of persons with serious
private research projects working from a non-academic setting—local and
family histories, church histories, business histories, and non-academic
publishers working on a wide range of publication projects. Here are a
few observations about the messages from the general public:
- Most general interest readers come to DocSouth with a personal
interest in the history and literature of the South, usually focused on a
particular period or aspect such as plantation life or slavery, the Civil
War, or reconstruction. Readers frequently express the desire to "see
history through the eyes of those who lived it." This sentiment is well
expressed by the quote I used in my preface to "Keep Up the Good Work(s)."
They're seeking "a fluent empathy for the everyday lives of the past."
These readers sometimes express distrust in what they have been taught in
high school and college. They want their history unfiltered and finding
it in the DocSouth personal narratives has, for many readers, had
a powerful emotional impact. The stories of revelation and epiphany at
the back of "Keep Up the Good Work(s)" were selected from a fair number of
- A number of others come to DocSouth in search of specific
information. These are often genealogists or people doing family histories
or church histories. It appears that DocSouth in a fair number of
cases does NOT yield the specific information that people may be looking
for, but it often serves many by contextualizing the periods and places
that they are interested in. Rather than simply identifying and gathering
facts on their ancestors, readers begin seeking to learn HOW they lived.
It is clear that DocSouth often provides a broadening experience
for persons who come to it initially for specific information.
- I was truly amazed by the large number of general public readers doing
creative work. I gathered from some of the comments that these were both
amateurs and professionals and some implied that they were quite
successful. Attitudes expressed by some of these readers were quite
interesting. Some said, for example, that DocSouth had provided a
"breakthrough" in their career as unpublished novelists because they had
gotten a lot of great ideas about characters and plots by reading the
personal narratives. A few even implied that the reason they had not been
successful in the past was because they had not had access to sources such
as those in DocSouth—and now they were filled with new hope!
- Very touching for me was a self-conscious attitude, almost
deferential, on the part of some readers. They were very conscious that
they were not professional historians, and felt privileged to have access
to these primary sources as if they had entered an inner sanctum were they
did not fully belong. For me it was a humbling experience to understand
how others view the scholarly resources that we have here at Carolina and
at other research universities. We work daily among these great
collections and perhaps take them for granted. For me, seeing how others
react to discovering these primary sources for the first time has
underscored the importance of sharing these resources through digitization
programs. It raises such sharing to the level of a compelling social
obligation for our libraries and universities.
- Also, there was frequent and sincere expression of appreciation for
the fact that DocSouth is available for FREE. Several readers
even asked for confirmation that it was free before they started using it,
afraid that they might get some huge bill in the mail.
- Like the academic readers, the primary suggestion of the general
readers is that they want MORE texts. They frequently suggest specific
texts for us to digitize. Some of these suggestions have been very
interesting. For example, we have some diaries up written by residents of
New Bern during the Union occupation. A reader pointed out that there are
unpublished diaries of Federal troops involved in the occupation of New
Bern in a collection in Massachusetts, and suggested we digitize them for
DocSouth. These are the kinds of specific suggestions we hope to
follow-up on as time permits. But for the most part, general readers just
want us to keep adding more and more works to DocSouth.
- While we expected academic readers to be discriminating, I was also
struck by the fact that general readers truly understand and appreciate
the quality of the work that has gone into DocSouth, especially on
the part of our selectors and scholarly editors, as well as the careful
digitization and coding that we do. They show great appreciation for the
fact that we are taking the time and trouble to create a high-quality site
for the general public. Presenting historical information in a "scholarly
manner" (as one reader put it) is important to public readers when most of
those who correspond with DocSouth appear to be well informed and
sophisticated evaluators of website quality.
- The general public readers ask more reference questions than any other
reader group, with 30% of their messages containing reference questions,
which does have implications for the library service programs as the
- Bottom line, the public audience for DocSouth seems to
represent a highly motivated, informed, and articulate group of readers
who are using DocSouth for serious purposes that can only be
described as educational. Their deep engagement with these works, the
obvious thrill of discovery and learning, tell me that DocSouth,
even as it now stands, is a powerful educational resource. For some
people who are not interested in credit hours or certification, a
collection of primary sources like DocSouth can have the effect of
a distance education program without all the trappings. DocSouth
is obviously not a passive force that requires a formal educational
program to activate its potential. It is obvious to me from reading the
full record of messages that a high-quality resource of electronic texts,
like a great library, can be a profoundly educational force in its own
There are other ways to view the messages that I don't have time to go
into in detail today. One is an analysis of the reference questions which
run the gambit from the straightforward to the very complex. Some of the
questions are entertaining and provide food for thought. For example, the
following comes from a woman in Brighton, England, who asks these 3 short
questions which she says "should only take a couple of minutes of your
Is the American south a distinct region of the United States? If so, in
- Are the images portrayed in Hollywood produced films, such as
"Forrest Gump" and "Deliverance," true to form?
- Has the image of the American South and its people been constructed?
If so, how and by whom?
What is most disturbing about this set of questions is that they come
from a woman who is writing a dissertation at a well known British
Another view of the message data is the interplay of the electronic texts
with the world of print. There are numerous reference questions about how
to acquire originals for the works in DocSouth, for example.
There are also questions about whether or not works have been reprinted in
scholarly editions and where to acquire them. The heightened visibility
that electronic access gives to these works appears to be increasing the
demand for print versions.
The permissions requests also cast light on this phenomenon. There are a
number of small publishers interested in publishing reprints of texts in
DocSouth. One said that he had heard that we keep records of the
most frequently used works and asked if we could share it with him so he
could publish a reprint series.
Let me close with a final thought and an announcement. It is clear from
reading the full records of the readers' comments that there are many
readers for whom DocSouth is an important resource for research,
education, and cultural enrichment. It might even be possible to say that
there is a COMMUNITY of readers based on common interest and, to some
extent, shared values. Many have volunteered their suggestions and some
even their help to improve DocSouth and to ensure that it
continues and flourishes. Many talented and enthusiastic people want to
contribute to this effort to make primary sources available to the world.
So, I want now to announce our intention to establish over the next
several months, the Documenting the American South Readers Advisory
Board, which will represent all sectors of DocSouth readership and
will meet at least two times a year in Chapel Hill to provide guidance on
the management and development of Documenting the American South so
it can better meet the needs of its constituents. The board will help in
the evaluation of DocSouth from readers' perspectives and provide
feedback on plans for future segments. Documenting the American
South will take its direction in the future BOTH from our current
editorial board consisting of faculty, librarians, and University Press
representatives, and the Readers Advisory Board (and we may even ask the
latter board to help us raise a little money).
Documenting the American South has shown clearly that it has the
capacity to span public and scholarly interests and in establishing this
board as a companion to the editorial board, I hope that we can add a
small, but helpful, thread to the important bond between the public and
the academy. Thank you for your attention.