Since the settlement at Jamestown, Virginia has played an important role in American history and it has an especially important part to play in African-American studies. Until the mid-nineteenth century, Virginia had a larger African-American population than any other state, and its economy and culture differed from the large cotton plantations of the Deep South. What African-Americans attempted and achieved after Emancipation revealed, among other things, the nature of the slave and free black communities before 1865, showing both what was present to enable a people to act quickly on their freedom and what was withheld under the slave regime. Many of the priceless documents that provide evidence of that history, literature, and political thought reside in the special collections of Virginia's college, university, and other research libraries.

The VIVA Special Collections Committee (SCC) has worked since 1994 to support and enhance the efforts of the state library and each public academic library in the Commonwealth, and to make their unique resources available online. The Special Collections Committee, now called the Virginia Heritage Project Task Force (VHPTF), received a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which will enable them to update, extend, and enhance access to unique resources documenting SAfrican-American history and culture in Virginia's research libraries. Called the Virginia Heritage Project, it is a collaboration among eleven VIVA institutions' Special Collections departments to create a web-accessible union database of finding aids marked-up according to the nationally recognized Encoded Archival Description (EAD) standards.


The VIVA Special Collections Committee (SCC) began to work towards the Virginia Heritage Project (VHP) in the summer of 1998 by gathering information on subject areas, finding aids, time periods, equipment, and institutional progress on digitization. After extending the survey to include the independent institutions, it became clear that within VIVA there were more than one hundred million manuscripts and archival records documenting Virginia's history, and, therefore, the history of the United States. Given this nearly overwhelming amount of material, it was important to find a unifying focus for the development of a fundable project. The SCC decided to pursue the theme of African-American history and culture because of the extent of material available in VIVA libraries, the theme's potential national impact, and the fact that this theme could include appropriate material from several other major categories such as the arts, literature, and the Civil War.

The Virginia Heritage Project focuses on more than one thousand collections and fifteen thousand pages of finding aids. Five institutions committed significant time and resources prior to receiving the grant to assure the success of this ambitious undertaking: the College of William and Mary, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Virginia State University. Since the funding began in July 2000, staff at participating institutions have coded over 170 finding aids. The second year of the project will bring in additional VIVA Special Collections departments, and the eleven NEH-funded institutions will in turn provide their VIVA neighbors with training and support in EAD processing and conversion. One of the goals of the grant is to have at least twenty-two archivists, librarians, and staff across Virginia proficient in the use and application of EAD.

The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Traditionally, the principal means of determining what was in these collections was to travel to each institution and page through a variety of often highly specific and idiosyncratic finding aids. The VHP union database will enable researchers worldwide to search online, in a seamless, integrated fashion, standardized finding aids from all participating institutions. A researcher interested in the history of education, for example, will discover that documents about the Christiansburg Industrial Institute are housed both at Virginia State University and at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Those doing research on Virginia's policy of "massive resistance" to school integration will find resources on the Prince Edward County school closings at Virginia State University, the University of Virginia, and the Library of Virginia. Together, the collections held by the VIVA institutions document the full span of Virginia's history, and are a treasure trove for historical research on many aspects of African-American history and culture.

For the grant the SCC decided that highest priority should be given to converting to EAD the great number of existing finding aids (many only available as typed documents), and to providing worldwide access to them over the Internet via a union database. The release of version 1.0 of the EAD Document Type Definition (DTD), the lack of experience in using EAD at the academic institutions other than the University of Virginia, and the need for a standard for the preparation of digital surrogates influenced the SCC's priorities. By upgrading finding aids in need of clarification or refined formatting, and by providing uniform EAD markup and application of standards, the SCC planned to create clear and consistent presentations of content, and integrated, consistent, and expanded online access to information about the collections held within VIVA.

Goals of the Virginia Heritage Project

  1. Create a union database to improve the discovery of and access to primary source materials.
    • From their desktops researchers will discover new links among dispersed collections.
    • The database will be a resource for teachers and students.
    • High school students will develop historical analysis skills for Virginia's Standards of Learning.
  2. Develop and implement a model for statewide dissemination of and training in newly emerging library standards and technologies which will result in
    • a new level of comprehensive, standards-based intellectual access to a significant body of research materials
    • a database of finding aids for archival collections of African-American history and culture in Virginia
    • an infrastructure of expertise, hardware, and software to continually add new standardized finding aids to the union database.

The ultimate goal of the Virginia Heritage Project is to incorporate this state-of-the-art approach as an essential operational activity at the eleven participating institutions.

VHP Management

Edward Gaynor from the University of Virginia serves as the project director and works with project coordinators (and year-one funded participants) from the College of William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Virginia State University to form the VHP Executive Committee. Together with Bradley Daigle, the grant-support project supervisor, they manage the basic operations of the project. VHP also has a steering committee composed of project coordinators from each of the eleven participating institutions. Because the NEH award was less than the amount requested, VIVA provides financial support for travel and for a consultant, Daniel Pitti (previously the leader of the Berkeley Finding Aids team which pioneered the development of EAD and who is now at UVa's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities).

The focal point for training and disseminating expertise to the other institutions, the University of Virginia serves as the EAD Finding Aid Processing Center for VHP. The primary function of this center is to receive and process the finding aids for VIVA. All of the institutions participating in the first phase of the project will also establish individual processing centers once they have appropriate local expertise. The Virginia Heritage Project will be evaluated as a separate project and as a component of emerging digital libraries at each of the participating VIVA institutions.

The results of the Virginia Heritage Project will be available on the Web at
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More detailed information from the NEH grant application is available at
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