Connie L. Lester and Finding Regional History

What is the role of regional digital humanities projects? While many people may not have heard of it, the Regional Initiative to Collect History, Experiences, and Stories (RICHES) is an impressive example of a digital humanities project focused on a specific region. With central Florida as the focal point, RICHES provides faculty and students at the University of Central Florida with a digital home for various projects. For this episode, I spoke with Dr. Connie Lester, Associate Professor of History, Editor of the Florida Historical Quarterly, and Director of RICHES. In operation since 2010, RICHES is a community-centered digital humanities project. What are the benefits of such a program? How might it evolve? While there are better known digital humanities projects, there is a vital need represented by this kind of digital practice. In our conversation, we discuss the origins of the project, its evolution, and possible pathways as it continues to evolve.


Community, Archive, Public History, Region, Culture, Platform

The Conversation

Chambliss: Connie Lester, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Can you tell people what your title is and your project?

Lester: I’m an associate professor at the University of Central Florida and my project is called RICHES, that stands for The Regional Initiative to Collect History, Experiences, and Stories.

Chambliss: I think a lot of people might have heard of RICHES, but they don’t actually know what the acronym stands for. The question I always ask everyone related to this is: how do you define Digital Humanities?

Lester: Well, digital humanities, that’s an interesting question. I think there are many definitions for it. For me, Digital Humanities means I’m taking things we associate with the humanities, art, literature, music—even the kinds of things we talk about in terms of local cultural connections—and we put them in a digital format so people can have access to it. Because, while they may have access to a very local culture or a very specific part of the humanities, putting it in digital format gives them a broader context for looking at the humanities they’re interested in.

Chambliss: For RICHES, which is coming up on its 10th anniversary, what was the origin of that project and how did you become the director?

Lester: Actually, it came [about] as the result of a project by the Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities (at the University of Central Florida) at the time, José Fernández. He was interested in creating collaborative projects within the college so that we weren’t siloed into History and English and Writing and Rhetoric and Philosophy, but instead would work together to understand the humanities. And he had offered grant money for individual projects in which professors collaborated with someone in another department. Those (projects) went very well, but as soon as a particular project was over, everybody went back to [the] silos and did their own thing. He was looking for a way to make this a sustainable project. He said to the History department, if you could come up with a way to make this sustainable, to make a project where it’s ongoing, I will fund it to get it off the ground. We (the History Department) said, we can do this.

We all met, talked about it, and we had the idea of making a digital project people would continue to interact with. And that was the start of it. The other thing I do is I’m the editor of the Florida Historical Quarterly, and I had a real interest in how this was going to work as far as Florida was concerned. As we started deciding we were going to create this database, it sort of evolved that I became the director. I don’t remember there this sudden moment [was in] which it was decided I [was] going to be director. Perhaps my colleagues realized how much work it was going to be and I was the foolish one who did not. It might have been that sort of thing. But, I’ve never been sorry I did it, even though I don’t think I imagined at first how much work it was going to be. [Still], I’m very glad I did (accept the position).

Chambliss: One of the things that intrigued me about RICHES is that it represents a kind of intersection around Digital Humanities. I’m aware of the project because of my time working in central Florida, but many people do not know it. When I think of RICHES, I recognize it is a massive repository of material. You collect material and users can search for things in the collection. Yet, RICHES also acts as a kind of digital platform. As the director of RICHES, how do you see it?

Lester: It is and it isn’t. Yes, it is a repository and it’s a repository for a lot of different kinds of projects that happen in conjunction with RICHES without being RICHES itself. For example, in other departments, as they are creating projects they are interested in, they (the project PI) oftentimes comes to me and talks about that project in terms of [if] of the work they’re doing can end up in the RICHES repository. So, right now, I’m on several different grants that other people have initiated and what they are doing with us is [putting] the materials they create inside the RICHES repository so it’s available (to a larger audience). They (the contributing project) may have their own website, and many of them do have their own website where you can go and look at that project specifically. But the digital assets that are created go into the RICHES database so people can use those assets in different ways.

That (access to the primary sources of a project) comes to another part on the research side of the project. One of our goals is to not just be a space in which, as I phrase it, someone searches and looks. That is, they are searching for a particular item, they find it in the RICHES database, they look at it, and then they go off to something else. One of the things we want people to be able to do is to see how their item is connected to other things we have in the database that they may not have thought about.

We developed a tool inside the RICHES site where people can find an item and click on this tool called “Connections.” It looks at tags and topics and dates and locations, and it will find other items in the database that fill that search criteria. When you get that first tree of information, it’s kind of a grab bag. For many of the things (returned by the search) you would say, “Well, that has nothing to do with what I’m looking for.” But you can use a drop-down menu and customize that search for what you are looking for. If you’re primarily looking for things that are the same date, you can just click on “date” and it will pull up things that have the same date or the same location or the same tag or the same topics, or any two of those. So, you can customize the search to see things that are there (and important to your research).

We think [the] tool operates well, and we would like it to be even more intuitive than it is, but we think it operates somewhat like an archivist would. He or she would say to you, you’re looking at this collection, but I know this thing is in another collection that is of interest to you. And they go and pull it for you. That’s how we see that working. In that way, the database becomes something that is more useful to you than simply the one item you looked at.

The second tool we created (is the BookBag). We want people to be able to work on the site, to work with the information that is there in the database. We created a BookBag tool that allows you to save items of interest to you. It will be there when you come back because you have to register your BookBag. You can write notes about that item and they will be saved. You can put items into folders you create and name [them]. You can see the items in a folder, on a timeline. You can see the items in a folder on a map. A description field will give you the information about each individual item. There is a storyboard where you can place the items and include text that will help you create a narrative. We want you to be thinking about it (the RICHES archive), not just as a place where you can see some cool images or see some cool documents, but a place where you can actually work like a historian and begin to make sense of it.

Right now, our BookBags are individual. In the future, we plan to allow people [to] share [them]. A family could share a BookBag and research their family. Or, a historical society could be doing particular research and share that research. Or, [a] class could (work on a class project). We not only look for the history and record and archive the history, but we want to provide space for people to work with that history themselves and make sense of it. When you go on one of our partners’ sites and they have developed this whole project in which they have an interpretation of the event or whatever it is they’re working with, you see how they have curated it, how they have put their own interpretation on it, but we (RICHES database) have the individual elements of it. Now, you can look at their interpretation on the one hand and you can go in our database, see the elements, and decide for yourself how that interpretation fits for you. Or, you may see other things in there or other questions you can ask because you’re looking at the original materials they used.

Chambliss: The way RICHES exists is almost like a digital commons at some level that’s allowing people to interact with it. That functionality is, I think, somewhat enhanced by what you’ve talked about [regarding] things like History Harvest or other things that are a constant part of the way RICHES has grown over the years. Then you also have other faculty within the department that work with RICHES with various concepts (centered) around classes or projects. RICHES is a living thing. Is there a vision for RICHES to ever stop growing or is it going to continue forever?

Lester: Oh, I think it could go on forever because one of the things that makes it living, I think, is that it’s not just my project. I happen to be the director, but it’s not just my project.

Chambliss: Let me ask you about this because the idea that it’s not your project and you are just the director, does that mean you are acting as a steward? So, the goal from your perspective is to create stability within this digital environment as opposed to there’s some research question you’re trying to answer?

Lester: Yes, and there are research questions I have but, oftentimes, research questions come from others as they begin to see what RICHES can do and [what] they want to; they want to be a part of it. One of the ways it’s living, I think, is that faculty members come to me with their own ideas of a project they want to do and ask [me] how I [can] help them with that project. How can they interact with RICHES on that project? All the ideas don’t have to come from me. All the ideas are coming from outside, but they’re not just (UCF) faculty members who are doing this. We have partnerships with other universities who talk to us about things they want to do with RICHES. We have partnerships with community organizations who want to do projects. They want to bring us in on it to help them do it. So, it’s living in the sense that there are so many people involved.

At this point, we have 75 partners and those are (UCF) academic (departments) and other universities, tech firms in the Orlando area, local museums, and historical societies. And when I say 75 partners, I always feel like I have to say this because that sounds like, “Oh, you’ve just got this list of people who’ve talked to you.” No, those are 75 partners with whom we have done projects and some of those projects (are long-term). Some of them have been completed. But 75 projects—that’s a lot of work.

Chambliss: So, as a huge digital project that is ongoing, one of the recurring themes [in] all these conversations is it costs money. It benefits from being a project of the University of Central Florida’s Department of History, but is that enough? Is RICHES a sustainable project?

Lester: We benefit enormously from the fact that the Dean’s office was interested in this first and the Dean’s office remains interested. [It’s] an enormous asset. We have some staff members, we have a (dedicated) programmer, and we have a metadata editor, who are staff paid by the university. I can’t say enough about how important [it] is [to] have that access. But it’s sustainable because many of our digital partners or our tech firm partners have, at various times, provided us with tech support in terms of actual pieces of equipment or in terms of tech support, and they use their staff and their time to help us with a project.

That’s the in-kind benefit that we have gotten and we have always been very grateful to them. In fact, when we first began to build the site, we did not have a programmer. There was a local tech firm that sat down with us and helped us work through our functionality document. We then got some grant funding for them and they built the original site. It has been rebuilt and reconfigured a number of times now. But they built the original site. We could not have done that. None of us had that kind of technical expertise to be able to do that at that point. We benefited enormously from that kind of support that we’ve had.

And we benefit from the fact that we are a university and so many of the faculty members have incorporated parts of what we do into their classrooms. So, their students are learning digital skills and they are contributing to a larger project. They can put (the work) on their resume and provide a link to show what they did when they worked with us. We have benefited a lot from other people being willing to work with us and to provide things we don’t have sitting right there in front of us. But we also do a lot of grant writing. We’ve been pretty successful in getting grants. Grant funding is hard to get for the most part, but we’ve been pretty successful.

Chambliss: It’s important to note that we’re here at the Association of African American Museums meeting, which is why there’s all this noise in the background. And you were on a panel here and I was on a panel as well. Brandon Nightingale, one of the graduates from the UCF Public History program, talked about his experience working with RICHES. He talked about his friend being in class with Dr. Scott French, Director of Public History at UCF, who does a lot of things with RICHES. In many ways, the ecosystem you were talking about is on display here because Brandon is now a professor at Bethune-Cookman University and he teaches his own class on archiving.

Lester: We have been very successful with our students. Brandon and Porsha Dossie, who was another public history student who worked with RICHES, both did internships at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History. (RICHES) has been very good for our students. Our students come out with some digital skills [and] they leverage those digital skills and interests in many ways. Some go on to PhD programs or they go on to take positions at museums or archives.

Chambliss: From your perspective, RICHES is succeeding in [the] mission you see for it. I find [it] interesting because, as you say, it could go on forever. But realistically, as a living digital project, it’s really old. I was struck by the fact that you are coming up on your 10-year anniversary. 10 years in digital years is 50 years in human years. What’s the future look like for RICHES as an ongoing project? What do you foresee as your challenges? What are the opportunities? There’s always opportunity. Are there challenges?

Lester: I think the reason RICHES has been here for 10 years is because we’re constantly innovating. We didn’t decide that a database was enough. We have been pushed sometimes by our staff. In fact, our first programmer, Connie Harper, was always pushing us to do something a little bit different, to add this or to do that, or to think about something else. We have a team that works together that is very much an interdisciplinary team that includes computer scientists (and historians). We’re constantly seeing new things and figuring out how might we use that in our project or how might we leverage that.

One of the areas of RICHES that has been getting bigger and bigger is that primary research side, not in history but in digital itself. We completed the digitization of the Sanford Herald newspaper; the original copies are owned by the Museum of Seminole County History. And, at some point in the past, it was microfilmed, and microfilm is somewhat permanent. But even microfilm has its problems, and they were beginning to be concerned about the microfilm. One of our tech partners agreed, for a very nominal sum, to digitize the microfilm. Digitizing microfilm does not always get you a very good scan. There were community members who were associated with the museum, many of them retired librarians, that went through it scan by scan to pull out the ones that were a problem and have them rescanned. That was about a two-and-a-half-year project. There were over 300 reels of microfilm. This took two and a half, maybe three years. They (the Museum of Seminole County History) gave it to (RICHES). We OCR-d (Optical Character Recognition) it. That took another a year and a half or two years. OCR is not that good, especially when it’s done from microfilm, and even when it’s done from newspapers (originals) because there are different types (fonts), (the print and paper) deteriorate over time, (producing an) OCR that is not very good.

One of the people on our (core) team is a computer scientist. He began to look at our OCR results and he [thought] other things we digitized that are historic [didn’t] OCR very well. Oftentimes, (even typed documents are) on a very thin paper. [The document may be] the fourth typed copy, etc. So, he began to investigate and talk about how we [could] improve OCR to deal with [those issues]. He thought (improved OCR) had multiple applications outside history. There are (numerous) agencies who deal with (the) problem (of legibility) too. Recently, (legibility and OCR) became a public discussion and grant money became available. We were already thinking about it before grant money became available. We were ready to jump in and put in grant applications for it. That (example is) more of a basic kind of research problem than simply understanding the images and documents we have in the database.

There is (the archival) side of what (we do) that’s a very multidisciplinary kind of thing. (But) we’re also working on a RICHES project (that is of interest to) computer scientists who (also see it) as a research project. I also think the History Harvests that we do keep the juices moving in an important way because, (in that case, RICHES is) working with a local community. They (the community) decide the direction they want to go with a History Harvest. Every History Harvest has a theme and they (the local historical organization) put it out to the community that they’re looking for specific kinds of items.

Members of the community come in [and] they bring all kinds of things (from their personal collections). There’s a dynamic to a History Harvest. It’s not just standing there waiting for your images to be scanned. People are talking about stories they’ve heard [and] they’re anxious to tell you (about the history they remember or have heard through family stories). When I go to the History Harvest, I have (someone designated to) do the scanning [and] someone else greeting people. But people tell us their stories. (The scans of personal images and documents are important, but the stories) move (the RICHES project) forward (and suggest other areas of local history) we need to look at.

We have [a History Harvest] coming up with the LGBTQ museum in Orlando. They (the LGBT museum) want to do a History Harvest with African American members of the LGBTQ community. You never know how many people are going to show up. You never know what you’re going to get out of this.

We’ve gotten some amazing things from History Harvests and these are things in people’s own collections. We’re talking about hidden history, about something that is not in a museum anywhere. It’s in somebody’s private collection and they bring it to us. We [also] get people coming to us with [personal family items] to digitize them. They want them in the RICHES database. [They want their history to be publicly available.] RICHES recently digitized a collection donated by a citrus family. It’s not in any museum. We just completed the digitization and the metadata editor is adding metadata now. It is a really complete history (of a family and the economic development of Central Florida). Finally, we have another avenue for contributing to the RICHES database…a contribute button (that enables users to submit) digitized items (for consideration for inclusion in the database).

The RICHES database includes a small collection that is my absolute favorite. It came from a family in South Florida. It consists of only six items, but it tells a real story about that family. The family’s grandfather migrated from The Bahamas. The collection includes the entry paperwork where he came into the US. He went to work for the Florida East Coast Railway. He worked in the rail yard. There’s a picture of him in his overalls standing in the rail yard. He and his wife literally built their house in Miami. And there’s a picture of them sitting on the stoop. The house is not quite finished yet, but they are building the house. There is his obituary. The obituary tells the story of his life and family. That’s a complete story that probably would never end up in [a] university or museum archive. It’s a very small collection, but it’s a complete story. (Through the RICHES connection tool,) we can link it to other immigrant stories and other stories of African Americans or Black families in South Florida or in Florida generally. You know, it’s a very complete story and it’s those kinds of things that keep the project alive, that keep us excited about the things we’re doing.

Chambliss: Well, thanks for taking the time [to] talk to me and [for] dealing with the background noise. I really appreciate it. I think we have a better understanding of RICHES. Thank you for joining me.



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