Clemson technologists create digital archive for national parks

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Rejoice, history buffs: Clemson University and the National Park Service (NPS) have created a virtual time machine – the Open Parks Network.

The website features about 200,000 downloadable images, maps, architectural designs, engineering plans and 1.5 million pages from technical reports and journals that detail events from more than 20 national parks, state parks, historic sites and battlefields throughout the country, including Greenville’s Paris Mountain State Park.

“Before the Open Parks Network, items in the park archives weren’t viewable unless you visited the park. The network puts these treasures in the hands of anyone with an internet connection,” said Brett Wright, dean of the Clemson University College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences and project sponsor.

The site will help park professionals and researchers evaluate park issues and project funding needs. Its images will help with historical interpretation, and the architectural and engineering plans will help rangers maintain current infrastructure, said Christopher Vinson, project lead and head of technology at Clemson University Libraries. Also, the maps could help in land acquisition, which helps in the establishment of new parks.

The site also provides a better communication system for park managers and rangers, allowing them to share materials with one another. Managers can network and find each other based on common interests related to parks. And the system notifies managers when information about a subject of interest appears in the database.

“Often in the parks profession, national park people aren’t talking to state parks people and state parks professionals aren’t talking to local parks people. Sometimes even within one park system, different groups of people aren’t communicating as efficiently as they could,” said Wright. “So when managers in one park find a solution to a challenge or produce a research study of significance, that knowledge frequently remains isolated because of geography or funding.”

The digital database was thought-up by the NPS in 2008. The NPS then partnered with Clemson University, Purdue University Libraries and state parks throughout Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina to produce it.

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In 2010, Clemson University Libraries received a $773,444 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to develop the database. Clemson University also contributed $799,167 to the project, creating a total of $1.57 million in funding.

To create the database, Clemson University computing and information retrieval specialists had to scan documents and objects from park archives into high-resolution images so that they could be stored online. In 2010, the team started scanning in its lab at the R.M. Cooper Library at Clemson University. The process was tedious.

Some parks couldn’t ship fragile materials to Clemson, so the team had to sometimes drive and fly up to eight hours away sometimes to pick them up. And if materials were too fragile, the team was required to transport their imaging equipment to the parks to scan items on site.

“My friend and I drove to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky to pick up nitrate negatives, which are combustible,” said Vinson. “They’re usually kept in cold storage for that reason. So we blasted the air condition on the way back home to keep them from bursting into flames. You just never really know how delicate the materials are.”

In 2013, Clemson University metadata architect Rachel Wittmann started creating metadata for each of the scanned items. Metadata is the detailed information used to describe digital materials, ranging from coordinates to image formats.

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Using geocoding, Wittmann constructed digital maps that show the coordinates of images and other scanned items that had addresses. One of the collections includes the 141,000 names and addresses of the people who donated to create the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park in 1916. Donors can be found on a digital map.

The mapping technology has also helped genealogists trace family histories, according to Wittmann. The geocodes, which show family names, are derived from a network of negative images and maps of familial land tract acquisitions used to create parks.

The team plans to add more images in the near future. In fact, Vinson and Wittmann plan on adding 40 photo albums of material from Yellowstone National Park on Thursday to celebrate the National Park Service’s 100-year anniversary.

The Clemson team also plans to add materials from Cowpens National Battlefield (Gaffney, S.C.) and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park (West Virginia) this fall. They were also recently awarded $25,000 by the NPS to scan 50,000 materials from the Everglades National Park in Florida. Also, they plan on partnering with the NPS Southeast Archeological Center to scan additional materials.

“Our ultimate goal is to scan materials from all parks,” said Vinson. “It’s a big goal, but I think we can get it done. It’ll just take time.”

For more information: openparksnetwork.org

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