Lending a Voice to History

“Digitization can save the world!”

Though typically said with a smile and soft laugh, it is impossible to speak with Gilcrease Museum Director of Digital Collections Diana Folsom and her team and not believe her favorite mantra is true. At face value, digitization saves the object, document or painting in perpetuity. However, the mission of the Gilcrease team, comprised of Folsom, Naomi Franklin, Joseph Carriger and Zachary Qualls, goes much further.

Front and center is their recent work surrounding the archive’s numerous Cherokee collections. Three significant accomplishments over the last several years include the digitization of many Cherokee manuscript collections, featuring the John Lowery Brown Journal, the John Ross Papers and the John Drew Papers, for a total of 17 manuscripts.

Everyday Voices: 17 Cherokee Manuscript Collections

After this past year of tireless work, 17 Cherokee manuscript collections are now available online. Two Cherokee citizens, who are also graduate students, were hired as interns and worked hand-in-hand with the museum team on imaging and cataloguing the hundreds of documents. While the sheer volume is impressive, it is giving a voice to the people in these documents that drives Folsom and her team.

“We are imaging and cataloguing every single document,” said Folsom. “If we strive to have every page digitized, it presents an unprecedented opportunity to learn about the past. These manuscripts contain the stories and voices of famous leaders as well as everyday people. When you read an individual’s letters you begin to really understand the perspective of the people of the time and their experiences. You can see their handwriting, understand their tone and see the well-worn paper.”

Additionally, with these manuscripts now available online for viewing, Gilcrease is better able to serve Cherokee citizens who are interested in learning if their relatives are mentioned in these papers as they can now search additional names within the online collections database. This project was made possible by the generous support of the Cherokee Nation and family of Sabre Fleming.

Humanizing Sources: John Lowery Brown Journal

The John Lowery Brown Journal, which chronicles this Cherokee citizen’s trip from Oklahoma to California during the gold rush, is now online and features a new transcription viewer that provides an annotated transcription from the Chronicles of Oklahoma* (Wright, June 1934) courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society to sit alongside images of the journal pages humanizing the material like never before. This unique new software was written to expand the online experience within our digital framework. In Folsom’s view, it is yet another tool for Gilcrease to improve access to the online collections for members and visitors from around the world.

“We look at journals and letters today from an historical perspective, but it is important to remember that writing history wasn’t usually the original intent of these personal accounts, they were often written as daily logs to keep track of expenses and activities.” she explained. “These original notes speak volumes about people’s lives.”

Uncovered History: John Drew Papers

With funding support from the Cherokee Nation, the highly requested John Drew Papers were digitized, shedding light on early- to mid-nineteenth century Cherokee leaders’ involvement with slavery. While every page digitized and put online moves the scholarly community forward, these highly requested papers by the research community will undoubtedly be a well-used resource in the database.

“We uncovered numerous receipts and financial documents that showed the purchase of people,” explained Naomi Franklin, Collections Cataloging Manager and Associate TMS Database Administrator. “In the imaging process we saw these documents for the first time and were truly able to grasp the gravity and subject matter of the papers. If it weren’t for our process and mission to digitize every single piece of paper, we would lack these insights into the fuller history that is represented in the collection.”

While the Gilcrease collection presents a never-ending supply of work for Folsom and her team, the goal of providing access to the
collections keeps them motivated.

“The more we can catalogue, the more people can learn from multiple perspectives and voices about the human experience,” explained Folsom. “The process is not magic, but rather involves a lot of hard work, organization and technology. The payoff, however, is worth it as these primary sources reveal humanity—in Thomas Gilcrease’s words ‘the good and bad, beautiful and ugly’—and allow researchers and readers to draw their own conclusions.”

And that may indeed save the world.

* Wright, Muriel H. “The Journal of John Lowery Brown, of the Cherokee Nation en Route to California in 1850.Transcribed from the Original and annotated” The Chronicles of Oklahoma XII, no. 2 (June 1934): 177-213.

« John Lowery Brown’s account of his journey from Grand Saline, Indian Territory to California goldfields, 3616.94

Learn more about our manuscripts and journals: the Archive/Library page on collections.gilcrease.org