About the Project

Williamsburg's restoration to its eighteenth-century appearance is based on exhaustive documentary and field work by several generations of scholars. Over the years, the Foundation's architectural specialists, archaeologists, and historians have examined the town lot by lot and have produced volumes of reports to document their work. Today, as ongoing research work on the buildings and their surroundings continues, the archive of documentary reports grows larger. The problem we face is how best to manage this archive so that it can be preserved and accessed by researchers today and in the future.

Colonial Williamsburg already has excellent systems for creating and maintaining the formal catalog descriptions for our many physical collections. But like many large organizations, we face challenges in managing the body of associated materials related to our buildings and artifacts. Over the years, the Foundation's library has collected and bound some of the reports produced by the research departments. However, much information we knew remained out of view, stored in file boxes or file cabinets, not cataloged, and sometimes forgotten. To add to the problem we had to deal with the body of electronic material created over the past two decades created in myriad formats and stored on various hard drives and floppy disks. Our files were in every format from early versions of WordPerfect to recently created Adobe PDF. In 1998 we began converting some text files to XML for the purpose of delivering them through our digital library and maintaining them long-term in a format best suited to preservation of digital texts.

In 2003 we began a three-year project to improve our management of these materials and create a better means of accessing them. We had several goals in mind. First, we wanted to formalize our processes for handling the kinds of materials that researchers create, particularly documentary field reports. Because so much material remained dispersed in the offices and the hard drives of researchers throughout the Foundation, it was important for us to develop procedures for moving material into the library. Second, we wanted to convert this material--as well as a large body of older documents--to XML using a standard document type definition created by the Text Encoding Initiative, a set of tagging protocols produced and maintained by a consortium of leading universities. Tagging the files in XML allowed us to create structured documents that were independent of proprietary software used to create them initially and offered us flexibility in delivering the material to the web. Finally, we wanted to create a browser-based map tool to offer access to this digital library material.

Ultimately, we produced two tools. The first is a specialized program for Colonial Williamsburg's research departments built using geographic information systems (GIS) technology. GIS provides a way to link information to spaces on maps. We created a system that identified the specific area that a researcher was interested in, whether it was a lot, house, or a neighborhood. We then linked the project report to that location on a digital map of the town. A researcher can click on any location on this map and retrieve all reports written about that area. The reports, stored on the server as XML files, are transformed through a stylesheet and delivered to the screen. Researchers can also perform geographic queries, selecting specific buildings or lots and browsing through material related to those spaces in the database. This program has been developed using ESRI Inc.'s suite of GIS software, specifically ArcInfo, ArcSDE, and ArcIMS.

The version of eWilliamsburg presented here is a lighter version of the more specialized tool used at Colonial Williamsburg. The same maps and library of information are accessible, but the web version presents a more streamlined user interface built using Adobe Flash® technology and lacking the full search capability of the original program. Nevertheless, this web-based version of eWilliamsburg allows researchers to access the much of the same information available to our staff by clicking on site markers on a map of the town.

The creation of eWilliamsburg was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Previous work was funded by the the L. J. and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation.