GSLIS student and alumna collaborate on WWII digitization project

GSLIS student and alumna collaborate on WWII digitization project

Current Students / Graduate / Harrington School-Wide / Internships / Library & Information Studies

A Harrington School graduate student and an alumna have helped to preserve one of the most important naval historical resources of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.

On February 24, 2014, the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI, celebrated the unveiling of the digitized World War II Command Summary of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, also known as the “Nimitz Graybook.” Leslie Varrecchia, a student of the Graduate School of Library Sciences, and Graybook Project Team Leader Sue Cornacchia, an alumna of the GSLIS program at URI, collaborated on the effort between the Naval War College and the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC, to oversee digitization of the 4,000 page document of international  historical importance.

According to Cornacchia, in order to digitize Nimitz Graybook, a vendor used an overhead digital camera setup to produce high-quality archival images for digital preservation without damaging the fragile pages. The digitization process also included Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which provides capabilities not available with the paper document, such as full-text search, development of electronic indexes, and support for future encoding and analysis projects. Varrecchia’s role in the project included tasks such as writing literature reviews on topics related to the digitization process, and helping build an electronic index.

“I verified the index of date references and created a ‘sense-making’ file, an outline of information a researcher accessing the document might need or want in order to use it well,” said Varrecchia. “To make the file, I had to approach the Graybook like a student or faculty member would, and I think that’s a very instructive experience for a librarian to go through. It was a great learning experience.”

According to Cornacchia, naval historians consider the Graybook to be one of the most important U.S. primary sources for the study of World War II in the Pacific. A major figure in modern military history, Nimitz commanded the Pacific Fleet during WWII. The Graybook captures strategy and communication about battles in the Pacific, beginning with the Pearl Harbor attack. The war diary gives insight into logistical planning during the war, as well as broader naval strategy.

“I see the Nimitz Graybook as a core digital source that can be analyzed alongside a growing body of digitized sources from the same era, such as ship logs, battle analyses, personal diaries and letters, message files, and WWII archives from other countries,” Cornacchia said. “The Graybook is an enormous compilation that can be examined from so many different research perspectives. I’m most excited about the potential uses in digital history and humanities research.”

Working on a project of this caliber has its challenges. Both Cornacchia and Varrecchia agreed that a major challenge was obtaining reasonably accurate OCR, a process which converts the images of text on the page into machine readable and searchable text. Cornacchia said that challenges to accuracy included the variable quality of the 1940s typescript on onion skin, some complex tabular formatting, strikethroughs, and handwritten notations on the pages. Significant manual corrections or transcribing would be required to obtain a fully accurate transcription, possibly a future project.

“Every field has its technical jargon and getting up to speed with that took a bit of time,” Varrecchia said. “Sue was very helpful in guiding me to specific resources and explaining how OCR technology, preservation metadata, and content management systems work.”

Despite the challenges presented by the Graybook, seeing the manuscript published was a moment of personal and professional satisfaction to all involved, including Cornacchia and Varrecchia. The digitized Graybook received more than 50,000 hits shortly after its release. According to Cornacchia, having the GSLIS program nearby and as a source of student and faculty collaborators is a resource she was fortunate to have for the project.

“Leslie and I were learning and brainstorming together, which is the nature of most projects now,” Cornacchia said. “Standards and practices evolve quickly, so you don’t rely on what you learned five years ago. But we have core professional knowledge and values that are more timeless.”

Varrecchia, who joined the project at an early stage, was able to spend time assessing the complex arrangement of the Graybook and the potential for enhancing access with OCR and indexing. She  also participated in the development of a digital humanities initiative around the Graybook project, as the project was being incorporated into a graduate student elective at the Naval War College.

“Working on this project made me glad to have pursued the MLIS,” Varrecchia said. “My supervisor, Sue, and Evelyn Cherpak, the archivist, along with the other librarians at the War College and the staff at RIAMCO and Brown, were so quick to respond to any questions I had. I left the PFE with the sense that librarianship is a very rewarding profession.”

By: Kimberly DeLande