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Professors receive funding to digitize historical records on asylum


Three faculty members at The University of Texas at Austin's School of Information have received a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to develop and field test a digital infrastructure for preserving and managing the historical public records from the Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane in Petersburg, Virginia.

King Davis, Patricia Galloway and Unmil Karadkar will use the $763,000 to develop methods and tools for critical policy analysis, digital technology and archival preservation methods to increase access to historical mental health records and documents while still protecting privacy.

The project is expected to begin this month and end in 2018.

"Families and scholars have requested access to these records for many years to enable them to conduct genealogical and academic research. However, most states limit access to such records based in part on historical precedents and concerns about stigma and privacy," said Davis, a former commissioner of mental health for the Commonwealth of Virginia and current professor of research in the School of Information and professor emeritus in African and African Diaspora Studies.

The asylum was established in 1868 and was the first of its kind in the United States. It has maintained over 800,000 public records that detail the origins of the hospital and the racially segregated services provided for almost 100 years.

From 2008 to 2012, the UT Austin research project received planning support from the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors to digitize and stabilize the majority of the asylum's public records, which are the most complete set of archival-quality records in the United States, according to Davis.

"I'm proud of professors Davis, Galloway, and Karadkar for attracting this important grant," said Bill Powers, the university's president. "To better preserve and manage records like these is to open a door to a better understanding of how issues of race and mental health were dealt with in the past. And understanding the past is a critical step to improving the future."

The Mellon Foundation grant will enable the researchers to create a protected digital preservation archive of the asylum records and a mechanism for releasing records that have been made anonymous as well as patterns for supporting research in areas such as history, mental health and health policy.

Karadkar and students in the School of Information are developing methods to extract computable data and patterns from hand-written documents, which will be scaled to accommodate the large volume of records from the asylum.

"The software we develop will be broadly applicable to digital collections with similar characteristics, especially for records of mental health institutions in other southern states that were once segregated by race," said Karadkar.

Galloway will work with postdoctoral students and families of the institution's patients to ensure that the new digital library is easy to access.

"Providing possible solutions to both mental health providers and archival custodians of these records can both help guarantee their preservation and enable their lawful release for research by scholars and families," Galloway said. "However, opening access to families and scholars must still abide by the prevailing state and federal laws on privacy."

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