Arts & Culture/ Digitizing Darlington

Issue Date: 
January 8, 2007

Pitt’s Darlington Memorial Library—a treasure trove of historically important books, photos, maps, letters, pamphlets, and other materials—soon will be accessible online

From a ledger of Fort Pitt business transactions during the 1750s to early published accounts of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the treasures that make up Pitt’s Darlington Memorial Library soon will be accessible far beyond the library’s physical location on the Cathedral of Learning’s sixth floor.

Digitizing the Darlington library’s massive collection—comprising some 11,000 books, 3,000 photographs, hundreds of maps, letters, rare pamphlets, and other materials pertaining to the history of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Colonial America, and more—is the latest undertaking of Pitt’s Digital Research Library (DRL), part of the University Library System.

DRL’s goal is to make the Darlington material accessible and searchable online to scholars, researchers, and history buffs worldwide. The collection, representing the first major library gift to Pitt, was donated in 1918 and 1925 by the daughters of Pittsburgh attorney William McCullough Darlington and his wife, Mary O’Hara Darlington.

Boxes of rare books, many pertaining to the French and Indian War, are being trucked intermittently to the DRL site in Point Breeze, where DRL staff check them in and carefully place each volume on one of two large scanners. The machines are equipped with cradles to accommodate the spines of books, so they won’t be damaged during the digitization process.

The scanning project began with books because “it’s what we know best,” explains DRL director Ed Galloway, who supervises a staff of six. Books are also easiest to handle and move around, Galloway adds, although many are fragile, with brittle pages.

After books are scanned, usually two pages at a time (approximately 200 pages an hour), DRL staff members correct and enhance images on some pages to make sure that text is readable. Next, Pitt graduate students collect and insert descriptive metadata—chapters, tables of contents, and the like. They use optical character recognition, computer software designed to translate images of scanned text into machine-searchable text. Then the books are indexed and, finally, mounted.

“It takes more than 50 steps from the time a book comes in the door until it’s actually online, ready for you to use,” Galloway points out. “It’s not just that you scan a book and it becomes available.”

The Darlington collection is full of rare and remarkable items. For example, one day last month Michael Dabrishus, assistant University librarian for archives and special collections, was examining a broadside—a large document printed only on one side, typically with a limited distribution. It was a proclamation, dated 1774, by John Penn, (grandson of William Penn), who was governor and commander-in-chief of the Province of Pennsylvania.

“We have a significant series of these various proclamations. They were printed and distributed throughout the city of Philadelphia and the region,” explains Dabrishus.
Another broadside in the Darlington collection is the text of the farewell address that President-elect Abraham Lincoln delivered to the people of Springfield, Ill., as he was departing for his inauguration in Washington, D.C. It reads, in part, “…I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain. Again, I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

Yet another broadside in the Darlington collection is an announcement of a celebration, held in Pittsburgh on Feb. 22, 1832, marking the centennial of George Washington’s birth. Dabrishus points out

William Darlington’s signature on the bottom of the document and the date Darlington acquired it—1870. Darlington’s signature or personal bookplate on most of the books and broadsides is helpful in identifying the core Darlington materials.

The Darlington Memorial Library includes a number of books from Benjamin Franklin’s print shop and many on travel and expeditions throughout North America and other parts of the world. The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) is well-represented by the first-ever government publication about it, written at the request of President Thomas Jefferson, and the first published account of the expedition, published in Pittsburgh in 1807 and written by expedition member Patrick Gass, a Western Pennsylvania resident.

Some Darlington library items already are online as the result of earlier DRL projects. For example, scanned Darlington family photos and books about the history of Pittsburgh have been added to the Historic Pittsburgh Collection (, as have letters written by George Washington during the French and Indian War and the Whiskey Rebellion (

ULS is contributing digitized Darlington books to the Open Content Alliance, a collaborative effort by cultural, technology, nonprofit, and governmental organizations to build a permanent archive of multilingual digitized text and multimedia content.

The idea of making the entire Darlington Library available to people worldwide is exciting to Galloway.

“Once you digitize books and other materials and put them online, their usage increases tenfold, maybe even higher,” he says.

The Web site for the Darlington library is expected to be launched this spring. By then, the site should hold several hundred books and some maps, images, and manuscripts. The broadsides won’t be digitized until next year.

In the meantime, Dabrishus will continue to pore through items and oversee their transfer to the DRL site, never losing sight of the significance of these documents and artifacts.

“I think the Darlingtons had an altruistic interest in making all of this more widely available beyond themselves,” he says. “It was very thoughtful and considerate, when you think about it.”