The University of Alabama Libraries' Digital Services Department was awarded a grant by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to digitize the papers of Septimus D. Cabaniss, a Civil War era attorney, noteworthy for his role as executor of the estate of a wealthy plantation owner who sought to manumit and leave property to his slaves. The grant funded project lasted 14 months, beginning in January 2010 and ending in February 2011.
Project Purpose and Significance
The purposes of this project were to scan and make available online the complete Septimus D. Cabaniss papers (1815-1889, 31.8 linear feet) in an efficient and cost effective manner, demonstrating and testing a simple and straightforward model. This model will enable other institutions to digitize large quantities of materials at a minimal cost, and still provide effective search and retrieval, as well as context of content for scholars. While we present our digital collections via Acumen, we are providing open source software to enable other institutions to implement this model regardless of the delivery system used for EAD finding aids. More information can be found on our wiki page
The online finding aid serves the primary point of entry to the online material. This provides users with the same context, provenance, and order as encountered by a researcher perusing the analog materials in the reading room. Additionally, this workflow provides quick and efficient online access to content, at a remarkably low cost. Out cost of digitization throughout the project (including administration and the usability study) was less than $1.87 a page. Creation of minimal item-level metadata is automated through the software, saving time and money.
Many similar projects deliver scans by the physical folder, without delineation between items. By comparison, our model supports discreet items. This method allows item-level metadata to be enriched at a later date, prevents user confusion, and allows for faster retrieval for known items.
Products Completed During Grant Period
We now provide contextualized, freely-available online access to the complete holdings of the Septimus D. Cabaniss Papers, which consists of 14, 970 items totalling 46,663 images. Each separate document is linked out from the online searchable finding aid
We are presenting our model and resultant usability findings in at least two professional articles and conference presentations. Amanda Presnell (Project Manager) presented a poster entitled "Leading the Way Toward Low-Cost Digital Collections: The S. D. Cabaniss Digitization Project" at the annual conference of the Alabama Library Association in April 2010. Jody DeRidder (P. I.) will present at a session entitled "More Access to More Content: The EAD Finding Aid and Other Effective Tools for Large-Scale Digitization" at the Society of American Archivists' annual meeting in August of 2011. At present, articles about the grant project have been submitted to the Journal of Library Innovation
and the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries
Usage of the S. D. Cabaniss collection has greatly expanded now that is can be fully accessed online. Prior to digitization, there were only 13 requests for this collection over the previous five years. In January 2011 alone, there were 9 times as many visitors to the digital collection as individuals who accessed the physical collection in the last 6 years. The online collection currently averages 120 visitors a month. Because of this project, this collection is now available to researchers all over the world at any time of the day or night. This valuable manuscript collection would never have appeared online without this low-cost model for digitization.
Students were employed for flat-bed scanning, under the supervision of our Project Manager, Amanda Presnell, who also performed overhead scanning, material preparation, access development and usability testing. More information about our process can be found on our wiki page
Usability Study Results
A usability study was conducted in which 20 participants were asked to complete tasks locating known items within the Cabaniss finding aid. They were then asked to compare that experience to locating known items using a similar digital collection presented solely via handcrafted item-level metadata. User groups tested were drawn from predominantly undergraduates and graduates rather than experienced researchers. The results predictably indicate that such users prefer the more familiar item-level described content. However, the difference in learnability between the two interfaces was only statistically significant in this study in one of two measures. Participants for whom English is a second language evidenced particular difficulty with archival teminology, while those with a background in history found it easiest. Oddly enough, those who indicated they had no digital collection experience found the finding aid interface significantly easier than those who did. Thus indications are that the finding aid interface is indeed learnable for novice users. Modifications to archival teminology and display should be tested, as they may increase usability. Questions are raised as to whether finding aid interfaces to digitized content should be compared to search interfaces over item-level described content, as the amount of information delivered varies considerably. (This description is taken from the abstract for "Low-Cost Digitization of Manuscript Collections: Trading Usability for Access?", submitted to the Joint Conference on Digital Libraries, 2011.)
Septimus Douglass Cabaniss was a prominent Huntsville attorney who is perhaps best remembered for his role as executor for the estate of Samuel Townsend. After growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, Cabaniss attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Upon graduation from UVA in 1835, Cabaniss returned to Huntsville and was admitted to the Alabama Bar in 1838.
An examination of his legal papers shows that Cabaniss concentrated on civil matters, particularly the settlement of estates, from the inception of his legal career. After partnering with a number of prominent Huntsville attorneys, Cabaniss left his lucrative practice in 1858 to concentrate on the settlement of the Samuel Townsend estate.
In 1853, Cabaniss was employed by the wealthy, unmarried Samuel Townsend to draft a will that would allow him to manumit and leave property to a selection of his slaves, many of who were his children. Townsend was concerned because his brother Edmund Townsend's will had been held void by the courts at the time of his death in 1853. Edmund had left the bulk of his estate to two of his slaves, whom he acknowledged as his children. However, the extended family of Edmund protested and succeeded in nullifying his will for their benefit. Samuel Townsend was concerned that his own will could be held void and hired Cabaniss to draft a will which would protect the interest of his chosen heirs. At his death in 1856, the Samuel Townsend estate was valued at approximately $200,000, including eight plantations totaling 7,560 acres and 190 slaves.
In 1856, Cabaniss re-drafted the will of Samuel Townsend to provide for the emancipation and removal of forty of his slaves to a free territory. Most of his property was to be auctioned, and the profits were to be placed into a trust which would be drawn upon for settling debts and for the expenses of removing slaves to northern territories. The will was unsuccessfully contested for nearly two years by the natural heirs of Samuel Townsend, but in 1858 it was finally probated, though more legal battles and the Civil War would soon interrupt its disbursements.
Townsend's former slaves were relocated to Ohio and Kansas, and after the Civil War, Cabaniss continued trying to liquidate and settle the remainder of the estate. Major disbursements were not made to Townsend's heirs until 1871, a delay which was due to several factors, including an attempt to collect the massive sum of debts owed to the estate and the Civil War. The heirs received various payments throughout the 1870s, the last of which was paid in 1879. The estate was finally settled in 1890, when the remaining property was turned over to the estate of Cabaniss as partial payment owed him. In the final analyisis, the Townsend heirs received less than one-fourth of the original value of the estate, the rest having been used to pay for the administration, which had been complicated by the Civil War and the many lawsuits which were required to bring about a final settlement.
Cabaniss served as a member of the Alabama state legislature from 1861-1863. There is some speculation that he served as a colonel in Confederate Army Intelligence during the Civil War, but his name is not listed on any regiment rosters for the state of Alabama. After in the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, Cabaniss continued to serve as executor of the Samuel Townsend estate while handling other fiduciary relationships and legal matters. He maintained a legal practice in Huntsville until his death in 1889.
Scope and Contents Information
The S. D. Cabaniss papers were a gift of his great-granddaughter, University of Alabama in Huntsville history professor Frances Roberts, who used the papers to write her master's thesis, "An Experiment in Emancipation of Slaves by an Alabama Planter," for her history degree at the University of Alabama in 1940.
The Cabaniss papers consist of a mixture of business and personal materials. The papers are organized into seven main series: Correspondence, Estate Files, Legal Files, Kansas Lands, Financial Materials, Personal Materials, Cabaniss Family Materials, and Miscellaneous.
The collection is particularly notable for the materials concerning the estate of Samuel Townsend, a heavily litigated estate where practically all associated materials were used as evidence in the courts.