Researchers, reporters and railroad fanatics are among those who may be interested in the University of Kentucky’s new digital collection, the Coal, Camps and Railroads project.  

The archive chronicles economic development of Kentucky’s Appalachian region from 1788 to 1976. Digitizing the archive resulted in about 233,000 scans and takes up around 5.5 terabytes of space. The project took three years to complete.

The project, which was granted just over $278,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, includes photographs, maps, evidence of land disputes, and company records on accidents. The collection is free on the ExploreUK digital library.

Ashland ad for Ashland Improvement company from the Louisville Courier-JournalUniversity of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center

Ashland ad for Ashland Improvement company from the Louisville Courier-Journal.

“Most of these collections are documenting the perspective of the companies, the different organizations who developed efforts to extract natural resources like coal and gas and oil,” says Sarah Dorpinghaus, director of Digital Services at UK’s Special Collections Research Center. “And also companies who came in and built railroads and established towns in order to support this extraction work and get these materials shipped out across the country.”

Records from companies such as the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company and Benham Coal Company are in the collection. Dorpinghaus says she was amazed by the record-keeping over the years. Examples include compensation claims. At times, a person’s livelihood was harmed by the company’s equipment.

“You have people out there who have cattle, who have animals that are free ranging, and sometimes they get hit by trains,” says Dorpinghaus. People would write to the company to request remuneration.

Compensation Does Not Pay! illustration.University of Kentucky Special Collections Research Center

Compensation Does Not Pay! illustration.

If put in a line of boxes, the original collection measured 140 cubic feet long. Dorpinghaus says the goal of digitizing the collection was to give the public a glimpse into the unique history of the region.

“And digitizing them and putting them online also allows them to be more searchable and more discoverable,” she says.

The archival industry in general, she says, has a good handle on preservation. But it still struggles with mass digitization. Dorpinghaus says she’s seen more interest in archival materials from the public. Digital archives expands reach beyond local communities particularly collections of national value, she says.