Southern Utah University, Gerald R. Sherratt Library: One Librarian Introduces EAD Finding Aids

Southern Utah University, Gerald R. Sherratt Library One Librarian Introduces EAD Finding Aids


Southern Utah University (SUU), although founded 102 years ago, has been a comprehensive university for just five years. This publicly funded university enrolls nearly 6,000 students and has a full-time faculty of 200 and another 77 faculty members with adjunct appointments. The total budget for 1998-99 is projected to be $64.3 million. The university prides itself on offering a personalized approach to higher education. Students are promised small classes with individual attention from the faculty and a rural, contemplative environment-a place to think and learn away from the rat race of modern, urban society.

The new Gerald R. Sherratt Library, not yet three years old, is an inviting, pleasant building that has been designed with the needs of students firmly in mind. The library’s annual budget in 1997 was $1,238,769. The collection contains approximately 209,000 book titles, 2,333 serial titles, and 615,223 microforms. The library staff is made up of 7.37 full-time equivalent (FTE) faculty, 7.83 professional staff, 4.87 classified staff, and 7.51 students. The faculty members have both library and teaching responsibilities and are subject to the same terms and conditions as other faculty on campus. They have nine-month appointments and most hold either a Ph.D. or double master’s degrees.

The state of Utah is convinced that technology is an equalizing force in higher education, and has invested significant resources in the publicly funded libraries, both to enhance access to electronic resources and to provide grants for pilot projects in which librarians can learn more about the applications of technology.


While many of the innovations described in other case studies involve campus-wide or library-wide initiatives, this case study focuses on a project that was conceived and undertaken by a single librarian who saw an opportunity to make a difference. Special Collections Librarian Matthew Nickerson was faced with a daunting task when he assumed responsibility for the division in 1997. Although more than 200 collection-some very large, some quite small-had been acquired by or donated to the library over its 100-year history, only one collection had been processed and had a printed finding aid. The manuscript materials had been moved from the old library building, but remained in boxes. After the long-time head of Special Collections retired, no one was certain of the contents or whereabouts of many of the individual collections.

The Search for a Solution

Nickerson, whose previous experience had been in collection development, turned first to his special collections colleagues at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University to learn more about how they described and organized similar materials. He visited the two campuses to observe operations and seek advice. Both these institutions were creating printed registers for their collections and both were experimenting with digital access. Both universities were also creating online registers, independent from their printed registers, which involved a lot of duplicated effort.

Nickerson recognized that SUU wanted a process that could use one data entry for creating both printed and online versions. In a sense, he was inspired by what the other two schools were not doing. A colleague at the University of Utah mentioned SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) in passing, and through his subsequent research Nickerson discovered EAD (Encoded Archival Description). With this discovery, he realized he could leapfrog into a good position by employing EAD from the beginning.

But realizing that the solution to his organizational dilemma lay in EAD, and employing it, were two different things. He had not worked in special collections before, and he knew very little about recent trends and developments in that area. He turned to the World Wide Web and listserv discussion groups to educate himself. He studied the work on EAD at the University of California at Berkeley, and then had discussions with librarians at Duke University and the University of Texas at Austin. He downloaded the Library of Congress’s EAD DTD (document type definition) information and taught himself to apply it to manuscript materials.

Still, he realized that the work going on in these large research institutions did not provide an entirely usable model for Southern Utah University. Nickerson identified four requirements for any system for organizing special collections materials:

  • It can generate both print and electronic finding aids.
  • It can produce HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) “on the fly.”
  • It does not require a browser plug-in.
  • It is inexpensive to implement.

Designing and Refining the System

Understanding the essential requirements was a vital first step. The second was equally important: the library’s network specialist, LaMonte Charlton, was asked to help find off-the-shelf, easy-to-use, and inexpensive methods of meeting the requirements. Charlton and Nickerson combed through Web resources and talked to colleagues in other libraries about their experiences with EAD. They concluded that an old ‘486 computer could be made into a server. Linux was installed on the server. The technical team decided Word Perfect’s SGML editor was adequate to handle the project.

The first system served as proof of concept, but Nickerson recognized that the system was too slow to be made available to staff and users on the Web. He discovered a state LSTA mini-grant that did not require matching funds. In collaboration with the faculty development grant specialist, Nickerson developed a proposal for $7,500, the maximum allowed in the mini-grant category. He was awarded the grant, and $5,000 of the funds was used to purchase a new server and a CD-based copy of Linux. The remainder was used to pay Charlton to modify I-Search software by writing C++ code and perl scripts.

To learn more about the national standard, Nickerson attended an EAD training session sponsored by the Society of American Archivists at New York University. There he met Daniel Pitti and Kris Kreisling, developers of the EAD standards, and he was later able to send questions to them via e-mail that arose during the SUU project.

Using the SGML editor that is standard in WordPerfect 8.0 software, Nickerson created templates that simplified data entry for the students hired for the project. With the templates, the first half of every finding aid was automatically generated. For the second half, requiring individualized data, WordPerfect macros were created for all the principal EAD tags.

Three students have been employed to enter data for special collections materials, and thus far, 30 collections have been processed using the beta version of EAD. Now that the 1.0 version is available, the current focus is on converting the beta test data into the 1.0 version and then continuing with the 1.0 version for the 200 remaining collections. Links were created between the existing OPAC and the EAD by creating a MARC record for each collection and using the 856 field to link it to a Web page that searches the EAD finding aid. This added level of access is a significant and unique part of the system.

Traditionally, the library has provided access to collections beyond SUU’s holdings through Interlibrary Loan. More recently, the library has begun to offer its users access to a wide range of electronic databases. Nickerson’s EAD project is in keeping with these efforts to provide better information access to students and faculty. But there is another benefit attached to his project: access to SUU’s unique collections is being offered to users outside the campus.

Management Support

The Sherratt Library faculty had not identified the EAD project as a priority, but there has been support for Nickerson’s initiative. Dean of Libraries Diana Graff also serves as associate provost, and her primary focus the last few years has been planning and overseeing the move into the new library building. In addition, a new provost, Ray Reutzel, took office in September 1998. He described campus management of information as the institution’s most pressing need. He also emphasized the need to provide better access to technology and said that the library has been very effective in providing assistance to faculty in the effective use of technology. He believes, however, that there must be a greater campus-wide effort to incorporate technology into teaching. He is encouraging all members of the campus community to move toward Internet-based models that are inexpensive to maintain.

Dean Graff acknowledged that the EAD project could not have been accomplished if the library had relied on the computing center for help. The computing center provides service to the entire campus, and the library has no priority. She participated in the development of the university’s five-year technology plan, written in 1995, but even in that university-wide document, the library is assigned responsibility for its own technology needs. The library decided a few years ago that it must chart its own technological future.

The library faculty chose to use the library’s furnishings budget to install fiber-optic cable to every desktop in the library, rather than purchase new furniture. They saw the new library building as an extraordinary opportunity to make an investment in technology that the university as a whole was not yet prepared to make. The university is not well-funded for networking, and thus far, the fiber-optic system has been connected to buildings on campus but it has not been extended to faculty workstations. Departments must find the resources to make these final connections.

In addition to installing fiber-optic cable in the new library, the university participated in a collective arrangement, the Utah Academic Library Consortium, to provide access to a variety of electronic databases for all of the campuses. The library has found that participation in such cooperative initiatives yields more services for its users than if they were purchased individually.


Matthew Nickerson’s interest in linking special collections to the library’s online catalog led to the identification of a new electronic means for indexing and organizing such materials for a broader community. The librarians hope that this project, which resulted in a special method of providing subject metadata at the front of the digital collection, will allow these terms to be picked up by the many browsers who mine the contents of the Web.

Library and university administrators admire how much was accomplished at so low a cost, and the librarians are proud of the significant new service they have been able to offer. Although only 3 of the 30 collections processed thus far contain images, the library is confident that all 200 collections, including many visual images, will soon be available to users.

The faculty and an independent researcher who were interviewed praised the simplicity of the project and its ability to make SUU’s resources better known. Those interviewed were surprised to learn that the holdings are more extensive than they had realized. They share an interest in local history and are quite familiar with the actual manuscript collections. All are enthusiastic about the EAD project, for they believe the collections will be of great value to researchers elsewhere who are interested in the history of southern Utah. They foresee opportunities to work more closely with federal land management and archeology projects under way in southern Utah because of the library’s ability to make historical images of the region available. They are also hoping that the SUU digital collections will be joined by other institutions’ digital collections relating to southern Utah, resulting in an extensive virtual local history collection.

Both the librarians and the researchers believe that the EAD project will stimulate more donations to SUU’s special collections. Janet Seegmiller, special collections coordinator, has already noted that potential donors are beginning to see SUU as an attractive repository for their personal collections.