Feature Friday: From Deteriorating to Digital – A Graduate Student Success Story

Posted on: January 28, 2022

Pictured: Kayla Heslin (‘20M) in the Rockingham County Circuit Courthouse, where she converted hundreds of fragile and hard-to-find records to a digital archive as part of her master’s thesis. The JMU-hosted archive, Histories Along the Blue Ridge, has made over 15,000 records available online to genealogists, researchers, and the general public. Photo used with permission by Chaz Haywood, Rockingham County Clerk of Court.

For History alumna Kayla Heslin (‘20M), working on her master’s thesis was not just an opportunity for hands-on archival work that eventually helped her to land a position as Digital Collections Coordinator at University of Pittsburgh. It was also an opportunity to learn about poverty and prejudice in the 1800s and contribute to the body of knowledge on these subjects with her own thesis.

Every year, the JMU History department selects a graduate History student to work with JMU Libraries staff on expanding the digital archive of deteriorating and hard-to-find records stored in boxes in the Rockingham County Circuit Courthouse. “The goal [in creating the archive],” Heslin says, “was to highlight untold stories in the historical records held by the Circuit Court and provide better access to the public. As they stood, many of the records at the courthouse were inaccessible, due to their arrangement, description, or physical deterioration.” 

A scanned image from the Overseers of the Poor collection that Heslin created by digitizing and organizing fragile courthouse documents as part of her master’s thesis project. Image used with permission by JMU Libraries.

Kayla’s work as a graduate student not only helps preserve the past, but also helps us to learn from it. As History professor Kevin Borg describes, “Each of the collections [in this digital archive] provides a new, close-up view of everyday life in Rockingham County that is not found in many places in America. Among other insights, Heslin points out that the ‘Overseers of the Poor’ records highlight the significant distinctions made about the type of aid offered to struggling white people (indentures to learn a skilled trade–a path to eventual independence) versus that offered to struggling Black people (assignment to the poorhouse–and little preparation for future opportunities).”

The project is part of a larger effort to make local courthouse records accessible to the public. Heslin’s work to digitize, organize, and create metadata for the Overseers of the Poor collection as part of her master’s thesis brought a whole new set of records out of storage and into a digital format, now accessible to researchers and the general public from anywhere in the world. But JMU’s digital archive that houses these records, Histories Along the Blue Ridge, was created several years earlier, in partnership with the JMU Department of History and Rockingham County’s Clerk of Court–and JMU alumnus–Chaz Haywood (‘97). His passion for public access and preserving local history motivated him to establish an ongoing partnership with JMU. Past students have worked with Libraries staff on adding records related to the Prohibition, criminal cases, and the displacement of families to make way for Shenandoah National Park, and nearby counties are now contributing their records, too.

A word cloud of family names from the Histories Along the Blue Ridge website (formerly Exploring Rockingham’s Past). Clicking on a surname in the family name word cloud allows users to search for documents that include a particular last name. Image used with permission by Chaz Haywood, Rockingham County Clerk of Court.

Kayla reflects on how this project changed her perspective on the role of libraries. “Before working in JMU Libraries, I had a very superficial understanding of what libraries do and who they employ,” she says. “I thought its sole purpose was to store and provide books to patrons. While this is certainly an important aspect of the library, I realized there is so much more going on in them and to what a library does for its community.”

A community member (left) standing with Kayla Heslin (center) and Chaz Haywood (right) after a presentation on the newly launched digital archive. Photo used with permission by Chaz Haywood, Rockingham County Clerk of Court.

Let’s meet Kayla!

What item from the archives had the greatest impact on you? 

“I was arranging birth records for Rockingham County from around 1840-1850. The birth record index during this period typically listed the name of the mother, the name of the father (when possible), the date of birth, who informed the registrar of the birth, and their relation to the mother. As I’m skimming the information, I come across one that lists the informant’s relation as “owner”. I continued to read and found that the same man was named as both the father and the informant. I’m not quite sure why this had such an impact on me, as I knew that sexual relationships (whether consensual or not) between enslaved and enslaver took place. But seeing this reality inscribed in front of me was altogether a different feeling. It’s a hard reality to reconcile with, but we must face it. And that’s what archives do, at least, I think that’s what archives are attempting to do now. They record the past and capture the messy, and often harsh reality, of our history, so that we may learn from it in the present and produce a better future.”

What was your favorite part of working on this project?

“Definitely getting to meet members of the community who were using the Histories Along the Blue Ridge (formerly Exploring Rockingham’s Past) site for their own research! The records you see on the site now were largely inaccessible prior to the start of this project. Knowing that they are now being actively used is so rewarding.”

How did working with Libraries staff help to build on skills that you learned in the History Department? 

“Working with Kevin Hegg [Director of Digital Projects in JMU Libraries], helped me to develop technical skills I would have otherwise not had the chance to learn. Before this project, I had little to no understanding of what a digital repository was or how they worked! Tiffany Cole [Special Collections Archivist] and Kate Morris [Head of Special Collections] in JMU Special Collections helped to define and clarify the archival theory and practice behind the work I was to do. The time I had with them informed so much of my work in determining the best way to arrange and describe the records.

What have you been up to since you graduated from JMU? 

“I moved to Pittsburgh with my Partner in May of 2020 and started a new position with the Archives & Special Collections Department within the University of Pittsburgh Library System. I am currently the Digital Collections Coordinator and oversee the three digital repositories we maintain. Additionally, I am pursuing an MLIS within the School of Computing and Information Science here at Pitt!”

Now that you’re in Pittsburgh, what Harrisonburg restaurant do you miss the most? 

“OOF. That’s a hard one. I think my favorite restaurant would have to be BoBoKo. I love the small town charm of Harrisonburg, and really enjoyed my time there.”

This story was covered by the Daily News Record, WHSV-TV3 and NBC29 in February 2022 and by The Harrisonburg Citizen in March 2022.

Learn more about this award-winning partnership between JMU and the Rockingham County Circuit Court by visiting the Histories Along the Blue Ridge digital archive or by reading this related Feature Friday story from JMU Libraries: Preserving the Stories of Displaced VirginiansThank you for supporting JMU Libraries!

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