A Partnership with the National Archives of Black Women’s History at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site

A statue of Mary McLeod Bethune at the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol, unveiled on July 13, 2022.

In this project we partnered with the U.S. National Parks Service (NPS) to create a cutting-edge prototype for a Digital Asset Management System to better preserve and manage the current and future digital assets of the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site. The archival holdings of the site represent the institutional holdings of the National Council for Negro Women (NCNW) and their National Archive for Black Women’s History (NABWH). The organization was fundamental to the civil rights efforts of the twentieth century and the holdings are an invaluable resource documenting the accomplishments of black women throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century.
This project allowed the NPS to better understand their digital assets related to this site and how to best manage those and other digital assets into the future. The prototype system we built, based on the Linked Data Platform and a mix of modern software components, enables increased access to these assets and the stories that they can tell to the public. It will allow the NPS to interpret these resources in new and dynamic ways and digitally preserve them for generations to come. We hope that it will also allow the NPS to better serve the African American community through improved access and increased dialogue. The Advanced Information Collaboratory project team, consisting of Mark Conrad, Lyneise Williams, Richard Marciano, and Greg Jansen, are leaders in this area, with international projects and expertise which they have applied to improving the management of these irreplaceable cultural and historic resources.

Mary McLeod Bethune and the NABWH

The deep and enduring impact of Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), African American educator, civil rights and women’s activist, and power broker in the federal government continues to inform us today, more than half a century from her death. The Mary McLeod Bethune foundation’s archives, designated in 1975 by the National Park Service as a National Historic Landmark, peer into Mary McLeod Bethune’s personality, achievements, and world. The archives collect materials about and illustrating Mary McLeod Bethune, the National Archives for Black Women’s History (NABWH), the National Council of Negro Women, other African American women’s organizations, and individuals associated with those organizations.

No other collection tells the story of Bethune’s rise to power and her role as the most powerful Black woman of the first half of the 20th c. Bethune was founder and president of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida (one of the few women in the world to serve in this role). She figured prominently in politically active African American women’s and civic clubs. President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt appointed Bethune a presidential advisor of African American affairs in 1934. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in particular, enjoyed a close political and personal relationship with Bethune and supported her multiple agendas. Bethune’s position within the Roosevelt administration would leverage her with the power to form the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which would become known as The Black Cabinet. She was its sole women on the council. The Black Cabinet was instrumental in creating jobs for African Americans in federal executive departments and New Deal agencies. Bethune’s influence within the Roosevelt administration would also allow her to direct funds created by the New Deal program to Black people. Programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and National Youth Administration (NYA) were successful in employing over 300,000 African Americans during the Great Depression. When Bethune became Director of Negro Affairs with the National Youth Administration, she advocated for fair salary and job opportunities for Blacks in the agency. Bethune served as the only African American woman who was officially a part of the United State’s delegation that created the United Nations charter. She was the only African American woman to hold a leadership position in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Bethune achieved hearings for black concerns at the highest governmental levels, nurturing the principle that blacks were integral to the American body politic. In the short term, her activities helped to win for African Americans specific exceptions to unfavorable governmental practices; in the long term, they helped to place civil rights on the national agenda.

The files contained documents extending to Bethune’s days as principal of the Daytona girls’ school up to the present. They covered almost every aspect of her life. While other Bethune papers existed, such as in the national headquarters of two women’s organizations and in the National Archives, the foundation collection was the mother lode. Even beyond diaries and personal correspondence, some documents were virtually one of a kind. These included articles from defunct black newspapers and National Youth Administration (NYA) records for the 1940s. In fact, the foundation archive had more of the latter documents than the NYA Division of Negro Affairs at the National Archives. The NABWH collection offers an unparalleled trove of documents that provide sweeping views into Bethune’s method and process of crafting a relevant and enduring image of a woman of color in a position of power in the US. It contains a vast collection of singular documents including Bethune’s writings, diaries, scrapbooks, biographical materials, and files of the NYA and women’s organizations, particularly the National Council of Negro Women. Bethune’s affiliation with Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman is documented in all parts of the Bethune Foundation Collection as well as in specific files on this subject. There is also a file of correspondence with her close friend Eleanor Roosevelt. A large series of Bethune’s personal and biographical information includes agendas, itineraries, speaking invitations, programs of events Bethune attended, speeches, statements, writings, radio interviews, and news clippings by or about her. There is a diary for 1954 and part of 1955 dictated by Bethune to her personal secretary as well as an oral history in her voice. Another subject series, on the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), documents Bethune’s little-known role as adviser to the WACs during and after World War II, among numerous other invaluable documents.

The NABWH Collection offers numerous examples of Bethune’s navigation of power beyond the federal government in U.S. life, African American communities, and race relations for women in the first half of the twentieth century. We cannot fully or accurately understand Kamala Harris’s ascent to the U.S. vice presidency without the comprehending the depth of Bethune’s contribution to this story, which resides in the NABWH collection. The absence of wide access this vital component in the shaping what power looks like today is our collective loss.

New Approaches to Digital Asset Management

In identifying challenges and opportunities for the historic site and their collections, we found that they have in place a high-quality vendor digitization workflow, complete with precise filename conventions, and spreadsheets containing file digests and document descriptions. This mature workflow yields data that represents most of the document-level information that is necessary for the management, preservation, and access of their digital assets. The vendor digitization packages and their associated workflow are the result of careful contracts and years of staff development, things which their future DAMS ought not to disrupt unnecessarily. Instead our team pursued a technical strategy of enhancement and overlay of the existing digital products, using a modern linked-data repository, Trellis LDP, and the Linked Data Platform specification. Using the affordances of the linked data platform we were able to upload vendor packages directly into pending repository submissions, leaving them in their existing file formats, such as Excel spreadsheets of metadata and high quality TIFF files with precise and meaningful file names. These pending submission packages are secured in durable storage right away, while the repository works to help staff validate file fixity and metadata for completeness and accuracy. Using the information latent in file names, the repository is able to reassemble the original paged objects structures as linked data. Using the vendor TIFF files, the repository is able to render PNG access copies and thumbnails for web presentation. Lastly, using the file names, the repository is able to situate each paged object within an overall finding aid that represents the entirety of their collections as linked data. In the end, by performing uploads and some quality assurance, the staff at the Museum Resource Center will be able to leverage modern digital asset management with little disruption of their existing workflow or vendor relationships.

This project achieved key elements of the DRASTIC (Digital Repositories at Scale that Invite Computation) research agenda in a real world setting:

  • An archival repository based on Linked Data Platform
  • Horizontal scalability via stateless servers and distributed storage
  • Upload and securing of pending repository submissions
  • Workflow, validation, and repository-wide normalization to structures in linked data
  • Extensible normalization support for arbitrary submission data and workflows
  • Streaming of distributed repository-wide updates to front-end web interface
  • Representation of and linking to an archival finding aid as a linked data structure
  • Named entity detection and resolution workflow with the Library of Congress name authority file
  • Orchestration of distributed micro-services through Kafka event streaming

For more information on technical outcomes and their impact, please see the publications and presentations below.


  • Linked Data and Microservices at the Support of Customized Institutional Workflows (Paper)
    Gregory Jansen, Mark Conrad, Lyneise Williams, and Richard Marciano, Proceedings of Linked Archives International Workshop 2021, Online, September 13th, 2021.



  • Computational Archival Science is a Two-Way Street (Video)
    Bruce Ambacher, Mark Conrad [ PTAB – Primary Trustworthy Digital Repository Authorisation Body Ltd USA & Advanced Information Collaboratory (AIC) USA], 6th COMPUTATIONAL ARCHIVAL SCIENCE (CAS) WORKSHOP, IEEE Big Data 2021
  • An AI-Assisted Framework for Rapid Conversion of Descriptive Photo Metadata into Linked Data (Video)
    Jennifer Proctor, Richard Marciano [Advanced Information Collaboratory (AIC), U. Maryland], 6th COMPUTATIONAL ARCHIVAL SCIENCE (CAS) WORKSHOP, IEEE Big Data 2021
  • Elevating “Everyday” Voices and People in Archives through the Application of Graph Database Technology (Video)
    Mark Conrad, Lyneise Williams [U. Maryland & U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill], 5th COMPUTATIONAL ARCHIVAL SCIENCE (CAS) WORKSHOP, IEEE Big Data 2020
  • What Computational Archival Science Can Learn from Art History and Material Culture Studies (Slides)
    Lyneise Williams [University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill], 4th COMPUTATIONAL ARCHIVAL SCIENCE (CAS) WORKSHOP, IEEE Big Data 2019
  • Using Data Partitions and Stateless Servers to Scale Up Fedora Repositories (Slides)
    Greg Jansen, Richard Marciano — University of Maryland], 4th COMPUTATIONAL ARCHIVAL SCIENCE (CAS) WORKSHOP, IEEE Big Data 2019