Faculty, Libraries Win $239,000 NEH Grant for Digital Archive

English Prof. Sue Kim looks through Higgins & Ross book of photos of Cambodian refugees in Lowell Image by K. Webster
English Prof. Sue Kim pages through "Southeast Asians: A New Beginning in Lowell," by James Higgins and Joan Ross.

By Katharine Webster

The recent history of Lowell is intertwined with the history of refugees and immigrants from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Bhutan.

Yet much of the history of Southeast Asians in Lowell — where they came from, why they came and the ways they created a new life here — is at risk of being lost, says English Prof. Sue Kim.

Their stories can provide students, scholars and the community with a better understanding of the human toll of the Vietnam War and the Cambodian genocide, as well as the difficulties and triumphs involved in making a permanent home in a new country while still maintaining key aspects of their own culture, she says.

“Invaluable cultural heritage materials are in danger of being damaged, lost or thrown out,” Kim says. “We also want to document the stories of the elders, who are dying every day. Many of them don’t want to talk about their pasts because it’s too traumatic. But community members are worried that their children and grandchildren won’t know what they went through.”

Now, thanks to a $239,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the university libraries and the Center for Asian American Studies will set up a digital archive to preserve much of that history.

“A digital archive is sustainable and easily shareable with students, scholars and the community,” Kim says.

A $28,000 Creative Economy Fund grant from the UMass president's office will help make the archive publicly accessible, especially to students, through lessons, teacher trainings, community workshops and an updated exhibit at the Lowell National Historical Park.

The Southeast Asian Digital Archive will include about 63,000 images of newspapers, documents, books and posters and nearly 620 hours of audio and audiovisual recordings, many of them donated by eight organizations, including the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, the Angkor Dance Troupe and the Southeast Asian Water Festival.

Wedding of George Chigas and Thida Leoung Image by Higgins and Ross
The hair-cutting ceremony at the wedding of UML Asian Studies lecturer George Chigas and Cambodian refugee Sovann-Thida Loeung, the first marriage between a non-Cambodian and a Cambodian in Lowell.

Some materials will be new, while some are already in the libraries’ collections but aren’t catalogued, digitized, organized or searchable.

The archive will also incorporate the existing Indochinese Refugee Foundation Archives at the university’s Center for Lowell History. The archives include documents from the foundation, which helped resettle a massive influx of mostly Cambodian refugees starting in the mid-1970s. Lowell now has the second-largest population of Cambodian-Americans in the country.

“What distinguishes a library is the collections it has that no one else has,” says Mehmed Ali, the libraries’ assistant director for digital initiatives and a co-investigator on the NEH grant. “For UMass Lowell, that’s the Indochinese Refugee Foundation collection and now the Southeast Asian Digital Archive. It’s part of celebrating our legacy as a university and a city.”

The grant grew out of discussions with Southeast Asian community and organization leaders, who will be heavily involved in deciding what to preserve as part of the Southeast Asian Digital Archive advisory board.

“We will be led by the community and their concerns and needs,” Kim says.

Most of the grant will go toward hiring a full-time archivist for two years to set up the digital infrastructure for the collection, so that it is searchable and can grow. Money is also needed for translation of key documents.

Cambodian refugee children in a Lowell, MA, school Image by Higgins and Ross
Cambodian refugee children at the former Sacred Heart school building on Moore Street in Lowell.

Kim, who is co-director of the Center for Asian American Studies with Assoc. Prof. Ivy Ho, is the primary investigator on the grant. Other major co-investigators include digital librarian Tony Sampas, Asst. Prof. of EducationPhitsamay Uy and George Chigas, senior lecturer in World Languages and Cultures. UMass Amherst librarian Laura Quilter will also provide training and consultation on copyright issues.

Faculty and librarians will also involve university and local high school students as interns, researchers and assistant archivists, Kim says. They will collect oral histories, scan images and add metadata so that the archives are searchable, do primary research and help catalog the materials.