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Website of the Week: Booker T. Washington Papers


Time again for our Website of the Week, and this time — as we begin Black History Month in the United States — we feature the work of one of the great names in African-American culture. At the same time this site highlights one way the web is changing the world of scholarship.

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856. He went on to establish what is now Tuskegee University in Alabama, one of the most important African-American educational institutions of his time. Thousands of pages of his writings, are now available online at historycooperative.org/btw.

"He had a long life, a long career, and much of it was public, so his writings were significant. One reason that Booker T. Washington remains important is that he is a model for other people about how a person who sets a high goal can achieve it, and is thus not a model simply for African Americans but for any young person who feels that these odds are stacked against him," explained Willis Regier, director of the University of Illinois Press, which began publishing the 14-volume set of the Booker T. Washington Papers in 1972. To bring this important historical document to the web, each page had to be scanned, then processed through optical character recognition software and edited to produce a searchable text - a far more powerful tool than the printed set's extensive index.

Booker T. Washington was a prolific writer. He is well-known for his best-selling autobiography, Up From Slavery, which is included along with much other material.

"Speeches, letters, public papers that he presented," said Mr. Regier. "It's a wide range of the genres that he felt were necessary for him to advance his various purposes. The great thing about it being on a website is that people looking for various ideas as they ran through all the different genres and the different periods of his life can find them easily."

Willis Regier says putting this 14-volume work of scholarship online shows how the Internet supplements the traditional model of book publishing. "We felt that this was one of the most important publishing projects that the University of Illinois Press had ever done or would ever do. It was too expensive to put them back into print or to keep them in print because of the cost of print publication. And although it was plenty expensive to put this on the Web, we felt that for the importance of this text, the best thing to do was to make it freely accessible."

The 14-volume set sells for $495, but you can read it for free at historycooperative.org/btw.

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