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ProQuest Centers on Black Studies
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Posted On December 5, 2005
ProQuest Information and Learning (http://www.proquest.com) has released its second research center (a portal resource that pulls together diverse content into a cross-searchable, multidisciplinary, contextually organized research tool). The just-launched Black Studies Center is a digital resource developed by ProQuest's Chadwyck-Healey division in conjunction with the renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (http:// www.schomburgcenter.org). The collaborators call the ambitious product a first for the academic community; it creates a framework for undergraduate- and graduate-level Black Studies courses and fills information gaps that have stymied research and study. At the core of the Black Studies Center is Schomburg Studies on the Black Experience, a series of specially commissioned topical studies designed to define the development of Black Studies as an academic field. The studies also provide significant supporting materials, including rare primary sources, biographies, timelines, and more. These are cross-searchable with the historical backfiles of the influential black newspaper, The Chicago Defender, as well as with current scholarly journals from the International Index to Black Periodicals Full Text (IIBP).

The collection of research monographs in the Schomburg Studies on the Black Experience are authored by the foremost academic experts in the field. They summarize the state of research and scholarship on important themes, such as African-American religion, the slave trade and slavery, performing arts and popular culture, and the African-American family. Accompanying each study is a selection of essential readings, as well as research questions for further exploration. Extensive bibliographies and selected primary research materials are also included, along with a multimedia library and links to related Web sites.

It's a contextual research vision that Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center, has long wanted to achieve. (The world-renowned Schomburg Center is one of the four research libraries within The New York Public Library.) Dodson feels that the Black Studies Center's most significant contribution is that it offers users a way to understand the evolution of scholarship on the selected themes and to access the essential literature that supports it. "Black Studies Center affirms both the quantity and the quality of the intellectual underpinnings of Black Studies," he said.

Suzanne BeDell, ProQuest vice president of publishing, added: "Black Studies Center accelerates understanding because it grounds the user in the theme, providing greater context. It gives students and researchers a backbone to work from."

BeDell stressed the importance of the framework that Dodson's plan provides. "He's defining scholarship for the Black Studies community," she declared. The monographs' cited content has helped guide ProQuest in the choices for content digitization to be included in the portal—some drawn from ProQuest's microfilm vault—and for additional content licensing from third-party sources. BeDell said that 18 study monographs are currently available with 12 more to be added soon. She expects that additional studies will be commissioned as new topics arise.

The authority and quality of the commissioned studies are so high that BeDell said ProQuest has already signed an agreement with Michigan State University Press to publish them in a print series.

IIBP includes current and retrospective bibliographic citations and abstracts from scholarly journals and newsletters from the U.S., Africa, and the Caribbean, along with full-text coverage of core Black Studies periodicals. Coverage is international and multidisciplinary in scope, spanning cultural, economic, historical, religious, social, and political issues of importance to the discipline.

At this point, journal results can still turn up just a bibliographic citation with no further options. BeDell said that this is only the first release of the product, and there are two more planned that will happen over the next 6 months or so. "Not all of the content will have full text, but we will have more than we do now. It also has open URL linking, so if the library has access to the full text, even if it is not in the database, it will link to it."

The journal list for IIBP was prepared with the guidance of an advisory board including librarians specializing in Black Studies: Carol A. Rudisell (associate librarian at the University of Delaware Library) and Dorothy Ann Washington (librarian at the Black Cultural Center at Purdue University).

Washington, who previously worked at the Schomburg, said ProQuest's product development people consulted her frequently and asked for her feedback. She said that Purdue was one of the first to subscribe to the new service and they were very excited about it. She singled out access to The Chicago Defender as a major enhancement for Purdue's users. In the past, Purdue graduate students had to travel to Chicago to use the archives.

Founded in 1905, The Defender became the most influential black newspaper before World War I, with more than half of its circulation outside of its home base in Chicago. The Chicago Defender content allows researchers to study many significant events in American history that received only cursory attention from other newspapers.

ProQuest's first "center" was the History Study Center, which launched in 2001. In October 2005, ProQuest announced it had expanded the content, with 11 new periodicals in its Journal Library, eight new Study Units, and expanded and revised content in the product's 500 other Study Units. BeDell said the company is considering other possible centers, especially in the social sciences, which particularly benefit from an interdisciplinary portal approach. The portal enables access across the range of ProQuest's content. The centers are on the Chadwyck-Healey platform, so they are built and maintained in Cambridge, U.K. Thus, at this point, the centers can't take advantage of features available on the ProQuest platform, such as SmartSearch. While integrating the platforms would be desirable, at this point it makes more sense for ProQuest to use federated search and open URL linking, according to BeDell.

I asked BeDell about pouring development into proprietary library-centric services while other industry aggregators were busy working to surface their content in Web search engines. "We add so much value to the products we develop," she said. "Long term, it would be great to use Web search to get students over to our products, but users, like Purdue, are so excited that they will steer users to them." One thing she stressed: There's a lot more to come for the Black Studies Center and for other exciting ProQuest products.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.



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