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About the Collections in Calisphere

Thank you for visiting Calisphere, your gateway to digital collections containing photographs, documents, letters, artwork, diaries, oral histories, films, advertisements, musical recordings, and more. Calisphere provides free access to unique and historically important artifacts for research, teaching, and exploration.

Explore early maps of the world; photographs from historic newspapers; paintings reflecting periods of cultural significance; new frontiers through personal journals and diaries; political posters calling for decades of social and political change; first-hand accounts through interviews and oral histories -- Calisphere brings together digital collections contributed by the ten University of California campuses and a wide range of statewide organizations. The items in Calisphere are primary sources that record evidence of the past, and preserve valuable historical material for interpretation and analysis. Calisphere is committed to providing broad public access to primary sources for historical research and understanding.

Featuring over two million historical records, Calisphere provides access to more than 2,000 collections contributed by more than 300 cultural heritage organizations (libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies) in California. Each of these organizations has specific collection emphases, which may be informed by local history, activities, research interests, or other topics significant to its communities.

Calisphere is a service of the University of California Libraries, developed and maintained by the California Digital Library. Learn more about becoming a contributing partner.

Providing access to primary source records for documentary evidence of past events

Many of the materials in Calisphere are digitized original records, or primary sources, defined by the Society of American Archivists as materials that include firsthand accounts of an event or topic. They are often created at the time of the event (such as photographs), but also may be recalled later by an eyewitness (such as oral histories). Primary sources have enduring cultural and historical significance, and are considered permanently valuable records, offering documentary evidence that we use to interpret and understand history.

Contributors digitize and share primary sources on their own websites, and also more broadly through large aggregations such as Calisphere. These items are commonly referred to as "digital primary sources."

In addition to sharing these digital primary sources, contributors provide descriptions of identifiable features -- dates, names, event or topic, location, subject, etc. -- of the primary source records to help users discover and interpret these materials. On this page, we’ll refer to this descriptive information as "metadata."

Understanding metadata, its use, and its challenges

Our partner organizations -- libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, etc. -- use metadata to describe primary sources and help researchers discover, situate, and interpret these materials in the context in which they were created. These organizations generally follow established descriptive and cataloging best practices, and actively work to ensure that the metadata is accurate, uses culturally sensitive language, and provides essential historical context to help with interpretation of primary sources. For example, many of our partner organizations consult Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), which provides a set of rules and standards for description to assist users in the discovery of these primary source records.

Historical circumstances, however, can present challenges with using and interpreting metadata:

  • Some information about the primary sources may be incomplete or unknown. Cultural heritage organizations often have limited documentation and resources available to further investigate individual items beyond the identifiable features in the sources themselves. For this reason, even significant details such as the item’s title, exact age, creator, or copyright status may not be present in the metadata record.
  • Metadata can also reflect biases and may include culturally insensitive terminology because of the way an item was originally sourced, created, described, or cataloged. For example, when following cataloging and descriptive practices, catalogers and collection processing staff may transcribe original information associated with a source item, such as a culturally insensitive caption written on the back of a photograph, and supply that as metadata. Additionally, the work of catalogers and collection processing staff may reflect their own implicit or explicit biases in describing materials.
  • Metadata may lack context for why culturally insensitive terminology is present. Original information supplied by the creator or collector preserves the evidential value of the item for historical research; it may also reflect the original perspective of the author/creator or the attitudes of the specific historical period in which the source item was created or described. Emerging recommendations from the Anti-Racist Description Resources, prepared by the Archives for Black Lives in Philadelphia Anti-Racist Description Working Group, suggest notating the source of the original description, such as information transcribed from a creator’s handwritten note, to provide clear context in the item record. Much material, however, still lacks this information.

The California Digital Library acknowledges the necessity of efforts to evaluate and contextualize metadata, including how it is sourced, created, described, or cataloged so that there is historical context as you explore these primary sources. We are engaging with contributing partners and colleagues to identify and implement reparative cataloging and descriptive practices that not only address existing metadata records, but also inform the creation of new records.

Supporting best practices and community values regarding access to historical materials

Calisphere partners with cultural heritage organizations in California to promote and provide wide access to their materials as much -- and as responsibly -- as possible. Libraries, archives, and museums share professional standards and values, such as those promoted by the Society of American Archivists, American Library Association, and the American Alliance of Museums.

For example, archivists are guided by the Society of American Archivists’ Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics and other professional statements that inform how they share primary sources. Approaches to access for both physical and digital primary sources typically address considerations related to copyright, licenses, donor agreements, privacy rights, and ethical responsibilities.

Cultural heritage organizations can consult established and continually evolving best practices to mitigate the potential risk of exposing sensitive content that should not be made publicly available. Such considerations include:

Recognizing historic and ongoing biases in primary sources

Some digital primary sources found in Calisphere may include terms or depict actions that are dated, biased, or offensive. These records do not represent the views of the California Digital Library or the contributing organizations. The intent is not to propagate or legitimize historical or ongoing biases; rather, we firmly believe that these materials provide significant historical evidence to help inform a more complete historical record. The context of the source item -- the circumstances in which these materials were created or compiled -- is critical to fully understand and assess its historical value or purpose as documentary evidence.

An individual primary source record is unlikely to provide all the evidence or perspectives required to fully understand the significance of a topic, theme, event, or period; some information may be unknown or the perspective may favor historic and/or continued biases. The American Historical Association’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct states that "multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history." As a researcher analyzing a primary source record, it is important to ask rigorous questions, verify facts, and critically evaluate a variety of sources and perspectives to gain a fuller understanding of history.

The California Digital Library recognizes our responsibility to indicate when item records lack important context required to support meaningful historical interpretation. We are committed to identifying and addressing these gaps in historical understanding, and are working on improving the Calisphere item record views to provide additional context, as well as developing guidelines to consider in preparing to share digital collections generally. We are also conducting an analysis of the scope of collections and contributors in Calisphere in order to identify where experiences, voices, and perspectives might be absent and in need of representation.

Our commitment to providing responsible access to digital primary sources--and how you can help!

As a project of the University of California Libraries, developed and maintained by the California Digital Library (CDL), Calisphere advances CDL’s mission, vision, and values "by recognizing the value of openness in all aspects of the scholarly enterprise... [and responding] to society’s need for unfettered information access to confront the critical problems of today and tomorrow."

Calisphere also supports the missions and values that guide our contributing partner organizations--to share and provide free access to digital primary sources that provide enduring cultural, historical, or evidentiary value. Together, we are committed to providing broad public access to these resources in a responsible manner. And, we strive to provide as much accurate contextual information as is feasible, respect ethical guidelines, and adhere to legal specifications as new information about these items is made available.

We welcome additional information about the digital primary sources in Calisphere. The California Digital Library and contributing partner organizations invite users and researchers to share any relevant information that will help us better understand and describe the primary sources and historical records in Calisphere. As you explore the collections here, please contact us if you are able to:

  • provide information that surfaces or clarifies the historical context of the item;
  • report an error in the metadata;
  • identify an item that should not be online due to legal, ethical, or other considerations;
  • share information on an item's copyright status; or
  • provide any additional information that will help us better understand and interpret these items.

Upon receipt, we will review and address any issues raised or new information provided in consultation with the contributing organization and respond to your feedback accordingly.

About the information on this page: In an effort to share information that reflects the current practices and commitments of our partners -- archivists, librarians, curators, etc. -- we have consulted workflows and guidelines made publicly available by peer organizations, including the Statement on Inclusion and Equity in Special Collections, Archives, and Distinctive Collections in the University of California Libraries.

Many thanks to the UC Berkeley Library for developing and sharing their responsible access workflows, made available as a resource to help guide digital access decisions. We have also consulted the work of national aggregators, including the Digital Public Library of America, DigitalNZ, Europeana, and the National Library of Australia. Finally, we thank our colleagues at the University of California Libraries for their engagement in developing the information on this page.