Imaging project at King Center will preserve papers, broaden audience

Scholars as far away as China or Kenya soon will have instant access to an insider's view of the U.S. civil rights movement as seen by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. All they need is the Internet.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the King Center have embarked on an ambitious project to digitize more than a million documents housed at the center's archives on Auburn Avenue.

"We believe that by making Dr. King's papers publicly available that we're bringing his teachings and philosophies to current and future generations," said Ali Marano, head of the Technology for Social Good program at JPMorgan Chase. "It makes the world a better place, in our minds."

The collection is a treasure trove of  information, perhaps the largest single repository of documents about King and the U.S. civil rights movement. It includes sermons,  handwritten notes,  correspondence, minutes of meetings, telegrams and some audio materials. There's also information about other key figures in the movement.

Marano said the project, which banks on the financial services firm's vast experience in document management, will preserve those documents as well as make them widely available.

You won't just be able to read King's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, you'll be able to see it written in his own hand. The plan is to make at least 200,000 documents available online in January 2012, on the anniversary of the civil rights leader's birth.

Teams of trained university students, archivists and members of the Veteran's Curation Project don blue lab coats and white gloves to prep, image and index the contents of thousands of boxes in the archives. Folders in the boxes and the boxes themselves are indexed to avoid an item being misplaced.

It all fits into the dream of the late Coretta Scott King to have the papers preserved for future generations, said Martin Luther King III, president and CEO of the King Center. Additionally, making those documents available to a global audience through the use of technology "is absolutely phenomenal," he said.

There's a telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. to "Mrs. Malcolm X" dated a few days after the 1965 assassination of her husband in New York.

"I was certainly saddened by the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband," the telegram reads. "While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem."

At some point, the collection may also include papers from Coretta Scott King.

JPMorgan Chase has installed elaborate security and waterless fire suppression systems to protect the valuable collection, which is still open by appointment for research.

It also will rebuild the King Center's website to include the digitized material as well as other center news and information. A goal is to make it a must-visit place for educational purposes.

One benefit of digitization is that it allows related material from different repositories to be "brought together virtually in a way they might never be able to be brought together physically," said Ginger Smith, interim director of the Manuscripts, Archives & Rare Books Library at Emory University.

For instance, researchers looking at the telegram to Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, can click on a link and get related material and a biography of her.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Taylor Branch called efforts to digitize the collection "a godsend. It's an immensely valuable collection that a lot of people have worried about access to it and its preservation for years."

The collection is "essential to understanding American history because the civil rights movement changed America so much," he said.