Colleges have found myriad ways to connect with alums through technology.

Colleges and universities are constantly looking for ways to stay connected with alumni and keep them engaged in their alma mater in hopes of boosting enrollment and maximizing donations. Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., has found a fairly inexpensive way to engage with its former students—by putting nearly all of its printed archives online.

Not all that long ago, digitizing college archives such as school newspapers and yearbooks was prohibitively expensive for most colleges and universities.

But prices have come down significantly in recent years, and now even school libraries with the most limited budgets can afford the process, said Ted Waller, head of archives at Meredith College, the largest private women’s college in the Southeast.

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The school had been slowly digitizing its print archives for several years, first working on its alumnae magazine and student newspapers, using library funds as they became available.

But last year, Meredith’s regional library co-op, Lyrasis, received a grant from the Sloan Foundation for mass digitization of its members’ archives, and the school was able to put more than 100 years of old and fragile documents online—including school yearbooks, catalogs, student handbooks, monographs on Meredith history, newspapers, and magazines.

The nonprofit organization that handled the digitization of the material and hosts the content, Internet Archives, charged Meredith College 10 cents a page for up to 25,000 pages, and just five cents a page for anything over that amount.

“We ended up digitizing nearly 35,000 pages of archives—everything we had,” said Waller.

The project, which took just three months from the initial contact through completion, has been a huge success, Waller said. Not only has digitization saved many old and crumbling print documents, but alumnae and relatives of alumnae are finding and using the archives more than ever before.

Although the archives have been online for just a few months, past editions of the yearbook alone have been downloaded many thousands of times.

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In the past, if someone who had a class reunion coming up approached Waller and wanted material for the reunion, that person had to engage in a lengthy process.

“They would have to make an appointment, spend hours with us, [and] we’d make copies of everything for them. If they got home and thought of something else they needed, they’d have to go through the whole thing again,” Waller explained. “Now, we refer them to the links to all our documents, and they can do it at their leisure, go back as many times as they want, print as many times as they want. It’s much more accessible to everyone.”

He continued: “In addition to that, in the short time [the digital archives have] been available, we’ve had a number of encounters, not just from alumnae, but children or grandchildren of alumnae.”

One man had a great aunt who went to Meredith in 1901; he found the archives useful in learning about the woman he had never met. Another had a mother who had attended Meredith; she had been editor of the student newspaper in 1943. When she died, her son was able to access those newspapers for her memorial service.

“This encourages children and grandchildren to donate as well,” said Waller.

Deciding what to put online was not a challenge for Meredith officials.

“Certain documents were the most important—the newspaper, the yearbook, the alumnae magazine, those were the first priority—but we had to come up with at least 25,000 pages, so we just did the kitchen sink routine, putting everything we could think of on the internet archive,” Waller said.

The main challenge, said Waller, has been deciding what to do about the new print content that continually comes along.

About new yearbooks, newspapers, and magazines, Waller said, “We haven’t figured that out yet, because these are one-time projects. You can add as you go along, but you have to ramp up the whole procedure again, and it’s more expensive because you don’t have as many pages.”

Still, giving the existing archives a second life online has been more than worth the time and money spent.

“In addition to just being able to see this material online, you can search every word of every document. It has greatly increased our capacity to do research. Stuff that took days before now literally takes minutes,” said Waller.

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