CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., Jan. 25 -- Beginning next month, a significant resource for scholars and anyone interested in African-American history will be available on the internet.

The University Press of Virginia will publish the first on-line book by a university press when it releases an updated version of Michael Plunkett's Afro-American Sources in Virginia: A Guide to Manuscripts on the Internet, marking the start of Black History Month.

Prepared in collaboration with the University of Virginia Library's Electronic Text Center and the University's Information Technology and Communication department, the guide by Michael Plunkett, the library's director of special collections, is an important resource for anyone researching African-American history and culture because of the state's significant role in those fields. The illustrated, hypertext book will be available at no charge.

The Virginia press aims to add African-American resource guides for other states to an electronically published series and eventually to begin publishing a variety of books on the worldwide Internet, said Nancy Essig, director of the press.

With some scholarly journals already published on-line, and university press books and reference-resources sold in CD-ROM and other software versions, "university press publishing is clearly changing," Essig said. "The role of the presses is dissemination of knowledge and scholarship, and this is part of its future. It's exciting."

The Virginia press's initial electronic book, updated from its 1990 print version and including some 18 historical photographs and images of key manuscripts, describes in detail the African-American history holdings of the 26 institutional collections in Virginia. The collections, in libraries and institutions throughout the state, range from early plantation records to diaries and letters to minutes of modern-day civil-rights movement meetings.

Internet users who have a World Wide Web program such as Netscape, Lynx or Mosaic can access the illustrated hypertext version at

An important aspect of the electronic guide is that its complete resources can be rapidly searched by key-word, subject, name, historical period or geographic location. Its sharp electronic images of photographs and manuscript pages are included to give a hint of the visual records to be found in the statewide collections, said David Seaman, director of U.Va.'s Electronic Text Center, which also has available on-line the full texts of thousands of literary and other works from many centuries for use in electronic scholarship and teaching.

Addresses, phone numbers and other information are included for each Virginia collection listed in the African-American source guide.

Collaboration among university presses, libraries and computing centers is proliferating, said Essig, who chairs the Association of American University Presses' Library Relations Committee this year. Such electronic publishing initiatives are under way on more than a dozen campuses, she noted. Virginia's is the first project to be up and running.

Although the Virginia press's initial electronic publication is free, university presses as well as commercial publishers are looking closely at possible models for charging for on-line publishing of books, Essig said. While they are not profit-making enterprises, university presses will need some sort of mechanism to recover costs involved in electronic publishing, she said. The Virginia press will keep track of how much its first electronic book is used on the Internet.

The African-American resource guide was chosen partly because it is valuable not only to scholars but to the general public's growing interest in genealogy, Essig said. It also reflects the press's emphasis on African-American studies in its book publishing program.

Publishing it on-line has involved the complex work of "tagging," or electronically indexing, its text for computerized searches, said Seaman, director of the widely used Electronic Text Center.

In addition to researching by time, period, place and names, users can search the entire holdings of African-American historical records in Virginia by asking for all reference mentions of key-words, for example "miners" or "runaways." The ability to conduct detailed searches makes it a more extensive resource than the original printed book, Seaman said.

The African-American resource book can also be seen as a work in-progress or "living document," because it can be regularly updated, said Plunkett, who travelled to libraries and archives throughout Virginia to prepare the original book and has updated it for the electronic version.

Collections in the book include such documents as the papers and letters of individuals and families; state, city and county documents and records; church and Bible records; material from the Works Project Administration Folklore collection; black college and institutional archives; medical records, civil rights records and a variety of other material.

Virginia is especially important to African-American studies because, until the mid-19th century, it had a larger African-American population than any other state, and its economics and culture differed from the large cotton plantations of the Deep South, Plunkett said.

Many of the Virginia collections have been used by scholars writing on the history of slavery and the African-American experience, but many topics, including local and regional history subjects, and significant sets of individual papers, are ripe for more research, he said.

The collections include large ones such as at U.Va., the Library of Virginia, Virginia Historical Society, and the College of William and Mary, and less publicized but important ones such as at Virginia State University, as well as smaller institutions and libraries.

For additional information contact the University Press at or (434) 924-3468.