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Digital history project opens up MLA to the world

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As Ben Goossen has been researching his book on Mennonites and German nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, he has also been adding to Bethel College’s digital resources.

Goossen, a doctoral student in history at Harvard, is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, forthcoming this spring from Princeton University Press, for which he has drawn extensively on the holdings of Bethel’s Mennonite Library and Archives (MLA).

In the seven years he has been working on the book, he has also been contributing to a large-scale digital history project, the German Mennonite Sources Database, for the MLA. The database includes materials from more than a dozen libraries and archives in Europe, North America and Latin America – in particular, Germany, the United States and Paraguay.

He has digitized – mostly through taking photos with a digital camera, some through digital scanning – thousands of books, pamphlets, articles and periodicals published in Germany about Mennonites between 1800-1950.

“The vast majority is in German,” he said. “There are a few things in English, Russian or Dutch, but 95 percent is in German.

“This includes full runs of periodicals, Mennonite genealogical [materials], official organs of conferences, church history – anything that Mennonites had a hand in or that has to do with Mennonites.”

Goossen collected the materials on research trips in the United States and Germany. “Where I had access to books or newspapers, I would take physical photos of each page. That would be maybe 200 photos for a book,” he said.

“I put these in folders on my computer, labeled with title, author and year of publication. They can be organized alphabetically by title, or chronologically by year of publication.”

In the meantime, John Thiesen, Bethel co-director of libraries and archivist, has been digitizing the MLA’s printed holdings over the past number of years, as well as putting both those and Goossen’s digitized materials on the Bethel server.

The MLA website now hosts this digitized collection, making it “accessible to anyone anywhere in the world with web access,” Goossen said, “family researchers, historians, students writing seminar papers, archivists, museum curators, anyone interested in Mennonite, German and/or church history in general.

“It expands the MLA from being not only a physical library. It also makes documents that aren’t in the MLA’s collections now accessible.

“Digital history – collecting materials and making them available digitally – is cutting-edge for libraries, archives and history research,” Goossen said. “[Libraries and archives] are interested in opening their materials to everyone.

“It has a democratizing effect – you don’t have to have an ‘official’ connection to a university or an organization [to access the collection].

“It’s very cool that the MLA is getting in on this new way of doing archival and historical work, that is very much at the forefront of where the field is moving.”

Goossen himself appreciates having the digital resources available.

“I can use them at my convenience, while trips are restricted by time,” he said. “It creates a source of richer, more extended research materials.”

He noted that it is “good to tack back and forth, because not everything is digitized.” In the case of the MLA’s digital history project, only published materials were included, leaving out anything hand-written or unpublished.

Digital resources make people “aware of what’s there, whether it’s the MLA or the National Archives, which can draw researchers to the physical location for further research.

“It makes the MLA more transnational or international in its focus. Mennonite history often focuses on missions and migrations, because it’s a global church – a church that has moved a lot [in its 500-plus-year history].

“This makes material available to people in other countries, like Paraguay, Brazil or Germany, who don’t have the funds to come here physically. It has the potential to build relationships with historians, family researchers and other libraries and archives.”

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2016–17. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.