Louisiana Purchase Fits on a CD-ROM

March 19, 2003

Mark Miester

"I found this in Tulane's Special Collections," says Sylvia Frey, clicking a thumbnail image on her computer screen to reveal a full-sized image. "It's an exit passport issued by the army of San Domingue to the family of Mrs. Lambert, age 20, and her two infant sons. This one document tells a wonderful story. Refugees from San Domingue didn't come initially to New Orleans. They went to other places, most notably Cuba, as this family did, and then they came to New Orleans. Mr. Lambert practiced medicine and his son became a prominent doctor and administrator of Charity Hospital."

Mrs. Lambert's passport, as well as more than 100 other annotated historical documents, is part of the Louisiana Purchase Timeline, a new multimedia CD-ROM produced by the Deep South Regional Humanities Center that traces the political, social and economic events of the Louisiana Purchase. Frey, director of the center and professor of history, and Jean Pierre Le Glaunec, research assistant, worked for a year selecting and digitizing images and soliciting editorial contributions from dozens of leading scholars.

"We wanted to commemorate and celebrate the Louisiana Purchase, but we also wanted to show the richness and diversity of local archives and produce a product that had educational value," Frey says. "A lot of the events commemorating the Purchase are really wonderful cultural events that have educational value, but they're not, strictly speaking, educational tools."

The inspiration for the project came from an unexpected source: Motown. More than a year ago, Kathy Limmer, a development officer in institutional advancement, showed Frey a Web-based timeline she'd discovered on the Motown Website. Music fans could scroll across a timeline and see images of legendary performers associated with the label through the years.

Clicking on a certain year might reveal additional images along with artist biographies and audio samples. The idea stuck with Frey. As the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase approached, Frey began to consider an interactive timeline tracing the history of the Louisiana Purchase. It seemed a perfect match for the center, whose mission involves using technology to develop educational programs and projects.

The idea was to combine images of historical documents relating to the purchase--everything from vintage maps, paintings and architectural drawings to letters, legal notices and birth certificates--with brief explanatory notes written by more than 20 scholars from the United States, Canada and France.

"We've tried to use documents that are not so much official documents, but documents that show the human experience, that tell the story of the Louisiana Purchase through the lives of people who lived it."

The sources of the documents include the New Orleans Notarial Archives, the New Orleans Public Library, the Historic New Orleans Collection, Tulane's Special Collections, the Louisiana State Museum and the University of Paris VII. Although she originally intended to create a Web-based timeline, Frey decided to produce a CD-ROM when the amount of images grew to the point that bandwidth became an issue. The timeline is divided into three sections.

The first looks at the people and the region before the Purchase, the second deals with the Purchase itself, and the third delves into the aftermath and the emergence of an American Louisiana. It covers topics including the economic shift of the region from tobacco and indigo to cotton and sugar, the emergence of New Orleans as an urban center, and the Haitian Revolution and its role in France's decision to sell Louisiana.

Frey says she expects the CD-ROM, which was designed by Brian McCormick of the local multimedia firm Popefish, to have a teaching component. She says she hopes it finds its way into catalogs, classrooms and museum gift shops.

"It's for a broad audience," she says. "Teachers tell me they're going to aim their teaching units at an eighth-grade level, so they obviously won't use every one of these documents, but we're aiming at multiple audiences--researchers, who will be able to see the rich variety of archival material here; students who are studying Louisiana history, who will be able to use selected images from it; and people interested in history, who might be visiting the city."

The most remarkable thing about the project, Frey says, is the generosity of archives who contributed to it, free of charge. "I wanted this to be a real collaborative project," Frey says. "It was a collaboration of archives, and it's a collaboration of scholars."

Mark Miester can be reached at

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000