Slavery Database is an Open Book

Slavery Database is an Open Book

Growing up around his family’s legal publishing business in Buffalo, N.Y., Shannon Hein ’99 spent his youth exploring dusty stacks of old books.

The three-story building, a cavernous warehouse that had once housed an auto dealership, was just the sort of mysterious place where a young boy could discover hidden treasures.

“I used to gravitate towards the old leather-bound books and comb through them to try and find the oldest ones,” Hein says. “My hands and clothing would be stained from the deteriorating leather. That smell of a dusty old book, I love it to this day.”

As he grew older, Hein worked summers and weekends in the company’s book bindery, print shop and microfilm department, under the apprenticeship of skilled craftsmen who helped build the company into the world’s largest distributor of legal periodicals.

But when it came time to assume a full-time role with William S. Hein & Co., which was founded by his grandparents in 1961, Hein felt he’d had enough of the ink-stained vocation. Despite his father’s best efforts to convince him otherwise, Hein was determined to forge his own career path.

“I kind of swore off the company,” he says. “I wanted nothing to do with it.”

He attended college in New York for two years before he and his wife (CofC alumna Denise Hein ’99) moved to Charleston and enrolled at CofC in 1997.

Shannon Hein '99 reviews documents in the College's Special Collections. (Photos by Mike Ledford)

Shannon Hein ’99 reviews historical documents in the College’s Special Collections. (Photos by Mike Ledford)

Two years later, with graduation looming, Hein received an offer from his father that was too good to pass up: His family’s company had recently acquired a competitor, and Hein’s father needed someone he could count on to help oversee the transition. Within days of walking across the Cistern to receive his diploma, Hein arrived in Littleton, Colo., to begin his new job. A year later, he moved to Charlotte to take a sales position with the company selling a digital product called HeinOnline, a pioneering endeavor converting printed books to an online, image-based digital format for libraries.

“We were taking historical documents and digitizing them, and providing those pages as online content,” he says. “We were converting law books and government documents for libraries. In that case, we were quite a few years ahead in our market.”

The HeinOnline database started with just 25 law journals totaling 250,000 pages when it was launched in May 2000. Today, it consists of more than 70 unique databases with over 150 million pages of content. And it’s growing at a pace of about 1 million pages per month.

The database serves as an aggregator of digital content, simplifying and centralizing the search process for materials. Customers include hundreds of academic institutions, law firms, government agencies and international organizations. The Library of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and the United Nations are among its customers.

In 2006, with his father and other senior executives at the company contemplating partial retirement, the company asked Hein to move back to Buffalo to assume a more senior role. In 2009, Hein was named vice president and given a seat on the privately held company’s board of directors.

The kid who once conjured fantasies of far-off lands as he roamed the ceiling-high rows of old tomes was now traveling around the world as an ambassador for his family’s company. And, in that role, he has helped forge new partnerships, including one with the College of Charleston, as part of a major initiative to develop the largest digital collection of slavery-related content in the world.

The database, Slavery in America and the World: History, Culture and Law, was originally intended to be another product in the company’s online offerings when it was first conceived four years ago.

But as the product launch date neared in late 2016, racial tensions escalated in many parts of the country, and Hein began to reflect on how the company could best contribute to a more open and transparent dialogue about race relations and the legacy of slavery.

While the company had survived and thrived for generations by gathering, aggregating and selling valuable content, Hein decided that business model, in this case, would not apply. The entire slavery database – consisting of materials categorized as either pro-slavery, anti-slavery or neutral – is now available free of charge to anyone in the world.

“We knew we really had an opportunity to do something good for the world and the library community,” Hein says. “But we didn’t really want to profit from America’s history and involvement in slavery.”

Given the company’s location in Buffalo, the slavery database was first populated with materials scanned from libraries in the Northeast. But a problem soon emerged: Most of those materials tended to be anti-slavery in nature.

To provide a more complete historical picture, the company knew it needed to infuse the database with slavery materials from the South. And Hein knew just the place to start. He contacted the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library and eventually connected with Harlan Greene ’74, head of Special Collections.

Greene was initially surprised that a for-profit business would want to provide such valuable information for free. But once he heard the pitch and learned more about the company’s rich history and reputation in the industry, he realized it was an incredible opportunity for the College.

“With shrinking library budgets, it’s more and more expensive to buy data,” Greene says. “And here was a company that didn’t want to make a profit over something that’s been splitting this country forever. I just thought, how refreshing is that?

So far, the slavery database contains nearly 9,000 volumes of content representing about 1 million pages. Some of that content was pulled straight from Addlestone’s Special Collections.

Archivist Mary Jo Fairchild ’04 (M.A. ’08) says the variety of viewpoints contained in the database provides users with more context.

“Researchers can look at an argument made by a Baptist minister in the 1820s on the virtues of enslavement right next to a pamphlet written by a Quaker minister who is talking about the essential evils of enslavement,” Fairchild says. “Uniting disparately housed physical materials representing a variety of perspectives in a single virtual space is very appealing.”

His passion for knowledge and discovery still strong, Hein looks forward to each new shipment of materials from his alma mater and other participating universities.

Sometimes, at the end of a long day, he’ll delicately pull a rare book from the latest collection that’s arrived and start reading. Once digitized, that same book might one day spark the imagination of another child on the other side of the world.