Women Making History: UK researcher helps communities preserve their history


LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 8, 2023) — Throughout March, the University of Kentucky is spotlighting Women Making History during Women’s History Month. These women are leading their fields of research and impacting the lives of Kentuckians.

Their work addresses key issues impacting the Commonwealth, like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. They also offer new perspectives on history by finding ways to preserve our collective memory and better understand it.

One University of Kentucky researcher is sharing her expertise as a digital archivist to help communities protect their history. Sarah Dorpinghaus has been at UK since 2012 and is now the director of Digital Strategies and Technologies at UK Libraries. She is a trained archivist whose area of interest has focused on digital collections and their underlying technology systems.

Dorpinghaus, along with colleagues Ruth Bryan and Reinette Jones at the UK Libraries Special Collections Research Center, created the History Allies: Helping Protect Your Past workshop series in 2015 to meet community needs.

“We offer a basic archives workshop that is geared toward community-based, religious or nonprofit organizations interested in better managing their own histories and records. It’s academically referred to as community-based participatory archiving,” said Dorpinghaus. “It's part of a growing trend across the archival profession about directly supporting different communities based on their needs, particularly those who have been marginalized or ignored by major collecting institutions, major research centers or universities in the past.

“We’re introducing people to tools and practices for managing their own archive if they prefer to steward their records in-house rather than donating to another institution.”

Dorpinghaus shares with groups how they can preserve websites, emails or digital photographs and offers guidance on digital file storage and backups that works within a group’s budget. She says the project has been one of the most rewarding of her career and a way to make a tangible difference.

“It brings together a group of people who all agree our history, our collective history, is important,” said Dorpinghaus. “We feel very passionate about making sure the archives that capture that history are taken care of and available for the future. Therefore, these workshops quite naturally lead to hours of engaged discussion and learning from each other. It’s invigorating.”

Dorpinghaus is also helping with strategies to capture cultural heritage in the moment during pivotal events, like the COVID-19 pandemic or Black Lives Matter protests, shared on websites and social media before the information, thoughts and feelings shared online are lost.

“We can’t get it all. The challenge for libraries and archives is capturing what we can and finding a way to make all that information available to the public for the long term, separate from whatever the creator platform is,” said Dorpinghaus.

The archivist is also exploring how that type of preservation work informs and supports larger-scale digitization projects and how that impacts the access to and discovery inside digitized archival collections.

“It’s been an interesting research angle because it incorporates user experience and digital library design thinking to traditional information science,” said Dorpinghaus. “We have to figure out how people use search and other digital library functions, then how do we structure information and describe resources to help users find what they need or even things they didn’t know they needed for their research.”

As her journey leads deeper into information technology (IT), a male-dominated field, Dorpinghaus touts other trailblazing women for their work to make campus more inclusive.

“I’ve received nothing but respect and support from my colleagues across campus. I’m not the first woman to come through this field. There have been others who’ve done amazing things in campus IT, like Kathy Hamperian (executive director of Customer Support and Student IT Enablement), who recently retired,” said Dorpinghaus. “What’s exciting to me is bringing more female voices to the table, especially from traditionally feminized professions like libraries. It makes me hopeful for the future and that some areas like system administration and code development, will continue to see increasing numbers of women join and lead the profession.”

Dorpinghaus also credits advice from Deirdre Scaggs, associate dean for Research and Discovery at UK Libraries, in helping her find an impactful research area and navigate the grant application process.

“I absolutely would not be where I am now without her mentorship and support.”

Dorpinghaus is a steward of history, memories and wisdom. In her role at UK Libraries, she, like other librarians and archivists, are ready to guide anyone who needs help.

Her advice to future women in research: “Do your best to establish a flexible but consistent work-life balance and have other hobbies and interests outside of your research. Attaching your entire identity to your work can lead to challenges down the road. It’s easier said than done, but it's important. It helps you keep perspective, especially if you make decisions that lead to major life changes, whether that be expanding your family, taking on new responsibilities or moving on to a different position. It keeps you flexible and focused on what matters.”

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.