Machias woman preserves Washington County’s past

Posted July 04, 2012, at 2:35 p.m.
Archivist Susan Wright uses specialized computer software imported from Germany to scan old editions of Washington County newspapers. Some issues of the Eastport Sentinel date back to the mid-1800s.
Dan Barr | BDN
Archivist Susan Wright uses specialized computer software imported from Germany to scan old editions of Washington County newspapers. Some issues of the Eastport Sentinel date back to the mid-1800s.

MACHIAS, Maine — In the basement of the courthouse in Machias, the history of Washington County is slowly being moved from paper to computer by one dedicated preservationist.

Surrounded by volumes of bound newspapers from Eastport to Augusta, Susan Wright spends her days scanning each page and uploading the nearly lost history that has sat for generations in the county archives on the top floor of the Washington County Courthouse.

Wright is a member of the Courthouse Archives Committee, a group of citizens coordinating the preservation of the newspaper and assorted documents held in the courthouse. The project is funded by the county’s Budget Committee and works under the constraint of a $5,000 annual allowance, leaving little financial wiggle room to complete a daunting task. The emphasis now is digitizing roughly 600 volumes of newspapers, some dating as far back as 1818.

“We surveyed other counties,” said Archives Committee Chairwoman Val Atwood, “and the most volumes of newspapers they had were about 40. Washington County has the most archived newspapers in the state.”

For almost 200 years county clerks had been keeping a record through the preservation of newspapers, census records and other assorted documents. That tradition of collecting newspapers in Washington County continued into 2000, the last year that the county clerk had the county’s newspapers bound.

“Early officials of Washington County were very far-sighted to know that these things had to be preserved,” Atwood said.

The newspaper archives once were open to the public, but difficulties with access and theft led to them being closed. In 1999 the committee formed and began putting the papers on microfilm for preservation and public access. That effort continued until the committee was able to purchase a large scanner earlier this year. Since January, Wright has been scanning issues of the Eastport Sentinel.

Using special software, those scans are read by the computer and translated into computer text. That text then needs to be proofread and edited to correct any mistakes the computer may have made.

With over 70 volumes, the task of processing the Sentinel is likely to take well over a year. In the meantime, Wright is enjoying exploring world history through the news from Eastport of old.

“Eastport was a major shipping destination,” she explained, “so the news was very international.”

The Sentinel carried stories of Napoleon in France, Bolivar in South America and pirates in the Mediterranean. U.S. news was also widely covered, including the election of Andrew Jackson and the 50th anniversary of the Revolutionary War. On the local front, the Sentinel covered the frequent commandeering of Maine fishing ships by the British fleet in Canada and the Aroostook War, a bloodless conflict between Great Britain and the United States that defined the northern border of Maine.

The project has attracted the attention of other groups that are hoping to follow the Courthouse Archive Committee’s lead and scan their own historic records.

As the scanning continues, the committee would also like to keep adding to their microfilm collection. They are currently trying to complete their collection of the Machias Valley News Observer which is missing the years 1975 to 1985 due to deterioration.

“The advantage of microfilm,” Atwood explained, “is that all you need to view it is a magnifying glass. Two hundred years from now, who knows what state the digital copies will be in? But the microfilm will still be viewable.”

The final goal of the project is creating a complete collection of the records on a compact disc format that is searchable, with a set of the Eastport Sentinel due by December. Wright has already created a pair of CDs containing five volumes of the Eastport Sentinel, one with a search feature. Both eventually will be available to the public through the Washington County clerk’s office.

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