BANGOR, Maine — After having lived, studied and worked in such faraway places as Dublin, Edinburgh, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, a historian turned techie who grew up in Maine is making her way back home — and taking a piece of the business she founded with her.
Kristen Gwinn-Becker, formerly of Levant, said earlier this month that she’s returning because her company, HistoryIT, is growing and she wants to bring business back to the state, as well as to “return to living the way life should be.”
Gwinn-Becker, the company’s chief executive officer, recently opened an office at 245 Commercial St. in Portland that will serve as the headquarters of the company she founded two years ago in Evanston, Ill., where she will continue to have an office.
Thanks to modern technology, the company’s staff and consultants also work remotely with organizations and institutions elsewhere in the United States and abroad.
During an interview earlier this month, Gwinn-Becker said HistoryIT digitizes historical collections and other documents, so researchers and others have easy access to information.
“The idea behind the company is that we’re historians and technologists who can better build systems to support humanities scholars, to support archivists, to support librarians, to support the people doing the real work of history as the users of those programs,” she said, adding that HistoryIT now is starting to create off-the-shelf software solutions for those markets.
“Think about the ways in which we search for information now — we all have that experience, the way in which Google has changed our lives,” Gwinn-Becker said. “What we do is apply that same experience to historical documents, to materials that are buried, sometimes quite literally, in archives, in libraries, in people’s basements and we work to make it accessible.”
“And the only way it could be accessible is if it’s online, and not only online but online in some kind of way that the infrastructure behind it — the architecture — is designed in a way that people are going to be able to interact with it. Otherwise, it’s needle in a haystack,” a problem that historical researchers had faced for centuries.
Also a problem is that while the owners of important collections — many of which have limited funding and labor — can land a grant to digitize documents, they might lack a strategy for making them available, Gwinn-Becker said.
“So now instead of 12,000 pages you have 10,000 digital pages. But if those pages aren’t online and made available in a way that’s useful to them — beyond preservation, which is important — it’s not helping a greater [pool] of people access that material,” she said.
Once that information is made accessible, “we can then begin to look at historical materials in a completely different way because the more you can filter information in historical records and look at it in comparison … some of these projects can shift the narrative of the way we’ve been teaching history or understanding our history,” she said.
Simply put, one can have the best reference book or document collection in the world but if it doesn’t have an index, it’s essentially useless.
HistoryIT is one of the latest accomplishments for 35-year-old Gwinn-Becker, a self-described database and user interface geek who began making her mark in history circles in May 1997, when at the age of 19 she became the youngest University of Maine graduate to earn a college degree since at least 1991, when the Orono campus moved to a computerized record-keeping system.
At that time, she received a degree in U.S. history, with a minor in Irish history, graduating with honors in only three years of campus work.
Since then, she has gone on to earn a master’s of philosophy in international peace studies from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and a doctorate’s in U.S. History from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
A self-taught database and Web developer, she has also written a book, “Emily Greene Balch: The Long Road to Internationalism,” which is a biography of the second U.S. woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
“I keep busy,” she said with a grin.
Gwinn-Becker hasn’t yet moved back to Maine, largely because she is busy bouncing around among Maine, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and wherever else her interests take her.
For information about HistoryIT, visit www.historyit.com.