Digitizing local history for efficiency and preservation

Cynthia Jennings, director of the Old Town Public Library, does an online search into the library’s digital archives. Jennings recently invested $4,800 to digitize 96 years of microfilm copies of the weekly newspaper that began at the Old Town Enterprise and is currently the Penobscot Times. Searches take mere seconds, saving researchers countless hours of manually digging through tens of thousands of pages.
David N. Fitzpatrick
Cynthia Jennings, director of the Old Town Public Library, does an online search into the library’s digital archives. Jennings recently invested $4,800 to digitize 96 years of microfilm copies of the weekly newspaper that began at the Old Town Enterprise and is currently the Penobscot Times. Searches take mere seconds, saving researchers countless hours of manually digging through tens of thousands of pages.
By David M. Fitzpatrick, Of the Weekly Staff
Posted Jan. 28, 2014, at 11:49 a.m.

If you’ve read the histories in this year’s edition of the BDN’s Maine’s Progressive Business supplement, published on Jan. 1, you’ve read works created thanks to the resources of local history. In my capacity as a writer for Special Sections and The Weekly at the Bangor Daily News, I’ve enjoyed hitting the local libraries to dig into the histories of various things, such as the businesses featured every year in this supplement. We’ll get back to that in a minute, but first let me tell you about the fun evening I had a few months ago with the Brewer Historical Society.

When David Hanna asked me to speak to the society in September, I told him he’d mistaken an energetic writer for an actual historian.

To be fair, I’d written quite a bit of historical material for the Bangor Daily News, and I’d caught David’s attention after writing several historical pieces about the city of Brewer for The Weekly. I certainly had an interest in digging through local history, but while Maine is lucky to have a good supply of local historians, I’m a rank amateur by comparison. However, we do the same sort of digging — through town reports, local histories, city directories, state registers, family records, and other publications. It’s laborious work, often taking countless hours just to track down that one elusive fact that you’re looking for — if you find it at all.

So an amateur historian I am, but I knew I had a topic I could speak about. Readers of The Weekly might remember a story I wrote several months ago: My sister had purchased the Revolutionary War-era Loud House in Orrington, and with it came a cannonball fired by the HMS Sylph at crowds on shore in September 1812, as the ship was headed upriver just before the Battle of Hampden. A typewritten account told of a William Reed who was reclining on the front lawn when the cannonball went clear through both sides of the house and killed him.

In researching this, I discovered that every account had a slightly different take. And the work to track down those various accounts bordered on ridiculous. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

One book local historians use frequently is the 1882 volume “The History of Penobscot County,” which is a veritable treasure trove of historical information about every town in our county dating back to 1626. It’s also 922 pages and contains around 600,000 words, so it isn’t a book you can quickly leaf through to find something.

Luckily, Google Books had digitized a copy, and it was available, with original page images and fully text-searchable, online. That makes the task of finding something in that vast tome just as easy as searching for text in your word processor. It literally took just a few seconds to track down that book’s account of Reed’s unfortunate death.

I brought a copy of “The History of Penobscot County,” graciously loaned to me by the Bangor Public Library, to my presentation at the Brewer Historical Society. After everyone got a feel for the huge amount of information it contained, I demonstrated several searches for names important to local history. Each time, results were in seconds. The crowd seemed to get the point.

This is the sort of thing libraries and historical societies would like to do with their entire collections. Imagine if, instead of visiting the library and scrolling for hours through microfilm of the Bangor Daily News, you could specify a date range and a search term and instantly see every newspaper article that ever mentioned that search term.

That reality is coming. Recently, librarian Cindy Jennings sent off the Old Town Public Library’s microfilm collection of the Old Town Enterprise/Penobscot Times, a period from 1888 until 1984. That weekly newspaper, still publishing today, is a vital source of local history — one that is regularly researched at the library.

But those printed copies are deteriorating, some of them literally crumbling in one’s hands. Even the more durable microfilm won’t last forever, and searching that isn’t much easier than flipping through old pages. And never mind if a disaster happens — a fire, for example — that wipes out entire collections of paper and microfilm forever.

Jennings knew the value in making the investment to digitize that collection, which is now on the library’s Web site. Visitors will be able to simply search and find. Soon, Jennings hopes to begin sending off other materials for the same treatment, with an ultimate goal of digitizing the library’s entire local-history collection.

Jennings’ project was of phenomenal benefit to me. Two of the business featured in the Maine’s Progressive Business supplement — Governor’s Restaurants and Bowlan Averill Insurance — are Old Town businesses. I can tell you that the information I dug up using the digitized newspapers via the OTPL’s Web site was astounding.

For Governor’s, some of the advertisements I quickly found actually led us to establish that the restaurant, which had always maintained that it had opened in 1960, had actually opened in 1959.

And Bowlan Averill, which we thought had been established in 1906, was actually established in 1908. Furthermore, the sheer volume of results that I got when searching for various terms was incredible.

And the most important part of that was that I probably spent no more than a couple of hours trying search terms and opening PDF pages. Had I done it manually, it would have taken me a month.

This isn’t about being too lazy to spend eight hours at the library digging for tidbits. It’s about efficiency — about spending a few minutes for myriad results instead of many hours for a scant few. It’s about getting the job done so that we can spend more time researching the next topic.

It’s about ensuring that these old works survive forever, without worries that they’ll destroyed by water, fire, mold, or time’s relentless erosion. It’s about them not needing to be on shelves in libraries, and instead being universally accessible. It’s about bringing our local history into the 21st century and making it available in the way that coming generations will expect and require it to be.

Every library and historical society would love to do this. They only need the resources — whether they’re sending microfilm off to be digitized or establishing a local source to serve libraries and historical societies in that way.

And it’s not just libraries and historical societies. Businesses, families with private written histories, towns with collections of reports — everyone should eagerly embrace the need to get this digitization done.

I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, and I’d welcome the chance to talk to any libraries or historical societies. You can find me at indy@fitz42.net or at the BDN at dfitz@bangordailynews.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2014/01/28/news/digitizing-local-history-for-efficiency-and-preservation/ printed on October 2, 2014