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N.H. Historical Society taps technology to promote the past

What can you find by searching the newly digitized database of the New Hampshire Historical Society?
Clockwise from left: Cherry case clock made by Abel Hutchins in Concord, circa 1810; Portrait of Hannah Ayer-Bradley of Concord, painted by Samuel F.B. Morse, 1817; Militia cap from the nineteenth century; Wax profile, possibly of William Flagg, by John Christian Rauschner, circa 1810; Christmas card of Mount Washington from Jackson, 1955-1959; Sign from the The Coach and Eagle Trail along Concord's Storrs Street, 1980s. 

Illustration by Alexander Cohn / Monitor staff

What can you find by searching the newly digitized database of the New Hampshire Historical Society? Clockwise from left: Cherry case clock made by Abel Hutchins in Concord, circa 1810; Portrait of Hannah Ayer-Bradley of Concord, painted by Samuel F.B. Morse, 1817; Militia cap from the nineteenth century; Wax profile, possibly of William Flagg, by John Christian Rauschner, circa 1810; Christmas card of Mount Washington from Jackson, 1955-1959; Sign from the The Coach and Eagle Trail along Concord's Storrs Street, 1980s. Illustration by Alexander Cohn / Monitor staff

The future of history is online.

Leaders at the New Hampshire Historical Society reached this conclusion years ago, and their staff and volunteers have been working tirelessly since to prepare accordingly.

The grand vision: an engaging, durable web presence featuring virtual museum galleries, guided tours, lesson plans for educators and collection showcases from smaller historical societies across the state, said Executive Director Bill Dunlap.

The project is part of a $10 million campaign that Dunlap estimates will take another two to three years to complete and could spur membership and attendance at the society’s physical museum and library in Concord.

But while the new site has yet to be created, a milestone has already been reached: the digitization of 23,000 museum objects – paraphernalia, posters and other vintage tidbits – on the society’s main site. Think of it as a virtual attic in which anyone with access to a computer and internet connection can get lost in for hours.

The objects still need to be organized, but they’re up and easily searchable now. Each item has text and other curatorial information – where it came from, how it was acquired – and links to related material.

For example, type “maple syrup” into the site’s search engine and you’ll see a poster of a scrawny young boy lying in a field next to chickens and baskets of vegetables. “Chippa Granite says: Buy New Hampshire products,” it reads.

Chippa who?

Granite, of course, is the fictional character created by the state in the 1950s to promote its agricultural goods and tourist attractions.

And the poster is just the beginning. Tap the “Chippa Granite” link on the site and take a peak at the dozen other images the society has online depicting his appearances over the years (such as “Make Mine Milk”; “Going Places? New Hampshire”; “First in the nation, still the best: New Hampshire Potatoes”). Or click on “Alice Cosgrove,” Chippa’s illustrator, and discover that Cosgrove was born in 1909, attended Concord High School and drafted precision dials for Hoyt Electrical Instrumental Works during World War II before she created the signature adolescent character.

Then try “football” and find a dark leather helmet made by the Draper-Maynard Co., in Plymouth, sometime between 1920 and 1940. Or a sketch by George Soule – born 1914; mother, Katherine; B.F.A. Yale University; artist; architect – of members of the Civilian Conservation Corps tossing a pigskin.

Plug in “live free” and come across a 1996 campaign pin and a slew of New Hampshire license plates (in circulation featuring the slogan since 1971).

Or if at a loss for what to search, punch “random images” and see what pops up.

The online collection represents only a fraction of the society’s entire physical offerings, which includes 31,000 museum objects, 250,000 photos and 2 million pages of manuscripts. But it is nevertheless a critical step toward making those resources more accessible and appealing to audiences, especially children, said Dunlap.

“Preserving, saving and sharing New Hampshire history is our mission, and this is just a better way to do it,” he said.

Dunlap said the project was inspired by those in other states, including Maine and Massachusetts, which have already digitized and organized large portions of their collections.

Uploading the objects has taken hundreds of hours. Each entry has to not only be scanned or photographed but also cataloged in detail and assigned keywords to make it searchable.

One of the hardest parts of the process has been tidying up the records the society has amassed over the decades.

“Everything has to be standardized for digital record,” Dunlap said. “In the old days, an index card maybe had the state spelled out as ‘New Hampshire’ or ‘NH’ or ‘N. Hampshire.’ Sounds trivial, but if it’s spelled differently now, it won’t fit into a digital catalogue.”

Dunlap said the society has raised about $4.5 million for the project so far. The money has been used to purchase new equipment and software, hire new staff and develop a future online home for the collection.

Bill Veillette, atrusteeof the Historical Society of Amherst, lauded the development and said he was particularly excited about the chance for local historical societies to partner with the organization and connect their material to researchers, students and residents who don’t live in the immediate area.

“Right now, some of the collections in the local societies are really fantastic but they’re hidden,” he said. “This will help unlock them.”

And the move could prove especially helpful for reaching children with busy schedules and little patience for anything not online.

“If it’s not online, you’re invisible to them,” Veillette said. “So this will give you at least a fighting chance to reach younger people who are on a completely different schedule than the rest of us.”

For more information or to search the New Hampshire Historical Society’s online collection, visit nhhistory.org.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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