N.H. Historical Society works to digitize entire catalogue

Last modified: 11/28/2012 7:24:02 PM
Bill Dunlap, executive director of the New Hampshire Historical Society, wants to make the past easier to find.

So ambitious is Dunlap’s plan of digitizing the society’s massive amounts of information and that of the state’s smaller, local historical organizations, that he dared mention drawing young people away from reality TV.

“We’re going to put John Stark up against the Kardashian sisters, mano-a-mano,” said Dunlap, only half kidding. “At least now we’ll have a fighting chance. My predecessor once said that if you’re not available on the internet, you don’t exist.”

Following the lead of his counterpart in Maine, Dunlap is raising money for a plan to one day make digital images of everything in the museum and library.

That means 31,000 museum pieces, 250,000 photos and 2 million pages of manuscripts. “It’s a big undertaking,” Dunlap said.

The project began last year with what Dunlap called the quiet phase, or the fundraising campaign. Money is being collected from private donors, foundations and grants, and is part of a wider, $9 million scope to replenish the organization’s endowment and make changes in areas like energy efficiency.

Dunlap said about $3.5 million has been secured for the digital project, with $1 million to go.

He hopes to map out a vision for the network sometime next year, implement the plan later next year or early in 2014, and complete the work by 2015.

Dunlap also said about two-thirds of the 30,000 museum pieces have been scanned and completing writings by 19th-century president Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire is a priority.

“We’ll take the most significant ones or the ones that would have the widest appeal first and go accordingly,” Dunlap said. “Out of 250,000 photos, if we can get the best 50,000, that’s a massive collection. We’ll just chip away at it.

“Massachusetts had a massive spike of interest because people became aware of what collection they had by having this online,” Dunlap continued. “Our hope is that as we become more visible, and the general public finds out what we’ve got here; that will stimulate a higher level of interest.”

The model for the state historical society actually came from Maine, where officials broke in front of the pack, creating a web design for their information 11 years ago.

“It’s continued to evolve,” said Steve Bromage, executive director of the Maine Historical Society, who’s been in contact with Dunlap. “We have been ahead nationally, with the issues we’ve solved and have been working with, the fact that we could create something that could empower local organizations.”

The Maine program, called the Maine Memory Network, has incorporated 270 independent historical societies within the state.

“You find these small historical societies that are proud of what they have,” Bromage said. “They want to be valued by their communities, they want people even in their towns to know what they’ve got, so we provide the technical infrastructure, training and support. We have them in for training or go out to train on how to fill out a catalogue, digitize collections and help them get up and running, and we also provide programmatic opportunities. For us, just that mechanism gave us great opportunities to develop relationships we hadn’t had before.”

While the New Hampshire plan won’t provide as much hands-on assistance to local organizations as Maine, placing more of the burden on volunteers, Dunlap said technical help nevertheless will be provided.

Dunlap also noted that the system will improve on the state’s ability to reach students and teachers, giving opportunities for research projects and lesson plans. Further, Dunlap said, visitors to the site will be able to plug into a topic and have access to any and all information that local organizations have added on the subject.

In all, 206 independent town and city historical societies are offered in the state, and Dunlap hopes most if not all will participate in a breakthrough he knows is long overdue.

Some have already begun the process of digitizing resources, and one particular volunteer, Bob Scarponi of the Canterbury Historical Society, had no idea a master plan was in the works when he met Dunlap at a recent social gathering.

“We have started the process and bought software, and we’re entering the data,” Scarponi said. “Then when the historical society was telling me their plans, my jaw dropped. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve been trying to do this on our own, in little Canterbury.’ ”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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