If you want to find out about your family history, there’s a lot of info on the web. But if the ancestral homestead or the great great grandparents you’re researching were in Vermont, chances are any photographs or documents will not be just a computer click away.
But a group of volunteers in Rutland is trying to change that and make their city’s history accessible anywhere.
“Our first role is to gather and save the stuff," said Jim Davidson, the long time curator of the Rutland City Historical Society. "The second part of it, which is essential, is to find a way to share it.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, two volunteers used a laptop computer and portable scanner to carefully digitize a stack of faded handwritten documents.
“Those are original civil war records,” Davidson said. “He’s already scanned them, but the process requires that you go back and verify that you’ve got them all, that you didn’t clip something off. Is it readable? It takes some work.”
It takes a lot of work actually, which is why few historical societies in Vermont have been able to put much of their material on the web.
Paul Carnahan, the librarian at the state historical society in Barre says the Rutland Historical Society "really is way out ahead, I’d say, of other organizations of getting content digitized and online."
Carnahan said the digitizing process is a complicated one.
"First you have to organize the material and if you’ve ever tried to sort through your own family photos - you know it’s not easy," he said. “Then the second point is that as you are digitizing documents and publications, you need to keep careful track of what you’re digitizing - and create what’s known as metadata which is information about the scans.”
If it’s not done right, Carnahan says someone doing an internet search may never find what’s been uploaded - defeating the purpose.
Volunteers at the Rutland Historical Society have been working for several years on their collection, and Jim Davidson says they use a free nonprofit Internet archival service for storage.
“We upload most of our material to their site, which has fabulous equipment,” he says, “so when you click on something it’s almost instant."
So far, Davidson says they’ve uploaded city directories dating back to 1872, nearly 60 years worth of high school yearbooks, historical videos, and photographs. There’s even a virtual walking tour of historic Rutland showing streets and buildings over the centuries.
And Davidson says people are responding. Visits to their website are up and he says they’ve gotten queries from as far away as Japan, Argentina and England.
Like most things today, he says even local history is going global.