Effort envisions online archive of local history

The supergeeks at Google dream of creating a digital library of all the world’s literature. They’re not alone. Local history is entering the future thanks to the efforts of some members of the Saugerties Historic Preservation Commission.

For the past five years, Michael Sullivan Smith has been using optical character recognition software to digitize historic documents, which are then stored on a dedicated computer in the history room at the Saugerties Public Library.

Digital documents offer two main advantages: they can be searched using keywords and they can be accessed without risk of damage to the original.

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Smith hopes to make the information more readily available by installing the documents on all the computers at the Saugerties Library. (The computer they’re using now is a little slow.)

Smith has already worked through a considerable amount of Saugerties history, using OCR to digitize artifacts like the Saugerties portion of The History of Ulster County, compiled in 1881; and The Pearl, a rare and excellent book published in 1875 that had a limited run of 200 copies. Smith said the latter is “really the precedent for most of the histories” of the community.

Last Friday, a presentation by Smith and Myles Putman at the library offered an example of how historians could use historic maps to verify oral history — in this case, a 35-page history of the Flatbush area shared by the towns of Saugerties and Ulster. The account, compiled by Harry Carle in September 1979, included scans of the original typewritten manuscript and a pair of maps of the area. While that particular history was the springboard for the evening’s discussion, what was most intriguing was the idea that there may be other histories out there as well. If they can be collected and digitized, they can be protected from the ravages of time. Plus when converted to digital form, it’s just plain easier to access. Many are interested in local history but don’t have the time or dedication to tackle tomes of written documents.

“It’s easy to do research if it’s digitized,” Smith said. “There’s not a whole lot of pages to leaf through, and indexes to go through. Say you have an historic house and you want to designate it as a landmark. It’s very easy to come up with the records and the confirmation of its historic significance.”

Putman expanded on the idea.

“I think it’s a great thing, and it’s making a lot of fragile documents more readily available, and that’s really a plus,” he said.

Smith added that he would love to be able to get assistance from young people on the digitization project as well.

“I wish I had more of their help,” he said. “I’m 67, and these guys know how to fix the clock in my car when it changes.”

Putman said the absence of the younger generations at the commission’s meetings and presentations is noticeable.

Smith said Saugerties has a good network of tech-savvy history buffs, so it’s a good place to start digitization efforts. He’ll be meeting soon with members of the Southeastern New York Library Council, a group instrumental in the creation and maintenance of the Hudson Valley Heritage website, which is also interested in digitization. The hope is to generate interest on other libraries and historic groups.

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