Provincetown News and Information
By Rob Phelps | Provincetown Banner
History was literally falling to pieces. Library Director Debra DeJonker-Berry recalls a time when the Advocate archives, dating back to the 1800s, were stored in the stacks with other rare documents, all in danger of disintegration.
“It was way before I arrived,” DeJonker-Berry says, “back in the ‘70s, I suspect.” But tattered pages were crumbling to dust at the hands of PHS students researching reports, offspring looking up ancestral records and historians hunting lost treasure.
A few decades ago, these bound volumes were pulled from use and offered only on microfilm, a research tool about as user-friendly as a tickertape machine. It’s been like that at most libraries ever since.
Those days are over in Provincetown, where the public library is among the first on the Cape to introduce an online database of rare documents. Only Chatham and Barnstable have also recently begun digitizing.
The movement for library digitization is actually about 10 years old, says DeJonker-Berry. She’d been eager to get started a few years earlier, but felt more comfortable letting others sort out the kinks before making such a serious investment. She became impressed with what was going on in Colorado, where the state government invited every community to digitize using a system created by the software company Olive. So she traveled west to check it out. Meeting with Olive representatives, she convinced them to do a smaller custom job for Provincetown. Then she wrote a grant proposal to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, which administered a $40,000 Library Services and Technology Act grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to produce the system.
DeJonker-Berry credits a collaborative process between many organizations and individuals for getting the system online in just over a year. She says the Banner loaned its “pristine copies” of the Advocate to be re-microfilmed, and volunteer Dick Caoette and intern Agnes Imecs planned how to prepare the papers for scanning. Ellen McQuade of New England Micrographics helped with document preservation and scanning, and staff from Online Computer Library Center, a nationwide nonprofit that assists libraries and archives, did the scanning and prep work for Olive’s custom software. Beau Jackett, the town’s MIS coordinator, loaded all the files.
Just over a year later, The Advocate Live is debuting on the library’s website, http://www.ptownlib.com. Only a click away are issues from 1918, 1931-’34 and 1936-’67, and soon all available issues published before 1918 will be up as well. The whereabouts of 1919-’30 and ‘35 remain a mystery, but DeJonker-Berry holds out hope that a stash might be discovered in someone’s attic or behind a wall of a home being renovated.
DeJonker-Berry says the ultimate goal is to provide all sorts of old documents, curiosities as well as those with obvious practical use like the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, which, like the Advocate, date back well into the 1800s and provide accurate detail on what real estate looked like, from the exact path of the railroad to where one person’s parcel of property ended and where another’s began. DeJonker-Berry also looks forward to digitizing “oddball newspapers” like The New Beacon, published here in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and a 1850s broadsheet called The Provincetown Banner.
Heralding the new system are two workshops to be held at the library: “Using Olive Software,” highlighting basic searching, printing, saving and e-mailing techniques, on Monday, Feb. 27, at 3:15 p.m.; and “Exploring Town History — Let’s Share What We’ve Found!” at 3:15 p.m. on Monday, March 6.
These special classes are advisable for anyone who wants a thorough and interactive tutorial from the experts, but the system is extremely easy to use without any training at all. (The Banner has put the system to the test for its Advocate Archives column and can vouch for its usability.)
One simply chooses the year, month and issue date and the newspaper appears on the screen, one page at a time. Users can zoom in on an article, make the text bigger to avoid eyestrain, print a story or e-mail it to themselves and store it on their own hard drives. The quality of some images can get a bit murky and the print tends to be fuzzier than most optical character readers can scan, but DeJonker-Berry says the library will share its freshly re-microfilmed images with anyone seeking sharper images, and overall the quality is remarkably clean.
The database is fully searchable, including advertisements and photo captions, and, says DeJonker-Berry, “it does quite a bit of thinking for you,” allowing you to search from a word or part of a word and coming up with bonus result options.
“What I find most exciting,” she says, “is the fact that it’s indexed. There’s never been an index for this material. We simply worked from clipping files and people’s memories, and the Provincetown Monument and Provincetown Museum has been wonderful in sharing their research. But we’ve just had a lot of pieces. At last we’re putting those pieces all together.”
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