Our Digital Heritage

Bringing local history to life online

May 2, 2016

Meredith Farkas

A picture is worth a thousand words, and I think that’s especially true when it comes to historical content. Photographs can reveal so much about a time period or event. Local history can be especially compelling—I love looking at pictures of the town I live in from 50 or 100 years ago, seeing what has changed and what has endured.

Libraries have always played a role in preserving local history, but that job has become more complex as the formats in which materials may be available continue to multiply. On the other hand, the technologies to digitize and post local history resources online have become cheaper and more readily available, even to small libraries.

Some libraries are making it easier for patrons to preserve their own local history and to contribute it to the library’s collection. Much of an area’s local history is likely sitting in patrons’ attics, for example, and older photographs may be available only in the form of slides. Slide scanners have become less expensive, but most individuals wouldn’t consider purchasing them for short-term projects like this. That makes these scanners a perfect tool for libraries to offer. An increasing number of public and academic libraries offer scanners that will digitize slides or negatives to make them available as high-resolution digital images.

The technologies to digitize and post local history online have become cheaper and more readily available, even to small libraries.

Libraries and other local cultural heritage institutions offer community scan-ins, scan days, and other events where community members can get their items digitized and contribute some of it to a repository of local digital history. The Arlington Heights (Ill.) Memorial Library offers programs to teach patrons how to best digitize their photos and slides. It also shows patrons how they can contribute their photos to the local digital history archive, Home Sweet Home.

Making digitized local history available online has also become significantly easier, with many free technologies available to host or display the content. Open source tools like Collective Access, Omeka, and CollectionSpace allow libraries with server space and a small amount of tech savvy to create beautiful displays of digital work. Omeka in particular has robust documentation and strong community support. Some libraries and cultural heritage institutions have chosen to host their historical photos on Flickr, and in the Flickr Commons people can find, annotate, and comment on historical photos from a variety of institutions.

Of course, libraries can do so much more with digital history when they collaborate to find shared solutions. Put all of the digitized local history collections together and you have the history of America. The Digital Public Library of America represents the collaborative efforts of libraries, museums, archives, and other cultural heritage institutions to make the digital history of the United States available online. It collects not just photographs but also texts, sound files, video, and images of physical objects, all searchable from a single platform.

In many states and regions, libraries and other organizations have banded together to form DPLA service hubs to consolidate collections from diverse organizations in their area. Each service hub is responsible for contributing digital items of local as well as national relevance. The result is an amazingly diverse digital collection of our cultural heritage.

While the initiative of individual libraries in building digital historical collections is exciting to see, just imagine how much better and more accessible we could make our digital cultural heritage if all of our state or regional library associations and consortia supported collaborative solutions.