Sunday, December 29, 2013 — This is the first of a three-part series about the Stanly County Museum and Historical Society's efforts to keep local history alive in the 21st century. See Tuesday’s edition of the SNAP for more.
In a world of smart phones, tablets, Facebook and Twitter the subject of history can seem, well, a thing of the past.
“The museum and exhibit model of history, how do I put this politely, it’s waned,” said Stanly County Museum Director Jonathan Underwood.
“It’s not that people aren’t interested in history, it’s just how the story is told that’s changed. … Whether people want to admit it or not everything is becoming digital. People learn through surfing and browsing.”
In order to tell Stanly County’s story in a digital age, the museum is heading full tilt into preserving and presenting its collections online through three different mediums.
The first has actually been around for quite a while. The museum has maintained its own website several years.
Recently, though, the museum spent a little extra money on a software program called Past Perfect to get more of their collection linked to that site.
“We primarily use it for photographs,” Underwood said.
“It’s taken us about two years just formatting, programming and putting in captions that were needed … but we now have about 5,500 pictures of Stanly County available online.”
Accessible either through the “research” button on the main museum website, or by going directly to stanly.pastperfect-online.com, those interested can search the online database by keyword, title, photographer, people, place, description, collection name or even catalog number.
“My personal favorite is the random image button,” Underwood said.
Clicking the button brings up anywhere from 5 to 20 random pictures from the database.
“You get to see or learn things about the county you’ve forgotten or didn’t know before,” Underwood said.
And it’s good for a game of name that famous local figure.
“If you feel so inclined,” Underwood said.
The second system the museum is now using to go digital was adopted more recently.
About a year ago, Underwood caught word of a website meant to link as many North Carolina historical collections as possible into one database: Digital North Carolina.
“One of the best programs to preserve what we have now is called Digital North Carolina,” Underwood said.
Housed at UNC Chapel Hill and funded through various state grants, the program is meant to help local heritage institutions increase public access to their information, particularly by providing them with the technology they need to digitize fragile, large, awkward, or simply numerous items from their collections.
“You wouldn’t believe the technology they have up there to do what they do,” Ken Ringler, president of the Stanly County Historical Society, said.
On a recent Monday he went with Jonathan up to UNC Chapel Hill to take a tour of the Digital North Carolina facilities.
There was a custom-made book scanner for delicate manuscripts, a whole room for photographing large objects.
“One fellow had a stack of yearbooks about a foot high and he said he would have them done by next Monday. It was amazing,” Ringler said.
And the best part? It’s all free. The program has now helped digitize 318 problematic items for the Stanly County Museum without charging it a cent.
“We have to allow public access to the materials, but as a public institution that’s no problem for us,” Underwood said.
“It’s a small price to ask. … One of the biggest questions we face is how do we preserve our materials into the 21st century. We have things that we acquired in the 1970’s that are starting to deteriorate at a very rapid rate.”
One of the first items he took to Digital North Carolina was a medical ledger by Dr. F.J. Kron. Originally penned in 1854, the ledger was nearing its end.
“The next five people touch it and I think it’s going to literally fall apart,” Underwood said.
However, once Digital North Carolina scanned the ledger it was safely tucked away in storage.
“Now we can look at it without damaging it. … Digital North Carolina is a fantastic resource,” Underwood said.
Along with digitizing items for museums, Digital North Carolina also makes them available to the public on its own website. Anyone who goes to digitalnc.org can access the images at high resolution with up to 200% zoom, free downloads and printing available.
“They’re working on an app for all those hardcore historians too,” Underwood said.
And while Digital North Carolina has become an expansive resource for the Stanly County Museum, there is one other online avenue through which they may be able to reach even more people.
“The DPLA, Digital Public Library of America, is becoming the main source for research materials of all types across the country,” Underwood said.
What Digital North Carolina is to North Carolina, DPLA is to the whole nation.
“They connect the Smithsonians, the university archives, they connect the local history museums from here to California,” Underwood said.
Through Digital North Carolina, Stanly County Museum will be among some of the first local historic entities linked to the DPLA.
“So if someone on the other side of the country decides they want to do some research on Stanly County they can just follow the links on the DPLA to our museum website. We’re really excited about it,” Underwood said.
While museums may be facing some challenges in the digital age, he said it’s also brought them some fantastic opportunities.
“There’s a much broader audience now. It’s amazing what’s connected via internet these days… I guess, in a way, we’re contributing to that. But whether that’s good or bad, I’ll leave that to the readers to decide.” he said.
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