Digitization at the BPL and a Digital Library for Massachusetts: Chapter 6

Authored by Christina Manzo, Digital Projects Intern, on February 17, 2012

Raiders of Lost History

Over the course of this grant project, the Boston Public Library team has been lucky enough to visit some of the prettiest libraries that the state has to offer. From small, redbrick buildings to newly renovated structures, I would safely boast that Massachusetts has some of the prettiest libraries in the country. So when we pulled up to a storage facility in Mattapoisett, we were all a little unsure of what to expect. But if there’s anything I’ve learned from working at the BPL, it’s that you find the most interesting items in the oddest places. When we first entered the facility, we were taken to a private room where we could examine the collection proposed for digitization by the Mattapoisett Free Public Library. The boxes were pulled from a giant storage warehouse not unlike the one from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Contained within was the complete, half-century run of a local newspaper called The Presto Press, a magazine-format serial publication that included everything from want-ads to local historical and genealogical information.

The first thing that strikes you about The Presto Press is the cover art. The publisher, Donald Jason, was a talented artist and illustrated a good majority of the covers himself. The real prize at the bottom of these serial boxes, however, is the advertisements. Normally, readers tend to skim over advertisements in any publication. When the publication is historic, however, the ads become a window into the miniscule, almost negligible parts of history that often get overlooked.

For example, in The Presto Press, you could see ads for a number of items, services, and local businesses, including some that are still around today. The fact that you can discover the price of roast beef or milk ($0.75 per pound and $0.45 per gallon respectively) or how sewing machine companies tried to reach women of that era, is simply amazing. These are aspects of history that are largely ignored, but they play a role in how we understand our past.

It’s like having our own local version of Mad Men. By comparing an add for a sewing machine from 1955…

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to how the same product is portrayed today…

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we can see how the country, its people, and the world has changed over time.

With or without the trademark fedora and whip, I think it’s undeniable that all librarians have a little bit of Indy in them. Even if they don’t escape from snake pits or hijack any German U-boats.

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Digitization at the BPL and a Digital Library for Massachusetts: Chapter 3

Authored by Christina Manzo, Digital Projects Intern, on March 28, 2012

FAME! (I’m Gonna Live Forever!)

“Every last one, route one, rural heart’s got a story to tell.
Every grandma, in-law, ex-girlfriend
Maybe knows it just a little too well.
Whether you’re late for church or you’re stuck in jail,
Hey, words gonna get around.
Everybody dies famous in a small town.”
-Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town

One of the biggest surprises our team has encountered during this grant has been the overwhelming demand for the digitization of yearbooks. When we first began this project, we assumed that librarians would be clamoring to give us the rare manuscripts and antique printed treasures that researchers flock from miles away to see. But instead, we asked librarians to start with what their patrons use the most. The answer was overwhelmingly clear: it seemed yearbooks were the new ‘it girl’ of digitization. So when our team traveled to the Newton Free Library, we weren’t surprised to find that an almost century-long run of the Newton Public High School yearbooks was at the top of this library’s digitization ‘to do’ list.

I think the reason that people are naturally drawn to yearbooks has something to do with their intensely personal nature. It’s not only a snapshot in history, but a snapshot of who you used to be and how you’ve changed (or haven’t changed in some cases). And I think that desire for progress is what keeps library patrons coming back to their old high school yearbooks. It’s a direct measurement of personal growth through the lens of your former self. In fact, when I was younger I used to write letters to my future self in the back pages of my yearbooks. I would tell myself things like, ‘I hope by now we’re a famous writer and we travel to all kinds of different fascinating places with our husband, Michael Vartan (give me a break, I was 11. At least I got the first half of it right. I am a writer of sorts and I do get to travel to all sorts of interesting places for my job. I just don’t happen to be married to the star of Alias).

But I digress. These particular yearbooks held an exceptionally fascinating entry. On first glance, it’s simply a picture of Student Council officers, but if you look at the first name from the right, you can make out the name ‘Davis’. As in Bette Davis, the recipient of 10 Academy Awards for her work in movies such as Jezebel, The Little Foxes, All About Eve and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But before all that, she was just plain old Ruth Elizabeth Davis from Lowell, Mass.

During her 60 year acting career, Bette Davis knew the kind of fame reserved for the absolute highest of the A-List celebrities and in 1999, the American Film Institute named her as the second greatest female star of all time (the number one slot went to Katherine Hepburn). But the thing about yearbooks is that regardless of how far you go in life or what you do or don’t accomplish, everyone captures fame for at least one moment, and it’s recorded in these pages. Like the song says “everyone dies famous in a small town.” Newton, MA might not be the smallest town in the world, but I think the concept still applies. That desire to feel like you were a part of something great applies not only to famous movie stars, but also to the clerk at your local supermarket.

People have a want and a need to reflect on their achievements, their progress as people, and their own fame. And this desire is what makes the yearbook digitization’s “it girl.”

To read more about our efforts to digitize yearbooks, check out this Boston Globe article.

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