Thursday, February 07, 2008

Other Voices---Adams County, PA Historical Society Moves Forward

Scanning History: Old Documents Digitized By Historical Society, Erin James, Evening Sun, February 6, 2008.

Wayne Motts is a "book guy." That's not too weird considering Motts is a historian.
But this self-proclaimed "book guy" has recently become a digital-loving, scanner-feeding, key-word-searching type of guy as well. That's because Motts is at the center - literally - of an effort by the Adams County Historical Society to digitize its vast collection of first-person accounts and other materials related to the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg Research Center opened in early January at the headquarters of the county's historical society, which Motts heads as executive director. Digitizing materials has been a goal for years, Motts said. But the idea of opening a research center that features a digital collection of information specifically about the battle - which means the material is entered into a computer and searchable with software - was first introduced in May, Motts said. "Historical society staff and volunteers have been working toward the realization of that goal ever since", he said. The main benefit of digitizing materials is two-fold.

First, the historical society can borrow materials from other local organizations - such as the Association of Licensed Battlefield Guides - and enter them into the center's database, making more information accessible to the public in one place.
Second, the digital collection is a huge time saver for serious researchers", Motts said. "But so far, one of the more noticeable results has been that a lot of "book guys" are turning into guys of the more digital type", he said.

Even the naysayers who first balked at the idea are getting comfortable at the keyboards of the center's two computers, Motts said. "Now we can't get them out of here," he joked. Tom Greaney pecks on the keyboard at the Battle of Gettysburg Research Center, searching for information on a corporal in the 9th Virginia Infantry. It's part of his self-help training on how to use the center's new software, so that he might eventually help others find what they're looking for.

The former New York City resident is new to the center and to Gettysburg - where he jokes he recently moved for the "wild evening night life." In reality, Greaney said he came to Gettysburg because of his love for Civil War history. And he's jumped in with both feet to help the historical society realize its goal of making its material accessible by computer software. "It's kind of a one-stop shopping type place," Greaney said of the research center.

What was once available only on paper is slowly but surely being scanned into the historical society's computers and stored as information on its state-of-the-art server. The books and binders remain on the shelves, but eventually Motts said the organization hopes to consolidate all of its materials onto the computers for easier, more convenient searching. The first priority, however, are materials related to the battle, hence the center that bears its name, Motts said.

Particularly when it came to first-person accounts - of which the historical society has 220 - researchers were limited by paper materials, he said. "You could only strictly search by someone's name," Motts said. Now, anyone can use key-word searches to narrow the field of information on a particular subject. For example, someone interested in first-person accounts of civilians who lived in Straban Township could simply search "Straban Township" and immediately eliminate the accounts of people from other municipalities.

And, the historical society is exponentially increasing the amount of information stored at its facility by borrowing materials from other groups and scanning them. Much of the new information is coming from the archives of the licensed battlefield guides, a group that has its own library of materials related to the battle. "But the regular public didn't have access," Motts said.

The center is open to the public - at a fee of $5 per day for non-members - during regular hours of the historical society, which is housed at Schmucker Hall of the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Appointments are not necessary, Motts said.
To complement the convenience of digital searching, Motts said the center will also have regular volunteers to help researchers looking for information. "If we don't have it, we're going to be able to point you in the right direction," he said.

Seated in front of another historical society computer, Jason Tercha is getting an education he couldn't have anticipated. The Gettysburg College student is an intern at the historical society and has been charged with the task of scanning dozens of files of materials onto the computer. Tercha, a history student, can't read it all, but he does his best. "I just grab a packet and read through what's interesting," he said. Tercha was using the slower of two scanners used by the historical society to transfer information from paper to digital form. The faster scanner processes as many as 500 pages in a matter of minutes. It - as well as a server, computers and software - was purchased with grant money and donations, Motts said.

"There's no way the historical society could afford that without assistance," Motts said of the equipment needed to make the research center a reality. Motts predicts the center will have scanned the majority of its battle-related materials by the fall. Beyond that, it will likely take more than a year to digitize non-Civil War related files, he said.

The project also includes photographs, which take time because they require accurate captions, Motts said. Unlike the mindless job of feeding pages through a scanner, captioning Civil War-era photos requires the expertise of a knowledgeable historian - meaning the historical society must rely on volunteers, Motts said. "Anybody can do the labor of scanning," Motts said.

The Battle of Gettysburg Research Center at the Adams County Historical Society is located in Schmucker Hall in the Lutheran Theological Seminary, 61 Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg. The center is open during regular hours, which are Wednesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. The center is also open Thursday evenings from 6 to 9 p.m. The center is free to use for members of the historical society but is open to non-members for a fee of $5 per day. Appointments are not necessary, but calls can be placed to (717) 334-4723.

Top Photo: Jason Tercha, an intern from Gettysburg College scans documents in the basement of the Adams County Historical Society
Bottom Photo: A magnifying lens shows detail on a map of Adams County at The Battle of Gettysburg.
Contact: Erin James at

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