The Southwest Harbor Public Library has received a grant from the Knight Foundation to support its digital archives project. PHOTO COURTESY OF GEORGE SOULES

Digital archive draws Knight Foundation grant

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — A $35,000 technology grant has been awarded to the Southwest Harbor Public Library by The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to enhance the library’s digital archive software and make it freely available to other organizations.

The digital archive is a new model for sharing local knowledge that is rooted in time and place. It lets people view the library’s large collection of historic materials using data visualization, a technique that allows a user to view a database item, such as a photograph, while graphically seeing every other related item. Users can easily “connect the dots” by following relationships from one item to other items to discover stories they are interested in. The software also will interface with the Maine State Library to make the collection visible worldwide via the Digital Public Library of America.

The project began in 2006 when Meredith Rich Hutchins and Charlotte R. Morrill started using a database to catalog the library’s collection of historic photographs of Mount Desert Island. They enlisted volunteers to digitize tens of thousands of photographs, documents and other artifacts.

Hutchins and Morrill also teamed up with local historians and genealogists, like Ralph Stanley and Lynne Birlem, to generate volumes of information about the people, places and events depicted by the growing collection of images. This all-volunteer effort kept costs to a minimum.

In 2014, George Soules joined the project to put the database online. Assisted by a $2,500 grant from the Maine Charity Foundation Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, Soules and Morrill began converting the original database for use on the web, but they discovered that the cataloging software they were using did not allow them to present data in a way that was meaningful to 21st-century users. They switched to Omeka, an open source software solution from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. Soules, a software architect, developed Omeka enhancements that provide the kind of rich, visual experience that users, especially the younger generation, now expect.

“The digital archive engages people, exposes them to both historic and contemporary information, and helps them better understand and appreciate the uniqueness of where they live,” said Morrill.

Soules and Morrill started giving demos of the software last year. In response, they received over $21,000 in unsolicited donations from people who wanted to see the project go online. “A private grant from Douglas S. and Pamela S. Diehl, a generous Hutchins family gift and donations from individuals confirmed the importance of our work. Support from Knight Foundation validates the technology as innovative. Funding to date of nearly $60,000 is allowing us to turn a vision into reality,” said Soules.

The library plans to make the digital archive publicly accessible in July both to showcase the library’s historic collection and serve as a demonstration platform for other libraries, historical societies and museums that are looking for ways to make their collections more accessible.

The Southwest Harbor Public Library began collecting and sharing books in 1884. For each of the past six years, the “Library Journal” has awarded the library its highest honor, the 5-Star Library designation.

The Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. It invests in journalism, in the arts and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. The foundation’s goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which it believes are essential for a healthy democracy.

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