SEARSPORT — Researchers and others interested in maritime and fishing history have a powerful new tool at their disposal. The publishers of “National Fisherman” magazine donated the magazine’s entire predigital photographic archive to the Penobscot Marine Museum here.
The museum is wrapping up a five-year project digitizing and cataloguing the archives. The whole collection is available in an online database hosted on the museum’s website.
“To me, the coolest thing about this collection is that it’s a way for ordinary people to see something they wouldn’t ordinarily see,” museum Archivist Matt Wheeler said.
“Most people have no idea what a day in the life of a fisherman looks like. And these photographers got to go out and see people fishing in deep water or with large vessels.”
“National Fisherman,” now published by Diversified Communications of Portland, began as a consolidation of several other regional fisheries publications. That consolidation happened in 1966, but the company acquired the assets of the older magazines in the merger, including many old photos.
The regional magazines included “Atlantic Fisherman,” which was founded as a monthly in 1919 and based in Boston (the offices later moved to New Hampshire). There were “Maine Coast Fisherman” (based in Belfast), “Pacific Coast Fisherman,” and others.
“We have the ‘Atlantic Fisherman’ collection here as well,” he said. It and the “National Fisherman” collection “are both fisheries trade publications that were published by and for commercial fishermen,” he said.
“In a way, together they tell one broad arc of a story. One of the things that they both show is changes over time in technology. Those changes, like the ability to build a 100-ton dragger with a huge net that can pull in 10s of thousands of fish at a time, were changes that led to the decline in fish stocks.”
The focus of the magazine is commercial fishing, but the publishers decided early on to include some stories and photos that would interest recreational boaters as well. Thus the presence in the archive of the Butler Amphibicon design, Jarvis Newman’s first fiberglass Friendship sloops, the Southwest Harbor Skiff Company and other chapters in Mount Desert Island boatbuilding history.
The museum created an interactive exhibit related to the photo archive this summer. Museum staff also have given presentations at the Maine Fisherman’s Forum and the Conference of American Maritime Museums.
The project is now winding down, Wheeler said. “We’ve got a couple of months left on the project and still a fair amount of digitizing to do.”
A group of volunteers spent many hours scanning or rephotographing the original photos. Two catalogers are part-time staff. Many, but not all of the photos have citations connecting them to a particular magazine article.
Support for the project included a grant from the National Maritime Heritage program, which is administered by the National Park Service. Other grants and fundraising made up the difference.
“We’re a modestly sized museum with a modest annual operating budget,” Wheeler said, “but we’re growing this increasingly enormous digital collection. People in the state have learned about our digitization program and have seen how committed we are to getting things out on the web.”
The collections include photographs by Rockland-based photographer Kosti Ruohomaa and woodcut artist, journalist and photographer Carol Thayer Berry.
The museum is at work on a “digital preservation plan,” which means working to make sure the digital assets will still be around and usable generations from now.
“A fair amount of care has to be taken,” he said, to protect against degradation to the physical equipment, which corrupts the data, and to store them in a format that won’t be obsolete too soon. “You can’t just put them on a hard drive somewhere.”