Library grant will help preserve local history

dgary@macon.comNovember 19, 2012 

Over the years, people have called Muriel McDowell-Jackson, devastated after they lost photos or other sentimental objects in a house fire or some other family tragedy.

They often turn to McDowell-Jackson, the head genealogy librarian/archivist for the Middle Georgia Regional Library, hoping that some portion of their history has been previously preserved in the library’s archives.

With the help of a $247,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, midstate residents will have more local history at their fingertips -- eventually without having to leave their homes.

The Washington Memorial Library will work with the Jefferson Institute, an independent research organization, to develop a custom database that will allow photos, documents, manuscripts and other content to be digitally preserved and web searchable. Residents are encouraged to bring family documents such as photos and birth certificates to the library to be included in the database.

“It just makes sense that we would start this,” said Thomas Jones, director of the Middle Georgia Regional Libraries. “These are things that can be easily lost. This kind of project will preserve these items forever.”

The institute will develop the library’s existing data and search tools and convert them to standards used by digital online archives, according to a release from the Jefferson Institute.

The team will first work to get the new database up and running and available for the community, Jones said. Initially, residents will have to visit the library to use the database. Access will be free, but there will be a charge to print certain photos and documents. That fee has not been determined yet, Jones said.

Eventually, patrons will be able to search the library’s extensive archive collections from anywhere in the country.

The project is a part of the national Digital Public Library of America project that is working to bring together digital content from libraries across the country. Beverly Blake, Macon program director for the Knight Foundation, said the database is an opportunity for residents to be involved in preserving -- and sharing -- Middle Georgia’s history.

After they’re scanned, many documents and items now in the library’s possession will be placed in a closed environment for preservation.

“For communities to be strong, residents must be informed and engaged. Everything that we are doing in the area of digital access is to build really strong communities,” Blake said.

McDowell-Jackson believes the archives should serve as a back-up for families, and she’d like residents to bring in their items to add to the library’s archives.

“I’m hoping this will encourage families, especially African-American families, to document their family history more,” she said. In order to document your community, it’s up to that community to bring items in.”

To contact writer Danyelle Gary, call 744-4347.

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