The Caprons of Paris: A Digitization Project in a Small Library System

The following chapter excerpt is from the second section of Digitization in the Real World; "A Diverse Digital Landscape: Digital Collections in Public Libraries, Museums, Cultural Heritage Institutions, and Knowledge-Based Organizations."  Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase online at Amazon.com.

Access the collections here.

Author

Misty DeMeo  (County of Brant Public Library)

Abstract

CBPL064509 The County of Brant Public Library set out with the goal of documenting the history of the founder of the town of Paris by digitizing a collection of his original papers. By building contacts within the community, the Library was able to successfully complete its initiative and open new avenues for future projects. The equipment and digitization methods used are described, with a special emphasis on the methods in which the Library was able to circumvent its small budget. The Library’s complementary local history wiki, and the project’s methods of promotion, are also described.

Introduction

One of the key goals of the County of Brant Public Library is to act as a gateway providing the most accessible routes to information. The County of Brant Public Library Digital Collections was envisioned as a means by which local historical information which was currently unknown or inaccessible to most members of the community could be made easily and publicly available. The goal of this project was not merely to provide information, but to provide the means by which the community could interact with history and share information.

The County of Brant, located in southern Ontario, is a diverse collection of unique communities, each with its own history. It has a modest population of 34,415 divided among 30 distinct communities, formerly separate municipal entities, spread out over 843 km² (Statistics Canada, 2006). The Library has five branches spread throughout the County. It was impossible for a single project to document the County as a whole. This digitization project was designed as the first part of an ongoing digitization program which would eventually represent the entire “community of communities” that makes up the County. The short-term goal was to document the history of the town of Paris, the largest community in the County of Brant, through its founder Hiram Capron; the long-term goal was to build an ongoing program documenting all of the communities in the County, using the Capron project as a method to open doors and create momentum.

The keys to the success of this project have been technical flexibility and innovation, which enabled success within a modest budget, and community engagement, which provided the support, contacts, and materials necessary to grow a small project into a pair of ongoing initiatives.

Project Selection

The Library evaluated a number of potential project partners when planning this project, from communities across the County. Unfortunately, for various reasons, we were not able to work with all of the local historical societies we approached.

Most importantly, we needed a critical mass of original materials – a body of materials large enough to form a hypothesis as the basis of a project. Local history is exponential – pursuing a sufficiently large collection of materials leads to new collections and new potential partners. While many potential projects had seemed promising, a number proved to be unsuited to this project on examination; some collections were small and lacked that force behind them which we felt was necessary to give us an “in” to the community, while others proved to contain many inauthentic items and reproductions which were unsuited to this project, which was focused on original primary historical documents.

An ideal project was eventually found in the Paris Museum and Historical Society, whose archives hold a large body of original documents. Hiram Capron, the town’s founder, is an important figure in the history of Paris and is almost unusual in that his legacy is by and large authentically supported by the documents the museum holds. The museum was willing to consider a partnership, and provided the Library with open access to its Capron collection. At the time of the agreement, approximately 50 items were identified for digitization in the project. The “critical mass” criteria proved apt: at the time of writing (March 2010) the Library has digitized a collection of over 425 items, provided by the museum and by new contributors, as a part of the Hiram Capron project and further projects. By beginning with the founder of Paris, we have been able to broaden the perspective to provide a wide variety of materials about the town’s history and to forge partnerships with new donors.

Several historical societies have expressed concern of retaining ownership and control over their items. One of the necessary keys to developing partnerships was to show potential project partners that digitization could enhance the value of their collections and their services, rather than replace them. Our partners at the Paris Museum and Historical Society have reported that their visits have increased since the launch of the digital collections websites.

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