Pictures preserve county's history

Legacy: Thousands of photographs of Baltimore County, dating to the 1880s, are available to Internet browsers, thanks to a state grant and volunteer help.

August 20, 1999|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

There's a picture of Mrs. Schwartz's Sunday school class at West Point School in Reisterstown, in 1905. A photograph of Main Street in Franklinville in 1942, featuring pre-World War II sedans. And the joyful faces of members of the Senior Glee Club at Sollers Point High School, frozen in time as they pose in the gym in 1961.

Decades ago, when these pictures were taken, the photographers might never have imagined their work would be available electronically for the entire world to enjoy. But thanks to the help of volunteers and a state grant to the Baltimore County Public Library, they are now on the Internet.

The historic Baltimore County photographs are part of the library's Legacy Web, a computer-arranged photo collection. About 3,000 photos have been put on the site, which has received about 1,200 hits since the end of June.

"It's a major undertaking to preserve aspects of the county's history," said Richard Parsons, curator of photographs for the library. "Buildings get torn down, bridges get replaced."

Legacy Web was launched two years ago but recently has been updated so people can search by keyword or browse alphabetically. It represents a relatively new approach for a public library to enable people to get access to historic photos, said James Fish, director of the county library.

"We've had a history of trying new things perhaps a little faster than some libraries," Fish said.

The county has collected about 15,000 photographs and hopes to put at least 6,000 on the site a year. The photographs, including police officers, hospitals, cemeteries and other subjects, date to the 1880s, although most are from about 1910 to the 1930s.

Last month, the county teamed with the Baltimore County Office of Planning's Landmarks Preservation Commission to digitize color photographs of county landmarks.

The site provides a means for the library to preserve the photographs while allowing people to view them without damaging them. Students can access them for research projects, and anyone can order a print from the site.

"It's like making a collection available that people really didn't know about," said Jason Domasky, the Baltimore County public library Web master.

Fish said he expects that more libraries will eventually take advantage of the same technology to preserve photographs.

"It's an interesting bridge from the past to the present to the future," he said. "And it's fundamentally one of the best uses of technology to preserve history that I've seen."

The county's site is funded by a grant from the State Department of Education. This year, the library received $21,000. Last year it received $41,000 to pay for computer equipment and a part-time worker to put together the database interface. Twenty-four volunteers help by scanning the photographs onto the site and writing captions.

The library will not apply for the grant next year, Domasky said.

"It's fabulous right now when we've got those funds going, but once the second year of the grant runs out, we'll be back to volunteers and me," he said.

Blair Donohue, a volunteer, said he enjoys working on the project because he has been able to learn new computer programs. He uses one program to touch up flaws in the photographs.

"It sounded like it would be fun to do, looking at these old photographs and digitizing them," said Donohue.

The library's Web site is at www.bcplonline.org. People interested in volunteering for the project may call 410-887-2422.

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