Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Fabric of a Nation: Historical Societies

The United States is dotted with thousands of Historical Societies. Some, like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (mentioned in detail in the February 2, 2013 Finding Stuff post) are chock-a-block full of digital documents and finding aids. Others, like the tiny Russian River Historical Society in Monte Rio, California don’t have much in the way of textual sources, but have a splendid selection of digitized photographs—in this case images depicting life among the redwoods along the Russian River.

There are dozens of photographs in their gallery, dating from about 1890 through 2011—with the richest troves in the early 20th century. They are classified by town. All images are downloadable JPEGs of quite decent quality. However, all images have a white historical society logo watermark in the center of the frame.

For general research, the watermark is not a hindrance. But if you want to use clear images you’ll have to contact the society and order prints or digital copies (and get permissions). The charge for one 8x10 print is $17. And the charge for a single image on a CD is $15 plus $8 for the CD. Add $10 for shipping of either. In this age of ultra-modern telecommunications, it would seem better, faster, and cheaper if the RRHS could email the file as a .jpg. In the case of a digital scan that would save users $18 per order. Their photo order form says nothing about discounts for additional images. 

Down in the hometown of Apple you’ll find the Cupertino Historical Society and Museum. There, in the very heart of Silicon Valley, you might expect to find a fabulous trove of amazing stuff. Or not. The CHSM lists no digital resources on their website —no historical photos, no documents, no oral histories. What a disappointment. But they do list links to other local repositories, including the California History Center 
at Cupertino’s De Anza College.

The California History Center is a great source for South Bay Area materials. They have student research papers, thousands of photographs, hundreds of oral histories, maps, clippings, and other primary sources. Unfortunately none of this is yet available online—not even finding aids. (To be fair, some of their photos are available on the Silicon Valley History Online website.

Sticking around Northern California, there are two really good sources for stuff: The San Francisco Public Library and the California Historical Society.

On the former’s home page click on eLibrary. That takes you to a page of SFPL links. The two that are of most interest to researchers are SF Historical Photos and SFPL-Created Research Tools.

The photo collection has more than 38,000 online images available for download. If you go to the Browse by Subject page you’ll be confronted by a few dozen broad categories, like Banks, Bars, and Baseball. Some of the listing can be browsed alphabetically, others by subjects—Baseball, for example, is divided into Early, Giants, and Seals. And some categories have both features. 

Browsing Baseball, Seals, brings up 52 thumbnail images of that pre-Giants minor league team and their compact stadium.  

If you find an image you like, you can click on View Full Record for more information and click to a larger, downloadable, image. 

If you’re just researching, then this image will probably be fine. But for commercial use, you must get permission from the library. You may also order a print or a scan (the scan is certainly the better bet). For $15 you can get a 300dpi TIFF file of any existing image in the database.

The California Historical Society is also based in San Francisco. They currently have 23,000 records, only 40 of which are digitized. However, most of their Finding Aids are available online (in conjunction with the OAC—the Online Archive of California [more about this amazing resource in a later post]).

Navigate to the SearchCollections page and enter your search term(s) into either of the boxes provided (I usually start with the CHS’s). 

I wanted to know what they might have about my favorite old subject, Asbury Harpending

Type the name. Click. And up come four entries. The first is the one I’m really excited about: his Personal Papers. By clicking on that, the Finding Aid appears. It tells me that the CHS has ten boxes of material, three of which are flat (suggesting maps, plans, or other large items). There is a brief summary of the scope and content of the collection, but, alas, no box-level descriptions.

To troll Harpending’s papers I’ll either have to go to San Francisco myself (sounds like fun—great food!) or hire a researcher to fish for me.

The U.S. is abuzz with historical societies. The smaller ones, working on tiny budgets, and relying mainly on volunteers, are trying their best to catch up to the 21st century. But it will take time. If you want to speed up the process, consider volunteering at your local society. 

In the next post we’ll get take a look at the digital offerings of college and university special collections.
If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog. 

Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

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