Preserving history in digital age
By Lou Fancher
Before the current site of the Contra Costa County Historical Society Center housed county archives and artifacts, the brick building was a deputy sheriff’s office. Before that, it was the 724 Club, a bar that one day in 1955 underwent new management and made the local paper.
Archival issues of the Contra Costa Gazette that date back to 1864 include the mid-20th century edition that proves nothing outrageous happened that day.
“That’s my favorite thing,” says the society’s president, Scott Saftler, “finding things that happened. Nothing wild happened that day, except that I was born: I checked.”
And the reason it has become immensely easier to check this and older sorts of facts and records is the historical society’s Bookeye 4 scanner.
A Nov. 19 “Scan-a-thon” offered visitors an opportunity to bring documents, letters, photographs and negatives to the center in downtown Martinez.
There, trained technicians helped people to create digital scans, reserving copies for public access and sending people home with their information stored on 4GB flash drives.
Executive director Priscilla Couden says that people doing genealogical searches, businesses conducting property research, and environmentalists interested in tracing the history of toxins in the landscape find reason to come to the center.
Some people just want to know what Walnut Creek or Lafayette looked like 100 years ago.
“People who get a tour can’t believe how much we have here. We’ve almost exceeded our capacity,” she says.
Indeed, the 5,000-square foot space is stuffed to the gills. In addition to a small bookstore, office rooms — and even hallways — are filled with horizontal racks and files holding documents that often are so brittle they can no longer be handled.
Which is why the Bookeye 4 used to scan and digitize books, posters, newspapers, and other large-format print materials has folks at the mostly volunteer-run center celebrating.
The scanner offers a 16×24-inch flat bed, a V-cradle that locks at a 120-degree angle for delicate items, a 22-inch preview touchscreen and easy-to-understand, but sophisticated software.
The scanner and software cost roughly $15,000, and were purchased with funds from a special grant by the Lesher Foundation.
“We’ve scanned the county’s general index,” says Saftler. “Do you realize how much that is? It’s all the documents registered: deeds, mortgages, marriages …”
A three-terabyte hard drive stores the materials; Saftler and past president Steve Lawton keep physical disc drive copies offsite. A cloud backup service provides a third layer of protection.
“We’re looking into a 12-terabyte local network for storage for the future,” says Saftler.
Lawton is a member of the Hercules Historical Society, and along with its president Darrel J. Tucker, lays historic newspapers on the scanner bed. “Bay Powder Blast! 2 Die” is the all-caps headline emblazoned on the Dec. 9, 1944, San Francisco Call Bulletin.
Tucker opens an original California Powder Works payroll ledger; handling the cracked and disintegrating leather cover with gentle care. Inside, the handwritten names, job titles and pay rates tell stories.
“There are very few records about the dynamite company,” says Tucker. “This is 1881, the very first production of dynamite in what would be come the largest factory in the country.”
The ledgers, sent by a woman in Colorado who had no idea how her grandfather had acquired them, show that a carpenter earned $3 per day, a mason earned $5.
The county archives tell all kinds of stories. Couden recalls one visitor looking for naturalization records that belonged to his grandfather.
“Among the records there was a picture of his grandfather, a man he’d never seen. He was practically in tears when he saw it,” she says.
This memory explains why Couden says, “What we need — other than awareness about the center — are materials from people.
“Everyone has a drawer full of stuff their relatives left to them,” she says. “We want them to know there’s a good place to bring them. It’s all part of the story we’re building about Contra Costa County.”