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Digital project captures the past

50 old yearbooks now posted online

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2011
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Access is what libraries are all about, says Carrie Tucker, East Bridgewater High School librarian, and now anyone who can log onto the Internet can check out 50 years of that town’s high school yearbooks with the click of a mouse, whether they are across the street or across the Atlantic.

The digitization of 50 editions (1960-2009) of The Torch was made possible with a $100,000 federal grant awarded by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to the Boston Public Library, to help provide broad access to records and documents of cultural institutions across the state by making them available online.

East Bridgewater was one of the first to submit a project, and became the first in the state to have its yearbooks digitized for free. They are now available on the high school’s website and on Digital Commonwealth, the state repository for such online data.

“The offer had gone out to all libraries, museums, and historical groups,’’ Tucker said. “I thought every library in the state would jump on this opportunity.’’ She quickly secured the go-ahead from high school principal Paul Vieira and completed the online application several weeks ago. She heard it was accepted about two weeks later.

A Boston Public Library team typically will evaluate the condition of documents and photographs to be digitized; the local library, meanwhile, must organize its materials.

Led by Tom Blake, digital projects manager, team members showed up in East Bridgewater last month. “Five of them came to the high school in this tiny Zipcar,’’ Tucker said. “They got out, spent 20 minutes, and left with the yearbooks.’’ Not long after, the material was available online.

Norwood is not far behind.

Norwood High School’s librarian, Beth Goldman, said she expected to have her material ready by last week. “What we’re most concerned about are the earlier yearbooks,’’ she said. “They are very small with covers made of paper. The early ones, from 1922, have just a few black-and-white pictures,’’ and the books are dilapidated from years of use.

“They are falling apart, and if that happens, we’re not going to keep little pieces of paper,’’ Goldman said.

She said she plans to start with 1922 and go as far as she can under the grant’s limits. “It’s a little bit of history and it seems people are really attached to their high school memories,’’ she said. “It’s also a nice way to bridge generations in a family.’’

The digitization service isn’t limited to yearbooks. Under the grant program, applicants can ask to have up to 50 volumes or 5,000 individual items - such as photos, manuscript pages, or posters - digitized. To date, 19 organizations have submitted projects.

“It’s been a lot of fun,’’ said Blake. “We’re getting inundated with calls from libraries and archive institutions. Some have proposals, and others are looking for information.’’

In addition to East Bridgewater and Norwood high schools, applicants in this area include the West Bridgewater Public Library, Halifax Public Library, and the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy.

In Quincy, Linda Bieler, head of reference at the Crane library, is leading an effort to get historic glass negatives from the late 19th and early 20th centuries scanned and made available online.

“In the past, we’ve had two similar grants through the Board of Library Commissioners that dealt with specific topics,’’ Bieler said. “One was the granite industry, and the other was shipbuilding. Those were about 10 years ago, and the technology was different. The collection as a whole has never been systematically digitized.’’

The Crane library has 4,500 glass images stored in its historic room. The images, which are part of the Warren S. Parker collection, were purchased in 1945 for $2,500. Parker, a longtime building inspector in Quincy as well as a history buff, used the glass negatives to illustrate his presentations on local history.

Bieler is looking to have all 4,500 images digitized. “We have packaged them very carefully, and they have already picked them up,’’ she said. “They said they should be ready for us by Christmas.’’

Once the images are digitized, the library will take over, Bieler said. “We still have to catalogue and tag them,’’ she said. “It’s very complicated.’’

Meanwhile, Halifax history buffs are deciding what to submit. Debra DeJonker-Berry, Holmes Public Library director, said Silver Lake Regional High School yearbooks will probably be included. And the Halifax Historical Museum is expected to select several historic photos of the town for submission.

The Rev. Joseph Donovan is sifting through the Halifax Congregational Church’s records.

“The Congregational Church has been central to our town since its 1734 founding,’’ Donovan said in an e-mail. “I’m quite excited at the project because it affords the ability of Halifax’s history to be read, understood, and studied on a primary source level, which would be impossible given the fragile nature of some artifacts and documents.’’

Christine Legere can be reached at

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