Putting the Past Online

by David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published November 14, 2001

There are many physical things related to history: buildings, objects, tombstones, battlefields and the like. But they are historic or historical and aren’t of themselves history. What occurred someplace, at some other point in time, or with an object, is the history.

Taken from this perspective, information is central to historians. They discover history, they document history, they argue with what others discover and document. They, if they’re good historians, share it.

People keep calling this the information age, and the Lower Merion Historical Society takes that so seriously that members are pulling the wraps off a method of sharing history by using that most modern of communication tools, the Internet.

For most of this year, Rod Keller has been designing and creating a Web site (http://www.lowermerion. org ) for the historical society that promises to be an invaluable public resource.

On Sunday, the society is having an open house at the Lower Merion Academy. Members are calling it “Before Dreams Come True,” because it’s the fundraising launch for refocusing use of the academy from a schoolhouse to a historical conservation and archival center, meeting facilities and computer center.

There will be tours showing where various activities will be housed and an explanation of what needs to be done before the building can become the group’s home. Alot of money will be needed to make the renovations in a way that doesn’t mar the historical value of the building. For example, the computer center is using a wireless local area network and laptop computers to make the digital information available to visitors.

“We want to demonstrate the computer center where we will have wireless computers, so we don’t have to rip the building apart to put in wiring. The wireless network lets people come in and use a laptop on site or search the Web site from home,” Keller said.

Keller is the site’s webmaster and has an abiding interest in computers. “When the Internet took off, I got interested in that,” he said.

He worked with society president Jerry Francis for several years. “He’s the impetus for this project, because when the society got a grant to produce their book last year, they said they planned to use the profits,” Keller said.

The society raised $93,000 from the sale of its book, The First 300: The Amazing and Rich History of Lower Merion. According to Francis, this will be used for work on the new headquarters, help with preservation of documents and to begin online publishing.

The share of the funds for the online program – $23,000 – was spent for equipment and software to make the system work. That includes the desktop computer server, a wireless base station, a hub for the network to have Internet access, an archival-quality printer and, eventually, five laptops.

“Electronic publishing lets us make historical documents available safely to the public and show the people who had given the society money that it’s been professionally managed, as they would want it to be,” Keller said.

“What’s interesting is that you are putting old documents into new formats so people can use them – many of these for the first time.”

Since many of the original documents and images are rare and fragile, few people ever got the chance to work with them.

The first step was to sit down and decide what to put on the site. “We went through requests of what was the biggest draw at the Ashbridge House, such as the atlases, and that’s what’s going to be available online first,” Keller said.

The society also wanted to make the site as graphic as possible. The atlas set, for example, was electronically fragmented so that people could reproduce it on home printers. “A lot of work went into making the atlas set friendly. We gave the pages names rather than just numbers, so people could find their way through them easily,” Keller said.

There will be more than 800 photographs, as well as sets of papers, most of which will be searchable by keywords, including this writer’s previous history articles. Other documents include diaries, documents, lists and artwork.

“We wanted to get as much information that is complete and full text rather than just a card catalog entry, so that’s why we have so many actual documents online,” Keller said. But there are some files that are bibliographic, like an electronic card file, that will tell a user where find information in the society’s physical archives.

“For me, the most interesting sections are the old histories which were often at odds with modern interpretations,” he said. “For instance, source documents from early times referring to something which happened even earlier, so you get a different interpretation of events. The [Joseph] Price diary was really interesting because we could pull out topics, and it was a real look at how things were.”

The final result will be that more information will be available to more people, contributing directly to the mission of the Lower Merion Historical Society. “I hope this is going to be a living process as people give us materials. The real advantage to not printing ink on dead trees is that you can modify it as you go along,” Keller said. Already the Merion Meeting has offered their burial listings since 1683.

“We can’t be open 24 hours a day, so this lets us provide people service anytime they want it. It’s a great melding of the new and the historical. The site is free; you don’t even have to logon,” Keller said.