Local History Goes Digital in the Worcester Historical Museum

Wendy Essery gives a tour of her work sorting and digitalizing the Worcester Historical Museum. Photo Cred: Tim Jarvis

By Timothy Jarvis

Wendy Essery, library and archives manager for the Worcester Historical Museum, shared her thoughts on the state of the institution, its relationship with the city’s community, what it means to be an archivist in the modern world, and, of course, the local history.

Essery began her time with the museum a year ago, and many dramatic changes have occurred within that time. She described the condition of the library when she first arrived as “disturbing.”

Books with no bindings and seemingly arbitrary collections of archival materials were haphazardly placed throughout the library and archives which left Essery with “a great concern about the condition of this library.” The museum’s catalog had also not been updated in 15 years, which made simple tasks such as finding a book feel like a needle-in-a-haystack search.

The situation could well be described as a librarian’s worst nightmare, but Essery has brought nothing but solutions to the labyrinth of complications. For example, a book catalog project, which involves the digitization of the library’s books, is currently underway. Scanning library materials into a digital file makes them searchable by keyword, avoiding the endless quest for books.

Essery also hopes to create a rare book collection in the museum, given the obscurity of some of the library’s materials. This could impose a more efficient system of organization by identifying what items are present and what their significance is.

There are several other collections which have their own projects for digitization and organization, including newspaper clippings, ephemeral pieces, half a million photos, and a map collection. The overwhelming number of collections is one of the library’s greatest challenges.

“[We thought] let’s fix the place, so we can get to the place where we can have events and programs like most libraries and archives do,” Essery said. That milestone is not far off as, “now, a year later, we have about 75 percent done, but there’s still a lot to do.”

The central role digitization is playing in the museum’s development is reflective of how the practice is being used in the field of archiving more generally. As it would appear, not even our history is off limits to technology.

“Library science as a major has incorporated systems, so you can actually be on the software end of things in libraries,” Essery said. “The industry has changed. A lot of people are retiring because of it, and all the young people are waiting to come in.”

However, Essery explained that “we can’t digitize everything,” as the logistics of research would make that counterproductive.“You would be lost on the computer for hours if we did so.”

Having physical copies of books or newspapers on a shelf in front of a researcher still makes the process more streamlined than staring at a computer database for hours where one may be limited to the select few search words that come to mind. It would seem the balance between the digital and the physical is the ideal for research, given Essery’s insights as a librarian in the 21st century.

Essery also noted changes at the local level in terms of the institution’s strong volunteer and intern base. The library is usually full of volunteers and interns, all contributing to the larger projects Essery is implementing.

“I have not had to do any outreach — the volunteers just come to me, and the interesting thing is that every single one will tell me they love history,” Essery said. “People who like history are storytellers,” Essery said. “It’s almost like being a poet in Aristotle’s time.”

During Essery’s tenure with the museum, she has made it a point to stop sending people around in circles in their search for information, which she has diagnosed as a problem in the city. The public library, city hall, or any other place historical information can be found seems to send people from one place to another for their research. The museum’s library has set out to prevent this from happening by gaining the ability to provide any knowledge needed or at least being able to reference where it may be found. Information is more readily available because of the library digitization projects and commitment to breaking this cycle.       

“People want to know what they want to know,” Essery said. “People just say ‘I just want to know this piece of information and how do I get it?’” The museum seems to now be one of the few places in Worcester where you can do just that.

Essery believes Worcester’s rich history often goes uncelebrated.

“It could be obscure because people don’t believe it,” Essery said. “Like [how] the [American] Revolution began in 1774 in Worcester. There is a lot of evidence saying this was probably the beginnings of the Revolution. Boston always seems to want to take credit for everything; it’s always a game of I want to be the first one.”

But the true answers to many questions about Worcester’s history can be found through careful research.

“You can’t believe the first thing you read,” Essery said. “You should always be skeptical and questioning whether what you’re reading is the truth.”  

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