Digitizing the history of Helena

Last year we brought you the story of how Helena’s former fire chief is leading an effort to get the city’s historic documents – dating back to Helena’s very beginnings – digitized and preserved.

That effort continues and to-date approximately 18 books, amounting to about 13,000 images, have been digitally captured by the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana in Missoula.

The first book dates back to 1881 and all of the years between then and 1943 are now complete and available online through the Montana Memory Project for anyone to view.

Former Helena Fire Chief Sean Logan says this project began several years ago when he decided to research the Helena Fire Department and found the minute books were stored in a closet in the City-County building and there no duplicates or backups.

He’s happy to have played a role in preserving the documents and making them available to others.

“That’s one of my favorite aspects of this is the ability to share it,” says Logan.  “Whether it’s a photograph or an artifact, if you get it and keep it hidden in a closet, it’s of little to no value to anyone but yourself.  But if you’re able to share these, that broadens the picture for a community like Helena.”

The Mansfield Library at the University of Montana is currently working to digitally preserve Helena’s city commission minutes from 1943 to 1961.

“This is 1942 to 1953.  Every single city council meeting for that period of time,” says Stephen Borsum as he lays his hand on a massive stack of loose papers.

Borsum, a marketing and management major at the University of Montana, has spent more than three years working at the Mansfield Library as a digital project supervisor, taking historic documents and putting them into a digital format.

“They basically figured out how to build a lightroom inside of a box and then attach cameras to it,” he explains of the equipment he uses to capture the images.

The process might be simple: placing the documents and snapping the picture.

But the impact is far-reaching.

It starts with being uploaded to the Montana Memory Project, which is managed by the state library.

“The information about the content is harvested into the Digital Public Library of America, DPLA, which is an even larger nationwide repository,” says Digital Initiatives Librarian Wendy Walker.  “So our content is being exposed at national, and then really because it’s all freely available online, at the international level.”

Beyond simply photographing the documents, those pages that are typed are then put through software that recognizes the words and makes them searchable.

“It doesn’t work very well for handwritten documents,” says Walker, “but for typed documents, especially if the pages are very clean and don’t have a lot of stray marks on them, the OCR works really well so when we place the PDFs online they’re actually searchable.”

For Borsum, what started as a part-time job to earn extra money has turned into a love of history and a window into the past.

“Sometimes it’s mindless tedium like the day they decided the regulation size of water drains or storm drains.  Or there’s some times where a city councilman stands up and makes an impassioned speech about World War II and how we need to be supporting our troops and what the purpose of the city of Helena was at that time.  So it’s all ends of the spectrum that I end up reading,” says Borsum.

The historic books holding the city minutes remain at the City-County Building in Helena.

Walker says digitizing them does help preserve them by making a duplicate copy, but it also increases the documents’ longevity by minimizing how much they’re handled.

“In some cases the tangible copy is so worn that the digital copy then really has to be that preservation copy,” says Walker.  “But if you get, like with these Helena books, are actually in really decent condition, as long as they’re kept well, and that physical handling of them is minimized,  which is what digitization really does, it helps preserve the originals in a way.  Digitizing something can actually help preserve the original because you don’t need to touch the original.”

Funding for the digitization project has been provided by the Montana History Foundation and Montana Memory Project, with matching dollars from the city of Helena.

Click here to go to the Montana Memory Project website: montanamemory.org/

Click here for a direct link to view the Helena documents: mtmemory.org/cdm/search/collection/p16013coll35