Scanathon celebrates a digitized new-old world

By Sandra Snyder

Once upon a time, if a modern-day Scrantonian wanted to learn about something that happened in the city a hundred years ago, he or she would have had to put in time and labor at the local library.

Remember sifting through miles of microfilm, carefully winding and rewinding reels, then dealing with almost certain eyestrain, headaches or even nausea?

Such an antiquated, analog world has now become highly digitized, making instant information more accessible than ever.

Kristen Yarmey, University of Scranton associate professor and digital services librarian at the Weinberg Memorial Library, wanted to celebrate that fact – along with the city of Scranton’s 150th anniversary this year – by pulling the past farther into the future in a cutting-edge way that would put the University of Scranton in the limelight of the library world.

Knowing the city sesquicentennial was approaching, Yarmey explained, several historically minded individuals and groups – representing the Scranton Public Library, the Weinberg Memorial Library, the University history department, the Lackawanna Historical Society, the Royals Historical Society (a.k.a. the campus history club) and the State Library of Pennsylvania – put their heads together during the summer.

“We wanted to do something special, some kind of digital-history project,” she said.

From that meeting of minds, the first-of-its-kind, prototype-style Scanathon, which took place Oct. 24 and 25 at the Weinberg Memorial Library, was born. The intent? In a nutshell, to at least begin the monumental process of digitizing local history by scanning a trove of significant papers.

Adam Pratt, assistant professor of history at the University and moderator of the Royals Historical Society, explained further.

Yarmey is “the brains behind the whole thing,” he said.

“It was her idea, organization and energy that got the ball rolling” on what ultimately proved a successful, replicable, cross-disciplinary project poised to put the public in closer-than-ever contact with history, specifically that of city patriarchs the Scranton family.

“We wanted something that would be exciting and important but also could be done in a weekend,” Yarmey said.

Enter The Scranton Family Papers, what Yarmey calls “a really huge collection” housed at the Lackawanna Historical Society. It spans the years 1850 to 1917 and includes 19 bound volumes and about 9,000 letters, written by George W. Scranton, Joseph Hand Scranton and William Walker Scranton.

To scan and digitize all of these would be an insurmountable task in a weekend, so Yarmey and crew – 30 student volunteers and seven staff members from the University, Scranton Public Library and Lackawanna Historical Society – began with a meaningful but manageable batch.

“We decided to start with the first two volumes: George W’s letters from 1850-1854,” Yarmey said, noting a lot the content is business correspondence. The volumes are on loan from the Historical Society to the Weinberg Memorial Library.

“This was a really important time in the city of Scranton,” she said, explaining that all the railroads were under way and, because industry was ramping up, labor issues were cropping up.

The period thoughts put to paper by the city’s founding fathers are accordingly rich and revealing.

Pratt, who describes his Scanathon role as auxiliary – “in charge of the practical side of things” – said they also are captivating if for the simple reason that people “wrote and spoke in a way we do not anymore.”

“It’s always amazing, when you read anything from the 19th century, how eloquent they were,” he said, noting the letters also are fascinatingly different for each family member.

Some of the Scrantons were “so into the railroads, coal or labor disputes,” Pratt said, while “others were just normal people interested in family life.”

The process of getting so much legacy digitally archived for generations to come was not what anyone would call easy, requiring Yarmey first to travel to the State Library of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg to pick up and drive back the huge scanner, known as an Internet Archive Scribe Station, capable of cranking all this material in and out efficiently.

But, Yarmey said, the effort should pay off because “this is kind of a pilot project” as well as a practice run.

“The State Library is calling us the guinea pigs,” she said. “Being the first in Pennsylvania to do something is always cool.”

A successful first effort, pulled off in a controlled environment, maps the territory for future efforts, in which the public will be invited to bring in all manner of documents and photographs for scanning at a second, larger Scanathon in spring.

The spring event “could be a madhouse,” Pratt said. “We kind of hope it is.”

Fall’s initial successes do bode well for spring. Yarmey said the volunteers successfully digitized both volumes of George W. Scranton’s letters as well as more than 300 pages of loose Scranton family correspondence.

“Overall, we created 1,608 digitized images (over 20 GB), which will now be processed and prepared for publication in the Internet Archive and the Lackawanna Valley Digital Archives,” she said.

Those archives are a searchable database of digitized materials housed at the Lackawanna Public Library. Pratt puts it simply: “They make Scranton history accessible all over the globe. We’re bringing Scranton to the rest of the world.”

At the first Scanathon, students also created metadata, or descriptive information, for the George W. Scranton letters, Yarmey said.

“Whenever you scan something, you want to know who wrote this, who it was to, what date it was written, what was the letter about,” she explained.

Lackawanna Historical Society volunteers had transcribed some of the scanned documents in advance, often from difficult-to-read handwriting, and during Scanathon students prepared more transcriptions from some of the remaining loose correspondence.

Students will create spreadsheets to match up everything scanned, and the Weinberg Memorial Library will work with the Scranton Public Library to make everything available to the public.

 “The other exciting piece about this is there is another initiative in Pennsylvania right now called The Pennsylvania Digital Collections Project. It’s our pipeline to the Digital Public Library of America,” Yarmey said.

As part of that initiative, the University has partnered with the State Library and other colleges, universities and library networks to make the digital collections of the state’s libraries, museums and certain cultural-heritage organizations freely available in the Digital Public Library of America.

That partnership is another example of the kind of cross-collaboration that excites Yarmey, who says, “I think we impress our colleagues around the state because of all the groups working together here.”

She’s also quick to point out the intrinsic value of the efforts for students.

 “Digitization has completely changed the field of history,” she said. “It’s a really hands-on opportunity for students to try out some new skills.”