Monday December 5, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- Personal letters of George N. Briggs -- the only Pittsfield resident ever elected governor of Massachusetts -- are among the thousands of the city's historical private and public manuscripts the local library plans to preserve for future generations.

The Berkshire Athenaeum has received a $30,000 federal grant through the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners to digitally scan nearly 15,000 documents into its computer system for research purposes. The digital images will then be transferred to microfilm as a backup to the computerized copies, according Kathleen Reilly, the athenaeum's local history department supervisor.

Berkshire Athenaeum staff had to convince federal financial officials of Pittsfield's need for the highly competitive funding, according to director Ronald Latham.

"Because the city is celebrating its 250th anniversary, we told them we had a lot of documents important to us, so the feds bounced up our application as a high priority," said Latham.

Currently, the majority of the manuscripts are stored in an environmentally controlled vault, as some date back to the late 1700s.

Library officials claim the preservation effort will improve public access to the library's vast collection of materials that help document Pittsfield's past.

"We have authors writing books, families researching their history and students doing papers who want to view these unique items that can't be found anywhere else," Reilly said.

Reilly noted the Briggs letters feature many written to and received from his children that provide insight into the Berkshire County native who was the state's governor from 1844 to 1851.

"We have papers of his that we would like people to have better access to," she said.

Other historical documents on the preservation list include personal diaries, school records and a letter from Thomas Melville Jr., the younger brother of author Herman Melville, who wrote "Moby-Dick" while living in Pittsfield.

The library will soon put the project out to bid, and the work is expected to be completed by early next fall.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.