Lenox Library's visual archive added to statewide digital collection

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Video | Sharon Hawkes describes the digitization of the special collections

Video | An example of the importance of The Lenox Library's digital archive

LENOX — The town library's repository of a vast, visual historical archive has gone digital.

The library, along with the Lenox Historical Society, has joined a statewide online resource organized by the Boston Public Library to make a treasure trove of images available to the general public for the first time.

"Because they're fragile, so many of these images are behind closed doors," said Sharon Hawkes, executive director of the town library. "They're not out on the shelves for people to readily access. Now, here they are, available for everyone to scan through, research and enjoy. This is one way in which we can make many of our local history treasures available for all to view."

The project, which took two years to complete, involved 2,277 images — plus about 400 from the Historical Society — consisting of photos, negatives, postcards, posters and early maps chronicling the town's history as it approaches its 250th anniversary celebrations in 2017.

"A lot of the purpose of what we selected had to do with what would interest the public first and foremost," Hawkes said in an interview, "but it also had to do with preservation — some were paper items that were deteriorating or glass plate negatives that we couldn't see the positive images of."

Among the most notable images are rarely seen interiors of Gilded Age mansions, a hand-drawn map of downtown Lenox in the 1840s, a watercolor image of the Lenox Furnace district, and materials from the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, the 1934-36 New York Philharmonic forerunner of the Boston Symphony's summer seasons at Tanglewood starting in 1937.

"This is such a large data base of images that you can search by subject," Hawkes said. "Those that were blurry prints are now as sharp as can be, and they tell such a compelling story. "

It's a sizable storehouse, emphasizing primary-source visual and written records, yet it represents but 10 percent of the library's 20,000-item repository, she observed. Curating parts of the collection with software providing narration for live programs as well as online exhibits, is among the library's plans.

Several hundred additional items will be added to the online archive, including the Berkshire non-consumption agreements signed in 1774 by 103 Lenox citizens vowing not to import or consume goods from Great Britain. The agreements heralded the start of the American Revolution.

To cull the most precious items, Music and Information Librarian Amy Lafave, a Lenox native and 20-year library staffer, singled out nearly 800 glass plate negatives, many from the late Walter Scott, the Boston Symphony's official photographer at Tanglewood from 1974 to 2005.

Lafave also focused her search on the Gilded Age, or "Cottager" era of Lenox. Most of the items are in the public domain, meaning they can be downloaded and used for any purpose, she said.

She suggested that Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of "Downton Abbey," might be interested in the archive for his new series, "The Gilded Age" for NBC. The show will focus on 1880s New York millionaires, some of whom summered at "cottages" in Lenox, then known as the "inland Newport."

The earliest documents in the collection predate the 1767 incorporation of Lenox as a town, Lafave noted.

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To identify details in the old images required painstaking and lengthy research, said Assistant Librarian Christy Cordova.

"If you look through this collection, it takes you in a lot of different directions," she said. "I learned so much about the Civil War."

"It's a lot of detective work, going back into the history books and to online resources," Hawkes added. "We've been learning a lot more about our own history by doing the research."

"I was thinking from a preservation standpoint," Lafave said, "but also what would interest the home Internet user." For example, she selected images of the little-known Erskine Park adjoining the George Westinghouse estate, which was removed to make way for the Foxhollow estate overlooking Laurel Lake.

She also selected documents by Judge Julius Rockwell (1805-1888), a Lenox native and prominent Massachusetts attorney and politician who was the last to serve in the Berkshire County Courthouse, which became the Lenox library building, before the county seat was moved to Pittsfield.

Pictures of Lenox Dale and its early residents, unseen until now, are also part of the online collection, Lafave said.

A slideshow the library presented for villagers at the fire station attracted much interest, Hawkes recalled. "They marveled at what their neighborhood looked like 100 years ago."

Digital Commonwealth partnered with the grant- and state-funded Boston Public Library in 2003 as the online host for more than 173,000 digitized items from 130 libraries, museums and other organizations across Massachusetts on www.digitalcommonwealth.org.

The project cost the Lenox Library nothing, other than staff time. Since local libraries can't afford the considerable conversion cost to digital, "it's really important that this program exists," Hawkes said.

She recalled how In March 2013, its precious archive was loaded into a van for the trip to the Boston library's state-of-the-art lab for scanning. Hawkes drove the van herself, noting that "we crossed our fingers that everything was safe and sound there. We got everything back fine."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

Digital History of Lenox . . .

What: A collection of 2,277 historic images from the Lenox Library collection, plus about 400 more from the Lenox Historical Society.

How: The images, searchable by subject, can be accessed via digital commonwealth.org (Click on Institutions, scroll to Lenox Library Association or Lenox Historical Society) or via a link at lenoxlib.org. Some Bound-volume items are at www.archive.org.

Social media: Selections from the archive are on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LenoxLibrary

Information: lenoxlib.org or 413-637-2630.


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