Rummage time: North Adams group seeks bits of history from basements, attics

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Kim DiLego pulled the cover off a pale green cardboard container labeled "Ephemera Box 1" and leafed through the remnants of fleeting time.

She sorted through the pile of memorabilia protected by frames or plastic sleeves: a tea-colored, colonial-period "two-thirds dollar"; a wooden stamping block for T.C. Farley, registered pharmacist; a pink postcard depicting cats from the circa-1870 C.H. Cutting & Co. store.

"This, I assume, is from one of the pharmacies," said DiLego, the adult reference services librarian at the North Adams Public Library,

She examined a wrinkled paper bag, advertising "Sun Paste Stove Polish."

It's the ordinary, primary source objects, DiLego explained, that help people understand the past, and these things are what the library, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and the North Adams Historical Society are all asking local residents to share for the new Historic North Adams project.

The three partners recently won a $15,000 grant from the nonprofit Mass Humanities. They'll use the money to build a website and mobile app, employing the map-based program Curatescape, which allows users to access local history through audio oral storytelling, video, archival images, as well as curated tours.

Ely Janis, an associate professor of history at MCLA, is overseeing the project.

"I think the people who haven't been here for a long time focus on the story of how North Adams is going to improve or how North Adams is changing," he said. But the city's legacy is just as important, he said, which is why MCLA has created a public history minor and is involved with the Historic North Adams initiative.

"There's so much history here," Janis said.

Much of that history likely is hiding inside the city's homes, up in hot attics, down in dank basements, inside messy desks and woven through human memory. That's the stuff North Adams Public Library Director Mindy Hackner hopes people will bring to a Nov. 3 event called "History Harvest."

"We will have students from MCLA here up on the third floor, where we will have scanners, interview booths," Hackner said. "Things to take down oral history and digitized history."

Once recorded in digital form, these photos, stories and images of objects can be put into the Historic North Adams online platform.

Janis said he expects the website and mobile app to launch sometime next April. In the meantime, he's considering other ideas, such as physical exhibits around North Adams, to make sure the city's history is accessible for the less internet-savvy, too.

"We want to give people an opportunity to come together," Janis said.

This spirit is what Abbye Meyer, Mass Humanities director of grants, said appealed to the nonprofit group about the North Adams project.

"We were really impressed with the effort to engage all residents," she said. "In general, we're looking for projects that cultivate communication, discussion ... between different groups of people."

Mass Humanities doesn't often hear from Berkshires organizations, Meyer added, and the agency was also excited about scholars teaching community members how to protect local history.

Hackner said the preservation of history seems more urgent now than ever.

"I think people feel the acceleration of time, especially in the online-driven world where the pace is so fast," Hackner said. "I think there's this kind of need to go back and look at a simpler time."

DiLego, a lifelong native of North Adams, said the Historic North Adams project offers a kind of renewal to the city: something good to focus on, together.

With the opioid crisis "overshadowing everything," she said, "this gives us something positive to put our energy into."

DiLego added, "It's hopefully going to have neighbors talking again."

Elodie Reed can be reached at elodierosereed@gmail.com and 413-398-9203.


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