Originally published in MOREnetworking Vol. 2 No. 2, Jan. 2005
Hannibal Free Public Library uses technology to build community involvement in preserving history
Hannibal citizens’ interest in libraries dates back to at least 1840, when several prominent members of the community, including Judge John Marshall Clemens (Mark Twain’s father), organized the Hannibal Library Institute. Several iterations of libraries followed until 1889, when Hannibal opened the first tax-supported free public library in the state of Missouri. Today, the library houses more than 83,000 items and patrons number more than 16,000.
We commonly think of history as something that’s already been done and historical collections as static material. Hannibal Free Public Library director Ann Sundermeyer and systems analyst Sheila Dennehy have used technology to increase access to their collections and help the community build and enrich collections, both preserving their history and bringing history to life.
When Sundermeyer and Dennehy examined the library’s large collection of historical photos and items documenting Hannibal’s history, they realized that digitizing all of them at once would be a daunting task. To solve the problem, Sundermeyer and Dennehy searched for a way to create a manageable project, as well as a useful tool for patrons.
The Missouri State Library awarded a digitization grant to the Hannibal library for its first project: digitizing the library’s collection of photos and items documenting the October 1935 christening of the Mark Twain Zephyr, a then state-of-the-art diesel-powered locomotive operating from Burlington, Iowa, to St. Louis through Hannibal.
The project includes photos, documents and other memorabilia surrounding the event, professionally digitized by Bob Lyner of St. Louis and Kurt Kopp of MOBIUS. In addition to photographs, items include newspaper articles from the Hannibal Courier Post, a transcript of a national radio broadcast and personal accounts.
The project didn’t stop once the collection was online. In order to build the collection, the library solicited additional material by advertising locally and in the library.
“There are many people we’ve been unable to identify in the photographs,” Dennehy said, “but in several instances members of the community have seen the collection and identified loved ones.” She described one example in which a woman was able to identify her father, Senator George D. Clayton, as one of the “unidentified” in the exhibit. The senator’s daughter was thrilled with the project.
While developing digital collections requires knowledge of and comfort with current technology, Dennehy, like so many librarians across Missouri, began her library career with little technical background. As computer and Internet technology became more and more integrated into basic library operations, she developed her skills through MOREnet training and other resources.
“When I started working here 10 years ago, the only thing I knew how to do with a computer was turn it on,” Dennehy said. “We’ve gone from that to running a network, maintaining a website and constructing digital projects.”
Dennehy and Sundermeyer hope to gain futher community involvement for the library’s next digital project, a collection of materials about the African American community in northeast Missouri from 1885-1960. Another grant from the State Library will help the project. The collection already consists of more than 200 items including two Douglass High School yearbooks.
“Our area of the state has always had a significant African American presence, but their history has not been very well documented,” Dennehy said. Hannibal had a black newspaper, the Hannibal Register, for 23 years, but the library has no copies. “We’re hoping that publicity about the project will help us locate some issues.”
“Digital projects are very challenging, but also extremely rewarding,” Sundermeyer said. “Patrons appreciate having greater access to the information provided by these projects, as well as that we have kept up to date with the technology that allows them to happen.”
As proud as they are of the library’s digital projects and other uses of technology, Dennehy and Sundermeyer give credit to a number of state resources that make such work possible.
“The library could not offer this technology without the support of MOREnet,” Sundermeyer said. “We really appreciate the technical help and training we have received.”
“When I am at conferences with library people from other states, I tell them about the support, opportunities and services available to us in Missouri,” Dennehy said. “They are impressed and envious. The combination of the State Library, MLNC and MOREnet have made Missouri a leader in technology. I am honored to be a part of this exceptional organization.”
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