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Digital Archiving: The Marriage of History & Technology

Digital Archiving: The Marriage of History & Technology

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butlers-hq-in-no1
St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans, 1862 HQ of Gen. Butler, where Joshua W. Hawkes wrote his letter.

By Stan Prager
Alumnus, American Public University

“Dear Mother … I am not disposed to find fault, though we are kept close and our duties are rather wearing. In the first place, it is quite an honor to be selected to guard the Headquarters of the Commanding General — then we have the name of having as good quarters as any Co. in the City. We occupy what was formerly the Bar Room. It is large, of circular form, a marble counter runs around about one half — this is the bar. It was also [a] kind of general auction room. There are several stands and I have the testimony of a “resident” that on two stated days every week there was a [slave] auction . . . held here, at which time liquor and blood flowed freely. So you can think, of your boy as sleeping on the very spot where souls were formerly struck off to the highest bidder.”

So wrote 23 year-old Joshua W. Hawkes of Charlemont, Massachusetts, in a chilling letter to his mother on May 23, 1862 from the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans where he was stationed as a Private in Company C of the Massachusetts 31st Volunteer Infantry, as part of the Union Army occupation force led by the notorious General Benjamin Butler in the early years of the American Civil War.

I was honored to be one of the first to read this letter again more than 150 years after it was written — and more than a century after its typed version was sealed in a storage box that was later discovered in the archives at the Wood History Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts along with a trove of other manuscripts. I was part of the team resurrecting the long-forgotten narrative of the 31st Infantry through a grant obtained from the Massachusetts Sesquicentennial Commission for the purpose of digitizing these materials and uploading them to the web for public access.

Major Lewis Frederick Rice had made it his mission later in life to gather together correspondence, diaries, and memoirs of the 31st for publication as a regimental history. He eventually amassed a collection that ran to more than 1,600 pages, much of which was then typed up with the manual typewriters of the day. Sadly, in 1909 Rice passed away. No one picked up the mantle of his mission and the manuscripts were buried in the archives. Until now.

Seeking to fulfill the practicum internship that was the final program requirement for my Master’s Degree in Public History from American Public University — while running my own local computer repair business and darting around the country in my spare time visiting Civil War battlefields — I serendipitously walked into the opportunity of a lifetime in spring 2014 as this project was just poised to get off the ground.

[Related: Careers for the History Major: Public Historian]

During my course of studies, digital archiving rapidly became my key area of interest. The museum had little experience in digital archiving techniques. As such, I brought to the table a background in technology as well as my studies in digitization at APU.

I had the unprecedented occasion to not only select the hardware and software that was purchased through the grant, but also to put it to work scanning the manuscripts and then utilizing optical character recognition (OCR) technology to translate these scans into searchable text for the web site. Next, I trained a sight-impaired student intern to bulk scan for me and introduced a cloud-based application so that I could work off-site on the much more labor intensive OCR edits.

In the end, the website was launched to great fanfare at an event that received local television news coverage. My degree was conferred later that year and I have since launched a digital archiving business of my own. This project and its aftermath turned out to be the perfect marriage of history and technology!

About the Author: Stan Prager holds a Master’s Degree in Public History from American Public University and launched a digital archiving business.

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