Stories from the Watertown and Cambridge Community Digitization Days
This article was written by Kara Zelasko and Brittany Costello. Zelasko and Costello are students of Public History at Northeastern University who assisted with Mount Auburn’s Digitization Days this past October.
You may not realize it, but you already have an archive dedicated to your family’s history. This could mean photos, documents, family recipes, and other pieces that bring to life your family’s unique story. While you may have this tucked away in boxes or stored in the garage, it is now easier than ever to preserve these items in a digital form as well. An item or photograph can be digitally preserved simply by scanning or photographing the item and saving that file in a digital format. Preserving items digitally serves as an additional method to safeguard stories and images that speak to your personal experience. In the case that the physical item is misplaced or damaged, the digital file is an additional way to preserve a family memory. Digitization also broadens your ability to share these documents and photos with family members and, possibly, with public audiences.
Recently, Mount Auburn Cemetery, together with other local organizations, sponsored “Digitization Days” at the Cambridge and Watertown public libraries in effort to help members of the local community build their personal digital archives. At this event, community members brought in items related to their family histories. Members of the digitization team then sat with them to learn the stories behind the items, and afterwards, the items were scanned or photographed to be digitally preserved. People who were interested could also sit in on presentations given by the Northeast Document Conservation Center about current digital preservation techniques that they can use at home.
The first event took place at Watertown Public Library, where people brought memories to share and photographs to preserve. Susan Lind-Sinanian brought with her an image taken during her grandparents’ wedding day in 1910. The photograph shows people gathered in the streets of Amasia, Turkey celebrating the marriage. Lind-Sinanian recalled that her family immigrated to America after getting word of the impending Armenian genocide. Massachusetts has become home to one of the largest populations of Armenian immigrants and this photo is representative of the place and culture many Armenian families, like Lind-Sinanian’s, were forced to leave behind. Many photographs and oral histories related to Armenian history are preserved through Project SAVE in Watertown, where their digital preservation allows for wider access to Armenian culture and history.
In Cambridge, community member Jean Chandler brought photos and documents related to the history of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church (OCBC). The handful of documents she was able to bring to the digitization day spoke to the history of the OCBC as a long-standing, progressive, community-oriented organization. Among the documents Chandler provided were scripts for original plays performed at the church, histories of the church written by its members, and programs for events commemorating the church’s 150th Anniversary celebration. These items demonstrate the connection the church had to local and national trends in history, and how the Cambridge community’s values impacted the history of a local church.
Looking at the photographs and hearing the memories at the “Digitization Days” related to these documents reinforced the importance of preserving family histories for individual and public knowledge. For the families, it is a way to connect to their past and preserve memories for future generations. Providing the public with access to these stories creates a sense of community and makes history more personal.