News Tribune

Coming to Utica: Virtual museum tours

La Salle County Historical Society labors to ‘digitize’ its exhibits

Inside one of the boxes Jessica McCann dusted was an aged diary. McCann breezed through boring weather and crop reports and then stumbled onto an eyebrow-raiser: The writer’s husband had disappeared.

A now-fully engaged McCann read how the woman’s husband had boarded a train, never came home and this on the cusp of Thanksgiving.

“It was a little heartbreaking,” said McCann, who is waist-high in a project to log the journal and thousands of other artifacts in the museum complex in Utica, “but a little intriguing.”

Soon, the diary and thousands of other artifacts in the Utica museum buildings will be made more readily available to the public – and might even appear on the museum website for virtual visits.

McCann is part of a project quietly launched this summer by the La Salle County Historical Society, which presides over a vast collection of historic documents, photographs and artifacts. Now, McCann and fellow data analyst Riley Dirks are “digitizing” that collection. By the time they finish, every item will be scanned, logged and tagged with keywords to facilitate searches.

“It can be tedious,” said Dirks, who spends hours each day creating digital files for exhibits that haven’t seen the light of day in a decade or longer. “But every so often I’ll find something interesting, like the paperwork for that big gatling gun or about the Cherry Mine fire.”

It’s a big job and it’ll take the museum staff well into 2022 to finish making a digital record of everything on file.

Museum manager Amanda Carter thinks it’ll be worth the time and considerable expense. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need to provide virtual exhibits through the internet for those who cannot visit the Utica museum campus and see the artifacts, photos and documents in person.

Digitizing will also help address the many research calls that come in. Besides scanning photos and taking pictures of the artifacts, Dirks and McCann also are logging companion information such as donor names and search terms. The day is coming when someone can key in “Lincoln” and get a list of all exhibits associated with the 16th president.

“It’s been difficult when people come in and ask where things are because we don’t have the ability to just search some of the stuff,” Carter said. “Some of it’s in there, some of it’s not. It’d just be so much easier if we had it in just one database.”

The La Salle County Historical Society is by no means the first museum to have digitized its collections. Large museums with large budgets to match long ago used technology to catalog, sort and display its artworks, artifacts and records.

But if the historians in Utica were late getting to the party, they arrived to find plenty of guidance on how to go about this mammoth undertaking. The society is using a proven program called PastPerfect Museum Software, first released in 1998 and used by more than 11,000 museums.

Carter said it will be months before the myriad exhibits are scanned, photographed, logged and stored, but the process has worked well for other museums.

“We’re pretty confident this will work for us,” she said. “This is a way for us to bring our collections up to speed with the technologies we have today.”

It’s going to take time and it’s going to take money. Carter said some funding has been allocated, but the Historical Society will seek donations as the project draws to a close.

And that’s a way off. McCann said there are days when it seems they’ll never be finished; but the reality is tangible progress has been made toward creating virtual museum access and cataloguing the sprawling collection for generations to come.

“You’re constantly getting things come in as well as clean up what’s left behind,” McCann said. “But as long as we’re still chugging along and doing our due diligence, it’ll get there.”