Preserving Howard County’s history, digitally

5 minute read

Thursday I happened to be in the vicinity of the Miller branch of the Howard County Library system at the time of the topping out ceremony for the new Charles E. Miller Branch and Historical Center being constructed next to it. I’d read about the ceremony in the morning while reading news feeds on my phone (a waking-up ritual for me) and thought it might be interesting to stop by. Fortunately I was dressed appropriately for a somewhat muddy construction site (unlike some of the local politicians who were present). I listened to the speeches, took some photos with my phone, signed the beam myself, and watched it be hoisted into place.

I’m really looking to the new Miller branch opening, as it’s the closest library to me. One thing I find especially interesting is the Historical Center part of the building, essentially a space to host the Howard County Historical Society and its archives. I’ve been goofing off doing a bit of history recently, so I can see myself stopping by from time to time to check out some of the historical documents.

There’s much to be said about being able to view or even touch documents and artifacts of the past, to be able to experience what Walter Benjamin called the aura in the context of a traditional work of art: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. However I have to confess that my main interest is in historical documents as they exist in digital form: It was wonderful that I could go to the Howard County Central Library and find an original paper version of Howard County’s 1968 charter, but it was even more wonderful when Jim Vannoy of the Howard County Office of Law sent me a digital copy of the 1968 charter that I can now share with the rest of the world.

I like digital documents for their convenience: You can find them online (at any hour of the day or night—handy for midnight blogging!), search them, link to them, easily extract quotes from them, and so on. But I think they’re also important as a way to preserve that which might otherwise be lost. For example, I noted previously that the Columbia Flier, surely an important historical resource for Howard County, has no online archives prior to 2000. The Howard County Central Library has copies of the Flier on microfilm, but I noted that the first one or two rolls were missing, the ones containing the Flier’s inaugural issues.

How many other copies of those microfilm rolls exist? How many copies of the original printed papers? I don’t know, but I do know that the microfilm rolls can disappear and papers can be tossed out, and then we might find ourselves having lost an important piece of the history of Columbia and Howard County. That’s why as the new library and historical center is completed I’d also like to see some attention paid to presenting Howard County’s history in digital form.

Here are three example projects I’d like to see some people take on. (And I should add, I’d be willing to be one of those people.)

Howard County on Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia has its detractors, there’s no disputing that it’s the first place lots of people (including me) turn to for information, either by directly going to the site or by following search engine links. For example, if you search for howard county maryland on Google then the Wikipedia article on Howard County is the number two link. Unfortunately the article is not that comprehensive, and the history section in particular is very skimpy.

I think it would be a great project for someone (or someones) to fill out the Howard County Wikipedia article, as well as to add Wikipedia articles for those people who are linked to from the article but don’t actually have Wikipedia articles of their own. (This includes five of the eight county executives.) This could even be done in the context of a high school or college class project; for an example of this from another context (a Spanish literature class) see Jon Beasley-Murray’s essay on having students write for Wikipedia.

Digital copies of Howard County charters and related documents (e.g., draft versions, charter amendments rejected by the voters, etc.). Such copies could include document image scans as well as the text itself, accurately transcribed, in machine-readable formats, and with any version-to-version differences tracked. As I mentioned above, it’s great to now have a digital copy of the 1968 charter. However although you can cut and paste text from the PDF, it often contains errors arising from the OCR process used to generate the text.

It would be nice to have a version in a text-based format (e.g., HTML) that was accurately transcribed, so it could be easily quoted in other documents without the need for hand-corrections. Given accurately-transcribed documents in a standard text-based format, it would also be possible to easily generate accurate listings of the differences between the various versions of the charter, more clearly showing how it’s been amended and updated over the years.

Howard County election data. At present the Maryland State Board of Elections does not maintain online election results prior to 1986. Some results can be found online in the archives of the Baltimore Sun and other papers, but typically newspaper stories do not report the final official results, and certainly don’t include the type of detailed data on turnout, etc., that I’ve used in my own blog posts.

Assuming that this data still exists in some form, either in paper form or as unreleased digital files, it would be interesting and useful to publish it on the web in spreadsheet format and as text files suitable for analysis with R and other programs, similar to what I’ve previously done with later data.

Note that I’m deliberately being somewhat small-scale and conservative in my suggestions. I believe in leveraging existing mechanisms for publishing (e.g., Wikipedia and blogs), and in concentrating on getting the data out there in a form that others can easily use and build on. In particular the Howard County Historical Society and its new executive director, Lauren McCormack, have enough on their plate dealing with the upcoming move to the new facility, so I’m not suggesting they (or anyone else, for that matter) taken on the task of building a compete digital repository of Howard County history. However I do think it’s a topic worth thinking about, and worth taking some small steps now to ensure that key pieces of county history can be published and easily accessed by anyone both locally and globally.