Nov 17, 2021
A selection of random images from Historic Saranac Lake’s new online collection shows photos, letters, airplane tickets and medical tools, each of which can be a window into the past. (Provided photo)
SARANAC LAKE — Historic Saranac Lake is sharing its collection of archival photos, memorabilia, letters and tools online, as it digitizes its collection slowly but surely.
The online collection opened to the public on Monday.
HSL Archivist and Curator Chessie Monks-Kelly said she hopes the online access will open up HSL’s collection to people who can’t visit the museum in Saranac Lake and be a starting point for people to “fall down a rabbit hole” of historic research.
Monks-Kelly said she’s been photographing objects and scanning photos for the project since June, but that the digitization has been a “long time coming.”
The digitization project was funded by grants from the Northern New York Library Network and Institute of Museum and Library Services for cataloguing of photos from Saranac Lake’s days as a tuberculosis treatment retreat.
A photo from Historic Saranac Lake’s new online collection shows a tuberculosis patient from the 1910s curling on Moody Pond. (Provided photo)
There are only a couple hundred items online now, a sampling of the tens of thousands of artifacts in the museum’s collection. Monks-Kelly said it’s a work in progress, and while what is online is not an exhaustive list yet, she’s adding new entries at a rate of 10 to 100 a day.
“Every day there will be something new,” Monks-Kelly said.
There’s a random image button which pulls up around 30 random images from the collection. Not all the records have images attached yet, so further exploration can be done in the “Archives,” “Photos” and “Objects” sections.
The records range from the monumental to the mundane.
There are historic photos of tuberculosis patients, scans of letters, pictures of old medical equipment, Winter Carnival memorabilia, paintings of the various sanatoriums which once dotted the area and plaques and awards given to famous residents of the region.
Monks-Kelly has been archiving HSL’s collection for seven years now — taking inventory of new arrivals, storing everything in protective areas and preserving as much important history and memory as she can.
“I know most of the collection like the back of my hand at this point,” she said.
Some of her favorite artifacts are the pictures from the sanatoriums.
“The photos from the TB patients, I think, are really striking visually and emotionally,” Monks-Kelly said.
To document historic artifacts, things have to be done right, which takes time.
“It takes a tremendous amount of work,” Monks-Kelly said.
Every item has to be scanned or photographed. She writes detailed descriptions of the item or photograph, and adds metadata to the image — who is in the image, the object’s dimensions, who owns it or donated it, when the photo was taken, the item’s history, its use, or its manufacturer.
These records have to be thorough. Monks-Kelly said she puts in as much information as possible so the artifact is easier to find based on keywords.
HSL uses the museum archiving software PastPerfect, which cost several hundred dollars to set up and will cost a couple hundred dollars annually to maintain, according to Monks-Kelly.
Monks-Kelly also has to maintain back-up files. She said everyone’s had a computer crash and lost their files. This would be a big deal for HSL, and it’s the reason she said this digital collection is not a replacement for the real thing.
“Digital is not forever,” Monks-Kelly said. “In fact, if you want to preserve something, print it out.”
Meanwhile, the museum’s collection is ever-growing as new historical artifacts are donated all the time.
Monks-Kelly said donations doubled during the pandemic. It’s been a time when people are taking their extra time at home to clean out those storage areas where they had history locked away. HSL has received 5,000 individual items donated since the pandemic began, she said.
Monks-Kelly also said reference requests have doubled during the pandemic. This is likely because of HSL’s focus on tuberculosis, she said, and people have been thinking about pandemics recently.
“It’s not hard to see the parallels,” she said. “People are thinking about pandemics, they’re thinking about the history, they’re thinking about death.”
Recently, HSL has been documenting the coronavirus pandemic for future generations. They’re gathering oral stories from locals, saving Winter Carnival masks and even keeping some of that that nasty-smelling hand sanitizer the state manufactured.
An ILMS grant using federal coronavirus aid funds will allow Monks-Kelly to hire an assistant next month to help with research requests and new donations. HSL also has been loaned a scanner from NNYLN to digitize building blueprints and is temporarily hiring someone to help with the scanning.
The online collection can be viewed at historicsaranaclake.pastperfectonline.com or bit.ly/30yqPVp, or at a link in the “Collections” section of the HSL website.
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