Cecil County Records Aid Research on Black History
February is the month dedicated to honoring the contributions of African Americans to U.S. history, chosen in part to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass, an escaped Maryland slave and national leader of the abolitionist movement, and Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s 16th President, under whose term slavery was formally abolished.
On the heels of a preservation project on which Crowley Imaging and the Historical Society of Cecil County (Md.) (HSCC) collaborated, we spoke to historian and HSCC board member, Mike Dixon, about the importance of digitization for research.
“Searches for early African-Americans can be time consuming as one seeks small, almost elusive clues from before the Civil War,” notes Dixon. “Digitized records are important as they allow us to efficiently do a comprehensive search for those important fragments of evidence.”
Among the records of which he speaks are the recently digitized Cecil County Tax Assessment Records (1786-1896) and the Cecil County Slave Records (1853-64), both of which were part of a number of special collections which were digitized from either microfilm or bound originals.
According to Dixon, slaves were taxable property and “thus, the tax assessor visited properties every few years to update the assessment. While onsite, he would inventory the property, including slave holdings. The inventory included categories such as sex and age, which were used for valuation purposes and from which total taxes were calculated. Real property was itemized in one book; slave holdings in the other.”
Some of the records digitized, including several historic newspapers, were converted into searchable files via optical character recognition (OCR) technology, lending additional speed to research. Dixon notes that the types of information that can be gleaned from these newspapers specific to Black History includes: runaway slave advertisements; estate sales; mentions of free persons as such; obituaries; the recollection of oral histories (read about Hetty Boulden, a young slave who helped Elkton avoid attack from the British); and hard news stories.”
In the past, says Dixon, “Locating information on our old microfilm readers took forever; since digitization and text search, the process takes just minutes to search a large volume of material.”
Another important reason for digitization is preservation – of both the original records and the information contained within.
“Paper was never designed to survive the passage of centuries and the society’s manuscript and newspaper holdings are enormous,” Dixon says. “In particular, our newspapers were rapidly deteriorating due to age and the fragile nature of newsprint. To ensure that the materials were not permanently lost, we implemented a number of strategies to both preserve aging documents and make the materials available in modern formats.” He continues, “With the conversion to digital formats, we have a durable medium to work with and we can concentrate on preserving the old items while enhancing access to the information within.”
Access for all…about all
Although the scanned images are not currently available online, the public is welcome to visit the HSCC facilities located at 135 E. Main Street in Elkton, Maryland to gain access to the research material. The fragility of some of the documents precluded their use by the public for research in past, but as a result of the digitization efforts, those records are now available electronically and genealogists and researchers have far greater access to information from the archives.
Perhaps even more important is that access to the digitized records allows one to go beyond the headlines and into the lives of the common man. “While we’ve always had extensive files and research materials on prominent people in the county, the creation of these digital records lets us focus more efficiently on everyday people, the types of folks who typically didn’t command the headlines unless it involved a major crime or something horrific,” says Dixon.
Whether one is researching family or history, the efforts of the Cecil County Historical Society are a true example of the value of digitization for preservation, enhanced search and public access.
Questions about digitizing for preservation?
If you have any questions about preserving historic records through digitization, please contact The Crowley Company by calling (240) 215-0224. General inquiries can be emailed to [email protected]. You can also follow The Crowley Company on Facebook,Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and YouTube.
Cheri Baker, Crowley’s former Director of Communications, has retired but retains her love for writing and all things Crowley. With a career that spans newspaper, agency and corporate communications, her goal remains to dig behind the scenes and tell the story - whatever it may be. Find Cheri Baker on LinkedIn+