Preserving the past

Shelby County launches archive digitization project with FamilySearch

Story by Emily Sparacino

Photos by Keith McCoy

The Old Shelby County Courthouse on North Main Street in Columbiana is the historical hub for Shelby County and its residents.

Built in 1854 and maintained by the Shelby County Historical Society, the old courthouse – an icon of local history in its own right – houses countless artifacts and archives containing research material and records in their original form.

The fragility of the paper documents, some of which date back to the early 1800s, and the need to preserve them in a more durable format began to weigh on resident Clem Muck after he became involved with the Shelby County Historical Society.

“Going back to a year-and-a-half ago, I was asked to be on the historical society board. In the course of that, it became evident that we would need to preserve these records,” he said.

Not long ago, Muck added, the historical society inherited nearly 50 years’ worth of Shelby County school records, which contain tax information.

Records for marriages, births, deaths and other events can also be found in books in the archives.

Paper isn’t the only reason for digitally preserving the records for future generations. Cursive handwriting on the documents can be difficult to read, especially for those accustomed to reading print on computers and other devices.

And, unfortunately, there is always the possibility of the old courthouse and its precious contents falling victim to storms or fire.

“That information is only in that original form,” he said of the records. “It is almost impossible to keep them in a state that’s usable.”

As the importance of preserving the records electronically sank in, Muck also realized how much time and energy such a project would require.

So, he enlisted the help of FamilySearch, a nonprofit family history organization based in Utah.

According to its website, FamilySearch is the largest genealogy organization in the world. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the primary benefactor for its services.

With the help of FamilySearch, Shelby County’s records will be digitized in an estimated two-year process, Muck said.

Muck and other volunteers will use equipment provided by the organization to take pictures of each document, which they will send to FamilySearch to be compiled in an online index.

Jason Rice and Steve Young with FamilySearch are the project managers for Shelby County, Muck said.

FamilySearch accumulates over 1 million records daily that are being put in a digitized format available worldwide, he said.

“Those records, as a result of that, are available to the entire world,” Muck said. “Digitization is a newer process that’s come about in recent years.”

Once all of Shelby County’s records are digitized, they will be available online, and people will be able to look up specific records using a family name.

The goal of the project is to better provide historical information to the community in an accurate, discernable, findable manner, Muck said.

“There are six pilot projects in the world that are doing this work with volunteers in the community,” he said. “We are the model project for the world right now, which is key. I’m proud of that.”

More than 60 volunteers have signed up to help with the project, but more are needed. In January, Muck started coordinating volunteer shifts at the museum, where the equipment for the project is housed.

The equipment and processing costs are paid for by FamilySearch, Muck said.

“We’re blessed to have so many people willing to be involved,” he said. “At minimum, it will take at least two years to complete. It will take time to get everyone oriented with the project.”

The Shelby County Museum and Archives is open Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturday.

To volunteer for the project, call Executive Director Jennifer Maier at 669-3912.

“There is tremendous history here,” Muck said. “There is so much to be said for this part of the world.”