Local History Online

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The box Scott Lowe takes from his office closet contains a rarity: an owner’s manual for a Ford Tri-Motor aircraft.

“It’s my pride and joy,” the Richmond resident said.

Ford Motor Co. made the Tri-Motor in the 1920s and 1930s. About 200 of the planes were built; only 500 of the manuals were printed, Lowe said.

If Ford Motor Co. was in Vermont, the manual is the kind of artifact Lowe (pronounced “Lau”) could archive in his proposed new digital museum called Local History Online. Once it’s live, the Web site www.mylocalhistory.org will list Vermont towns, villages and cities. A visitor to the site will be able to click on a location, Lowe hopes, and be able to see everything from photographs and postcards to video and audio archives. Lowe will unveil his digital museum concept this Sunday at the Richmond Historical Society annual meeting and winter program.

A self-identified 11th generation American, Lowe, 48, said history has been a big part of his identity and a major hobby since he was a teenager.

“It is my intention with this digital museum project to spend the rest of my life doing this kind of archiving,” he said.

Lowe has not only the passion but the skills to do so. A professional Web designer, Lowe already has experience putting together a range of Web sites, including those with a historical bent. He created a Web site, for example, in tribute to the Ford Tri-Motor.

The idea of an online local history archive came after volunteering to create the Williston Historical Society Web site a little more than two years ago. Lowe and his family had just moved to Vermont from California, and Lowe thought the project would help him meet people.

“It was then I realized how lively the historical community is in Vermont,” Lowe said.

Lowe’s primary purpose in creating the nonprofit archive is to assist local historical societies in archiving private collections of artifacts otherwise not easily accessible to the public. He said he’ll ensure private collectors maintain control over their collections. Digital images of photographs, for example, will be watermarked or otherwise copy-protected.

Vermont Historical Society Executive Director Kevin Graffagnino said Lowe’s proposal has “wonderful potential for the state of Vermont and our state local history.”

Most of the 196 local historical societies and museums in Vermont are “collecting organizations,” Graffagnino said. “Most of them have things that could benefit from digitizing – documents, photographs, postcards and the like.”

Yet, most also have small staffs or a small volunteer base, so Lowe’s technological expertise could be quite useful to them, Graffagnino said.

“If Scott can bring this to fruition, this will be a service that will be useful to lots and lots of organizations in Vermont,” Graffagnino said. “It will strengthen the collection and accessibility of those collections.”

It could be of great benefit to people outside Vermont, too, according to Richard Allen, co-editor of the Essex Community Historical Society newsletter and a teacher in Williston.

“There are 101 reasons why someone might want to dig into something from out of state,” Allen said. From home genealogy projects to academic study about immigration and settlement patterns, Allen said it isn’t unusual for his organization to get requests from out of town. A Web archive would save money for researchers who otherwise would need to travel to see the artifacts.

Allen said reviewing digital artifacts is not quite as romantic as going to “the musty, dusty shelves of the library and finding that one document or postcard that’s going to break your research” open. However, upon learning of Lowe’s project he said he would see it as “tremendously valuable.”

“(Digital) is so much the way that stuff is going now,” he said.

Lowe said his ability to start working with private collections and other historical societies is about a year away. First he must finish securing Local History Online’s nonprofit status, and he needs to firmly establish a template, which he will do with the Richmond Historical Society. Finding funding for the long-term viability of the project will come in time.

He doesn’t seem the least bit worried about the project’s future. He said his deepest wish is that someday the site would expand to include other states’ local histories.

“I get nothing but enthusiasm, pure enthusiasm from everybody I talk to about this,” Lowe said. “There’s so much about the present and so much about us that’s alive in history. And that’s ultimately what I want to convey about this project.”