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Ohio Memory 2.0: The Ohio Historical Society’s Digitization Program

Angela O’Neal, Digital Projects Manager
Ohio Historical Society

Why Digitize?
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than 70% of Americans use the Internet on a daily basis. Digitization provides access to users who may never be able to visit your library and allows library staff to streamline public access to collections. From a collection management and conservation perspective, digital images provide visual documentation of collections and reduce the need to handle original materials. Increasingly, digitization also offers preservation opportunities. In June 2004, the American Association of Research Libraries endorsed digitization, combined with a commitment to digital preservation, as a preservation reformatting method.

Digitization at OHS
The Ohio Historical Society began its digitization program in the mid-1990s. From the beginning, collaboration was a core component of the program. The African American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920, launched in 1999, was a collaborative effort with the Library of Congress and Ohio’s contribution to the American Memory Project. The project includes manuscript collections, newspaper articles, serials, photographs, and pamphlets from the Society’s collections in a basic digital library. Planning efforts for Ohio’s bicentennial also emphasized digitization. Between 1995 and 2000, the Ohio Historical Society worked with the Ohio Historical Records Advisory Board (OHRAB), the State Library of Ohio, the Ohio Public Library Information Network (OPLIN), OhioLINK and the Ohio Library Council to develop the concept for a virtual repository of historical records that would celebrate the state’s bicentennial. In February 2000, OPLIN approved a grant to launch the first phase of the Ohio Memory Project.

Over the next two years, more than 1,000 collections from 250 institutions were digitized, totaling 13,487 digital images. In March 2002, at a ceremony held at the Ohio Statehouse, First Lady of Ohio Mrs. Hope Taft officially opened Ohio Memory. With an Institute of Museum and Library Services LSTA grant award by the State Library of Ohio and technical support from OhioLINK, the project continued to grow. By 2004, more than 330 institutions were participating in the project and had contributed over 27,000 images. Ohio Memory was hailed as a model of a statewide collaborative digitization project and received awards from the American Association of Museums and the American Association of State and Local History.Photograph of photograph of President McKinley at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York on the day before he was assassinated, 1901, Courtesy of McKinley Memorial Library. Photograph of 18-year old William McKinley in his Civil War uniform, Courtesy of McKinley Museum and National Memorial

One of the strengths of Ohio Memory is the ability to bring together collections from institutions throughout the state. For example, a researcher interested in Ohio presidents may need to go to more than a dozen institutions to find materials relating to President McKinley alone. An Ohio Memory search, on the other hand, finds 163 hits from dozens of libraries, historical societies, and museums. Early photos of McKinley’s birthplace, childhood friends, and the 18-year-old McKinley’s Civil War diary provide a foundation for items relating to McKinley’s presidency.

topHadley Abolitionist QuiltAutograph Quilt, Courtesy of the Clinton County Historical Society.

Similarly, a search on “quilts” illustrates Ohio’s historic quilt collections and shows the depth of quilt collections throughout the state. For example, the Hadley Abolitionist Quilt, made in 1842 by Quaker women of Clinton County, Ohio and Wayne County, Indiana, was contributed by the Clinton County Historical Society. In Zanesville, the Pioneer and Historical Society of Muskingum holds the Gold Star Mothers Quilt, which was created in 1945 and contains the names of Muskingum County soldiers killed in the Second World War. An Autograph Quilt in the collections of the Attica Area Historical Society in Seneca County holds the signatures of Orville Wright, Helen Keller, Captain Edward "Eddie" Rickenbacker, Ohio Governor Frank Lausche, Eleanor Roosevelt and others.

In addition to Ohio Memory and the African American Experience, OHS embarked on a number of other digital projects. OhioPix—selections from the Society’s audiovisual collections—launched in 2002. The site highlights the Society’s best collections and supports images sales. In 2005, OHS was awarded a grant from the SBC/Ameritech Foundation to develop e-commerce for OhioPix, allowing users to purchase digital downloads, prints and publication rights for images in the Society’s collections. Other projects include: Fight for the Colors, which documents the Society’s collection of over 550 battle flags, many from the Civil War; the Virtual First Ohioans, an online exhibit reflecting the Society’s popular archaeology exhibit; and Remarkable Ohio, a collaborative project with Ohio Government  Telecommunications which provides photos, GPS coordinates, and information on the Ohio Historical Markers Program. The Society also focused on increasing access to records through online indexes. The Ohio Death Certificate Index received significant improvements, including the ability to e-mail search results and purchase copies online, and the Society launched an index to the Boys and Girls Industrial School records.  	Death Certificate of Orville Wright, showing his occupation as “inventor of airplanes,” Courtesy Ohio Historical Society.

Ohio Memory: Bringing it All Together
All of these projects serve one goal: to bring the public closer to the “real stuff” of history. In the 1990s, users tended to be more comfortable with a project-based approach to information, i.e., a researcher looking for genealogy information preferred to search the death certificate index rather than an all-encompassing super-database. In the “Googlized” world, however, our patrons are asking for “one-stop shopping,” or the ability to search across all digital collections. They also are requiring features such as zoom, full-text search, personal lists, and social networking tools. The ability to purchase copies of records and prints of images is also high on the list of requirements.


The next phase of Ohio Memory, then, focuses on the development of a flexible system to incorporate all of the rich collections that help the public connect to Ohio history. Ohio Memory will eventually encompass a variety of digital collections. At the same timea number of “access points” will be created to highlight distinct collections, contributing institutions, or subjects. For example, items digitized by a contributing institution will be available both as part of a general Ohio Memory search and through the institution’s custom-designed portal.
OHS is also developing tools to make it easier for institutions to contribute to Ohio Memory. Contributing institutions will be able to upload images and descriptive information directly to Ohio Memory if desired, and e-commerce options for prints and digital images will allow contributors to automate the rights and reproduction process. OHS will continue to provide digitization services. Utilizing special equipment for fragile, bound or oversized materials, OHS provides digital conversion services that adhere to standards and best practices for archival digitization. Combined with workshops and training opportunities, the Society offers a full-service digitization program.

Raised with cell phones, computers, and the Internet, young people today view the world in a different way. Close to 90% of 12-17 year olds use the Internet, and 76% of 18-29 year olds use it for school or job research, according to the Pew Internet at American Life Project. They expect information, once a commodity to be traded in academic and professional circles, to be freely available twenty-four hours a day. As this population ages, the expectation that libraries provide digital access to collections will increase. In the face of shrinking budgets and competing priorities, the emphasis on collaboration in digitization activities will become even more important. Through joint efforts, libraries and historical societies can create strong and sustainable digital partnerships.

Learn more about the Ohio Historical Society’s digitization services and workshops at