Technology gives local history a boost, permanence
Gwyneth J. Saunders
Local historians, genealogists and journalists have cause to celebrate modern technology.
The Bluffton Historical Preservation Society has moved its historical collection - lock, stock and map drawers - from the Colcock-Teel House into its new home in the Bluffton Town Hall, where the records will continue to be available for researchers in person.
In the not-too-distant future, those same records will be available to the world at large at the click of a mouse.
The vast and growing collection known as the Caldwell Archives is being catalogued, scanned, digitized and filed with metadata on every piece of paper - large and small - in the collection.
The archives evolved when the society was formed in 1981 by William Hunter Saussy. With a number of like-minded individuals interested in preserving the history of Bluffton, he asked for help from the townspeople to preserve Bluffton's story.
"The collection consists of maps, photographs, diaries, journals, newspaper clippings. It was an incredible array of material," said Kelly Graham, BHPS executive director, "because the call went out, 'Hey, we're going to start a collection.' Well, everyone from town came and dumped their stuff on them."
That stuff currently includes hundreds of photos, 150 periodicals, 130 maps of all sizes, 170 books, and folders on churches, cemeteries, structures, geographical regions, baronies, parishes and districts, and surnames.
The collection is named for Betsy and Ben Caldwell, who initially stored and cataloged the materials contributed by local families and folks who had a connection with the town.
In recent years, more of the material has been organized, thanks to the 43 active volunteers - including members of the Emily Geiger Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution - who have spent countless hours organizing and working on the material.
"The history and culture of this place is invaluable to us. It should be protected, preserved," Graham said. "As a society, we're not Charleston; we're not Savannah. We're not even Beaufort in terms of old structures. A lot of this town was burned. A lot of it was built one board thick, so it didn't last."
With barely a dozen antebellum homes remaining, Graham noted, there isn't an inventory of structures that needs to be preserved and recorded, so it is the document archive that becomes the source of the town's history.
"We see our main mission as being that archive and everything that it entails," he said.
Katy Epps, director of the Heyward House, is the leading archivist and curator of the collection. She oversees the detailing of the material, working with the small army of volunteers who spend from one to 12 hours a month cataloguing.
"It's even making my job now easier. It speeds it up so much to have a file identified before you even look for it in the drawers," she said.
Documenting each piece of information isn't a matter of merely stacking everything by category in a single pile. Volunteers are hands-on workers who create and label folders, scan photos and maps, and generate metadata - lists of key words that will help locate a particular piece of information once the item is digitized and available in a database.
If photos of individuals or buildings are not readily identified, Epps said the volunteers set them aside and then the staff seeks out old-time Blufftonians and others who might recognize the person or place.
All of this scanning and digitizing isn't done for free. One of the challenges is getting oversized maps copied or even re-copied with new technology. But grants from the DAR, as well as requests for funds through the Town's accommodations tax, will cover some of those costs, preserving more of Bluffton's history while making even more material available for the researcher.
"We are partners of the Lowcountry Digital Library. They are helping us to digitize our photographs first. Once that is complete, it will go online and be accessible through a link at heywardhouse.org," Epps said.
She added that the documentation of the family and church files is complete. The family files metadata will be online but all of the files themselves probably not.
"Not every piece of information is going online," said Epps, but it will be easier in the future for her or someone else to look up an item when someone asks for specific information.
One example she gave was the availability of the oversized maps. Once they go online, they will be visible as a low-resolution image, but a high-resolution version will be available from the society, possibly for a modest fee, Graham said.
"We're not trying to be mercenary about this, but it's time and resources," he said.
So, who is interested in Bluffton's history?
"Sometimes there are locals who are coming in, but what I've found increasingly over the last year is it's not locals. There are people who are calling ahead of time and saying, 'I'd like to schedule. I'm passing through on my way to New York. I'd like to stop for a day or two and do some research," said Epps. "So we schedule a time and we go over there [to the Colcock-Teel House] and help them find the information.
"I feel we do a great job of getting as much information as we have to them, but with the work that we're doing, we'll be even more efficient. It'll be better time spent," she added.
Anyone with an interest in history, genealogy or research related to the town of Bluffton and its people may visit the Heyward House Museum at 70 Boundary St. or call 843-757-6293.
And if you come across a trunk full of old papers, letters, scrapbooks and other ephemera while clearing out the attic in the Bluffton family home, don't rush to dump it all in the trash.
There's treasure in those papers, and inquiring minds want to know.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.