Digging up your past

HOLLIDAYSBURG – When you’re trying to find clues to the past in old documents like newspapers, it helps if you can see them as clearly as possible.

That’s the idea behind the new digital reader, a ScanPro 2000, purchased by the Blair County Genealogical Society.

The society relies on old newspapers, wills and deeds that are on microfilm for much of its research. Until now, society members have had to use a reader that could only let the user see a document through what was basically a camera lens, society Librarian Sharon Merritts said.

If the user wanted to lighten one part of the document, the whole document would be lightened, often leaving other parts of the document too light to see, she said.

With the new reader, researchers can lighten or darken just the part of the document, she said, adding there are more benefits.

“The magnification and the clarity are so much better and sharper,” she said.

The reader acts like the computer program Photoshop, in which the user can crop, box or do other editing techniques, Merritts said. The user can also print from the reader, she said.

The society used about $15,000 to $16,000 to pay for the computerized reader and related software. The money came from the estate of former society member Robert Roller, who taught school in Philadelphia before he retired to Williamsburg in Blair County and pursued his interest in genealogy.

The society has thousands of rolls of microfilm in its collection that represents newspapers not only from Altoona but surrounding areas including Hollidaysburg, Roaring Spring, Ebensburg, Huntingdon and even Carlisle, said Alan Greiner of Port Allegany, McKean Township.

Greiner has helped the society make changes to its website and is also helping it work with the reader and the accompanying software. He is employed by a firm that makes electronic document management software, also called virtual file cabinets.

He said he has worked on software for the type of reader that the society has, for his employer, but he’s never had the chance to work with a real digital reader until the society bought one.

Griener said it will take awhile for the society to scan all the microfilm rolls onto the reader and checked because of the limited volunteer staff. But at some point, users will be able to type in a name and the reader will be able to search all the documents that have been scanned into the reader.

However, the society already has more than 400,000 obituaries from newspapers indexed on its microfilm, he said.

“With the indexes we have already, we can get you to the right newspaper,” he said.

The new reader will be on display at the society’s Fifth annual Genealogy Expo April 27 at the society’s headquarters in Hollidaysburg.

The society has invited 20 local, regional and state historical groups to set up tables so that the public may find out more about these groups. Many of the groups don’t have a physical building, Merritts said.

“A lot of these are small organizations that no one knows about,” she said.

In addition to the various groups represented, people can see records from the Williamsburg Orphan Home and the Blair County Alms House admission papers.

Merritts said she has found relatives listed in both sets of records. The alms house, which was located where the Veterans Home in Hollidaysburg is now, was the forerunner of the county’s Valley View Nursing Home, Merritts said. The records cover the period from 1930-1946.

Many of the children listed in the orphan records weren’t really orphans at all but were children of people who were sent to the alms house and were left without anyone to care for them like Merritts’ relatives, she said.

“We don’t have all the records, but it is a glimpse into our history,” she said.