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Carol Pearse, a La Salle County Historical Society board member and volunteer (left), assists historical society museum curator Ashley D.B. Baron scan photos from the museum’s collection. Over the past year, Baron has been using grant funds to digitize the collection to improve preservation and community access.
NewsTribune Photo/Amanda Whitlock
La Salle County Historical Society Museum curator Ashley D.B. Baron has spent most Wednesdays over the past year in a “cave”-like section of the museum’s basement. Surrounded by stacks and stacks of boxes of various historical items, Baron and volunteers have been scanning the photographs that have been gathering in the museum’s collection since 1967. “We’re at about 2,700 pictures right now,” she said. “I don’t have much left to do so I’m pretty excited about that.” The digitization project began last year with grant funding through the Illinois State Historical Records Advisory Board. The funding for the effort runs out in a couple weeks. As she nears the finish line of this project, Baron estimates the museum’s collection to be at about 3,000 photos, some taken as long ago as the late 1800s. During the digitization sessions, Baron handwrites notes about each photo that are taken upstairs after the photos are scanned. Another volunteer takes those notes and adds them to the new computerized database that will eventually allow people to search by category and subject matter. The next phase of the project will be updating the museum’s website to allow community access to the new digital photo database. “That’s my goal,” Baron said. “To have us up online and more accessible to the public.” Aside from improving access and preserving the museum’s photo collection, the process has been an interesting one for Baron and her volunteers as they dig through images of the past. “This is so cool,” said Carol Pearse, a La Salle County Historical Society board member and volunteer, on Wednesday as she sorted through old black-and-white photos of the Halfway House. For Pearse, a former school teacher, uncovering images of the local historic places and events she used to teach about has been exciting. The photos document numerous aspects of La Salle County life through the years from celebrity sightings, such as a time when baseball star Babe Ruth came to town visiting his friend, ragtime musician Zez Confrey of Peru, to floods and local landmarks. “I feel that I’m an expert now on Starved Rock,” Baron said. Aside from being a regular hiker at the park, Baron said she has now seen countless photos taken at the state park over the past century — often in similar locations. “I figured out that French Canyon is probably the most popular canyon,” she said. While most of the photos in the collection came with identifying information, the effort also has created some history mysteries. One that is yet unresolved is a photo showing a rope-suspension bridge believed to be over the Little Vermilion in La Salle, although that’s only an assumption based on the other photos with which it was stored. “It’s a wild guess if it’s actually what it’s been sorted into,” she said of that photo. The museum continues to receive donations of local photos and artifacts.