Saturday, August 1, 2009

Amherst puts history online

Amherst puts history online
Tuesday, August 04, 2009

AMHERST - One January day in 1875, Emily Dickinson's brother Austin bought a dozen eggs for 42 cents, six oranges for 18 cents and some codfish (amount not specified) for 50 cents from the George Cutler & Co. Dry Goods store.

Anyone wanting to see the rest of that shopping list can visit Digital Amherst, an on-line repository of the town's history created in collaboration with the town's 250th anniversary celebration this year. It's an exhibit that continues to grow each month and will continue growing even after the celebration is finished.

Visitors can see and read the clipping of the obituary of Emily Dickinson written by Austin's wife, Susan Dickinson, and published in the Springfield Republican (May 18, 1886) and the Amherst Record (May 19, 1886).

Visitors can see hundreds of photographs as well, including the North City Primary School circa 1888. There are thousands of photographs in the special collection.

The site features essays, sermons, letters and links to other Web sites about a myriad facets of the town's history. It is organized by topic, time period and collection, among other options.

"This is a long-term project," said Tevis Kimball, curator of special collections and project manager. "The challenge is organizing" the immense collection "in a cost-effective way."

She said she was working on an internal digital archive, but with the town's anniversary they decided to make the archive available. "What Digital Amherst (does), it allows us to create an online digital library."

With the help of Kirstin M. Kay, of Hadley, who had been organizing and cataloging the Clifton Johnson archive a few years ago, and Kate Boyle, metadata specialist, they have been slowly able to build the site at relatively low cost.

Kay found free software and a free hosting site; otherwise, they wouldn't have been able to do it, Kimball said. Whatever money is needed comes from donations, Kimball said. "It was definitely a labor of love."

The online archive is not meant to replace an actual visit to the collection. "It supports what we're doing here," she said. "It helps people see what's here in this great collection. There are so many marvelous things."

The possibilities are endless for topics or information to post. Currently, the site offers 12 online exhibits that are highlights of the town's anniversary celebration. There are all kinds of documents to read such as the agreement between Peletiah Smith and seven others to build, and to share equally the cost of a gristmill to be situated on the Fort River in the Second Precinct of Hadley (Amherst was still part of Hadley then) on Jan. 28, 1756.

In addition to Dickinson, special collections is a repository for material connected to poets Robert Frost and Robert Francis and dictionary creator Noah Webster, to name just a few.

Springfield resident Charles M. Johnson, meanwhile, is working on a digital archive of his grandfather's Clifton Johnson's work to be part of the on-line archive.

Born in 1865 in what's called the Hockanum section of Hadley, Clifton Johnson was a writer, artist, photographer and "Renaissance Man," according to Charles Johnson.

He is hoping that the digital access will help people learn about his grandfather, a man he feels never got the recognition he deserved. Kimball said she's unsure when the exhibit will be available online. To see what's there, visit

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