Ancestry gets an upgrade

Benny Westcott

On a Thursday afternoon at the Sweet Home Genealogical Society, volunteer David Larsen sits at a computer and places a 1968 Sweet Home High School yearbook’s front page under a scanning machine. Its image is transposed onto a screen and saved onto the device’s hard drive. He then opens the half-century old book and scans the first page. In just a few minutes, he’s finished dozens.

“It goes quickly,” he says with a grin.

Larsen is one of a number of people working to scan the society’s vast collection of newspapers, photos, documents, books and records. In accordance with the organization’s stated goal to “preserve the past for future generations,” these volunteers have been digitizing materials to make the recorded past even more secure for the future.

The society received two grants in early 2020 toward this effort: $1,200 Linn County Cultural Coalition and $6,000 Alice Blaser Memorial funds. Delayed by COVID-19, however, the grants were used this year instead.

The society has also received four computers, one laptop and three scanning heads. The grants provided for three chairs, three desks and two rolling carts, as well as an Adobe Acrobat DC program that stitches separate scans together, such as a newspaper spread.

Angela Thoma, who became the group’s president in May following Teresa Riper’s retirement, said, “We are trying to go to a digital format so we can reach out to more people across the world.”

Volunteers have already scanned Sweet Home Funeral Chapel records beginning in the early 1950s. “That way they [the chapel] have a safe copy of it,” Thoma said. “We had the fires last year. So we were all thinking, ‘How are we going to save our genealogical materials in the event of a fire?’

This process will give people access to their data that is stored onto an external hard drive and a thumb drive. That way, in the case of a fire, somebody else has a copy of all of their information. We would still have their records and could return them.”

Scanning an entire collection certainly can’t be completed overnight.

“I don’t know how long it will take us to scan the whole thing,” Thoma said. “The biggest part of digitizing will be the data entry, entering the data onto Microsoft Access. From there, we will put it on the Web somehow.”

Thoma has been working to build a website to digitally house records in the society’s physical collection. It will list full and maiden names, birth dates and cities, death dates and burial locations, and include where that information is stored in the society’s physical building at 1223 Kalmia Street. The website will also allow people to order information for a small fee plus shipping to receive copies via mail.

Going digital has been an “amazing project,” Thoma said, adding that several people are working on specific project areas, including entering “thousands and thousands” of names into a database.

“Then when people come in and ask if we have any information for John Smith, we can look him up digitally,” she said.

There have been learning curves in acquainting volunteers with the technology required to digitize records.

“We are all jumping into it together,” she said with a laugh.

The society took a public-engagement hit during the pandemic. The number of members – normally in the high 60s, according to Thoma – is down to 35. The $25 annual membership includes usage at one of the society’s ten computer stations, discounts on merchandise and genealogy classes. An unofficial reopening took place in July. 

“We didn’t publish anything,” Thoma said. “It was more like, ‘If you are around here, knock on the door.”

Then, on Aug. 24, it reopened more fully, turning the lights on from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every third Saturday.

The society offers free “everyday” research help. “We have a vast library of books, and for a fee, we offer scanning of pictures, documents, negatives and slides, plus printing and adding to a thumb drive,” Thoma said.

Before COVID-19, an annual two-day workshop would be held in March. That, however, is “on hold until we get past the pandemic,” Thoma said.

This year, the society has offered Zoom workshops. “The goal for 2022 is to hold workshops four times a year via Zoom and in person,” Thoma said. “Plus our monthly membership meetings will be held via Zoom and in person.”

She said the society’s relatively low number of visitors is a result of pandemic concerns.

“People are just afraid right now,” Thoma said. “They really don’t want to get exposed to the Delta variant.”

She noted that the society does take precautions. “We put out mask requirements. We sanitize everything, tables and pens, etc. We do keep it clean. We don’t want to get sick either.”

Thoma encourages people to visit and become better aware of their ancestry.

“We are a family-research site,” she said. “If people want to find their roots and learn more about genealogy, they can come here.”

For more information, contact the Sweet Home Genealogical Society at (541) 818-0578 or via email at [email protected].