Portland’s Kristen Gwinn-Becker is throwing open the archives.
By Erin Stewart Brown
Photographed by Séan Alonzo Harris
History is in danger, according to Kristen Gwinn-Becker, and she intends to save it.
The 40-year-old software engineer and history PhD, who grew up in Levant, near Bangor, founded HistoryIT with no lesser mission in mind. Headquartered on the Portland waterfront, Gwinn-Becker and her team of 30-plus historians, archivists, and technologists are rescuing history by bringing it into the digital realm, one irreplaceable archive at a time.
“History exists everywhere,” Gwinn-Becker says. “Not just in our big libraries and museums.” In Maine as much as anywhere, the history most imperiled is tucked away in local historical societies, in the recesses of city halls, courthouses, schools, places of worship. Such institutions hold troves of documents — letters and journals, certificates and deeds, maps and blueprints, newspapers and photos — containing forgotten stories about the people and events that shaped our world.
Much of this material is vulnerable to fire, sunlight, moisture, and insects. All of it — even assets stored in fireproof, climate-controlled vaults — remains functionally inaccessible, Gwinn-Becker argues, to all but a few researchers with the grants, academic training, and other privileges that allow for an in-person visit.
And as far as she’s concerned, inaccessible in 2017 is as good as lost.
“If these materials don’t exist in the digital world so that people can access them,” she says, “they will cease to have meaning.”
Gwinn-Becker left Maine in 1997 after blasting through high school and college in just six years (the onetime history major is still UMaine’s youngest grad on record). She made her way to Dublin for a master’s degree, then San Francisco to work in tech, before landing in DC, to pursue a history PhD at George Washington University. As a researcher, she loved delving into primary source materials, but she was bothered by the exclusivity of the archives world.
After finishing her PhD in 2008, she moved to Chicago and soon after started HistoryIT as a consulting firm, helping launch history-related websites and databases. Gradually, she and her collaborators built out the digital archiving platform that’s at the center of the company today. In 2012, ready to be a Mainer again after 15 years as a summer visitor, Gwinn-Becker moved the company to Portland.
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HistoryIT starts every project with a thorough evaluation of the archival collection — depending on location, quantity, and condition of materials, the team may spend several weeks onsite. After a high-tech imaging process, it’s time to engineer metadata — the descriptive information that links search terms to results.
HistoryIT, she explains, takes a “holistic approach” to digitization, bringing an institution’s collection to digital life with large-scale projects that might last five years, marshal anywhere from four to 20 staffers, and cost $40,000 to $16 million. Only a fraction of the company’s business comes from Maine — clients have ranged from Utrecht University in the Netherlands to the National Baseball Hall of Fame to the Historical Society of Washington, DC. Last year, HistoryIT digitized the entire story archive of the Salt Institute at the Maine College of Art — 40 years worth of film, text, and audio documentary projects about Maine and New England life and culture. In April, the firm launched a new website for the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Map Library, part of a long-term project to bring Osher’s 1.5 million maps, atlases, and globes online.
These days, Gwinn-Becker spends a lot of her time crisscrossing the country to chat with prospective clients. “Can’t we just get a scanner and an intern?” they sometimes ask. But without rigorous tagging and cataloging, she explains, even an expertly digitized document is useless, condemned to “the digital dumping ground” of the anonymous web. HistoryIT’s most valuable service is to mine material for themes and data valuable to broad and diverse audiences, then build elaborate search architectures that make materials discoverable.
For its New England projects, Gwinn-Becker’s team uses the Osher Map Library’s imaging lab, a windowless, black-walled room where technicians operate a $120,000 setup of cameras and high-def scanners. Manuscripts — some centuries old — rest in a cradle under a large glass plate. When imaging is in progress, the dark room explodes with a flash and pop every 15 seconds, giving the tech just enough time to raise the glass, turn a page, lower the glass, and check the focus. At the 3D station, artifacts sit on a turntable-like disc, rotating slowly beneath a camera suspended on a mechanical arm, which is moved to capture a new angle after each full rotation. Ultimately, the synthesis of hundreds of images creates a 3D digital model.
‘If these materials don’t exist in the digital world,’ Gwinn-Becker says, ‘they will cease to have meaning.’
Osher director Ian Fowler says HistoryIT’s work with its collection has been transformative. Maps previously cataloged using only data like title, date, and location can now be discovered digitally by searching (among other things) descriptions of the imagery they contain — sea monsters, say, or beavers, or depictions of native peoples. The searchability turns the collection into a resource for researchers outside the ranks of serious cartographers: graphic artists, costume designers, cultural historians. Traffic is up since Osher’s new site launched this spring, Fowler says, with visitors clicking through more pages and spending more time exploring what they find there.
Newly underway is an ambitious project to digitize the history of Mount Desert Island and its neighboring islands. The client is Friends of Island History, a consortium of some 15 local organizations hoping to ensure the integrity of their own archives while also pooling them digitally. Right now, their materials are dispersed between multiple collections, with little connecting fabric — so a researcher interested in the Great Fire of 1947 might find photos of pre-fire cottages at the Bar Harbor Historical Society, oral history transcripts at the MDI Historical Society, news clippings at Bar Harbor’s Jesup Memorial Library, and impact reports in the National Park Service archives. With a digital archive built by HistoryIT, users can search, explore, and cross-reference all these materials via a single web portal.
Given the sheer volume of material housed in similarly small-but-vital institutions nationwide, Gwinn-Becker sees a bright future for HistoryIT. “I know that what we’re building is big, and I want it to be in Maine,” she says. “We want to be the Google of history.”