SMALL TOWNS: Massive archiving project underway in De Pere

They’re indexing thousands of archives dating back to the city’s earliest days.
Published: Aug. 24, 2023 at 6:31 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

DE PERE, Wis. (WBAY) - For nearly a year now, a dozen volunteers have taken on a Herculean task for the De Pere Historical Society.

They’re identifying and indexing thousands and thousands of archives dating back to the city’s earliest days.

This week in Small Towns, we learn how researching De Pere’s rich history will soon become a lot easier.

Inside the White Pillars Museum, which houses the De Pere Historical Society, it’s another day of volunteering for Ann, Marsha, and Diane.

They’ve spent a lot of hours here leaving their mark on De Pere’s history.

Today, they’re cross-referencing images out of old De Pere Journals.

“Everything is, here we code things so that’s a big thing also, so we’re putting in little codes, so it’s like maybe ‘SC’ would be referring to schools, so then they could find anything that just related to schools, or if it’s related to sports, so that will narrow down the search to, so related to a wedding, or deaths, and that narrows it down too,” volunteer Marsha Goffard explains.

Thanks to a $50,000 Lynn Fey Technology Grant, the De Pere Historical Society launched its dream archiving project last September.

“It’s a massive project. It’s essentially digitizing and indexing the entire database that we have,” says McKim Boyd, De Pere Historical Society president.

With more than 60,000 photographs and 140 years’ worth of newspapers and property tax records dating back to the mid-1800′s, the De Pere Historical Society possesses one of the largest digital archives in the state.

The problem is that it’s been difficult for the public to use and search the database because of a lack of storage space and outdated technology.

“If you’re vague on the dates or you’re doing kind of a random search, it’s somewhat difficult. I compare it to a needle in the haystack in coming to try to find something. Where it’s going to be very useful is once it’s all indexed and into our system you can just type in a name or a business, a location, that type of a thing, and it will immediately go right to that information for you,” says Boyd.

“The searchable database, the optical character reading, you can just search a phrase and so many things will come up now. You can categorize it to just a specific name or a date range and it’s just so much easier than spending the hours of researching that people would normally have to do,” adds Amanda Reif, De Pere Historical Society director and curator.

And whether you’re researching family history or attended school or college in De Pere, you will be part of this project.

“The De Pere High School yearbooks, the Abbot Pennings yearbooks, the Nicolet High School, West De Pere High School, St. Norbert College yearbooks have been scanned and of course digitized so those will be searchable,” explains Boyd.

The guess initially was that this mammoth archival project would take five years, but that was before 12 dedicated volunteers answered the call, cutting the expected time in half.

“We just kind of put it out there, just to kind of see, put feelers out, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised with home many people have come up to us interested in any way that they can help,” says Reif.

And day by day, the finish line gets closer.

The hope is that the modernized archives are not only appreciated within the community but that they also serve as an inspiration.

“Both today and long-term it would encourage people to continue to bring us items and data and information that we can add into the collection so we can continue to grow what we currently have,” says Boyd.

“Hopefully people down the line will be able to really access it all and appreciate it as much as we all do,” says Goffard with a smile.

Since the De Pere Historical Society is kind of a trailblazer with its digitization project, it’s happy to talk with any other area historical society interested in learning more information.