Collecting for continuity and for change: The web archiving experience in Westborough

January 8th, 2019

By Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian and Archivist, Westborough Public Library

Photo of Tax Lists box, 1756-1852, from the Westborugh Town Clerk's office.

In 2013, a group of sixty people packed into a venue designed for forty in order to see a collection of  eighteenth and nineteenth century town records that had just been found in the Westborough Town Clerk’s vault. We love our history in Westborough! Still, I struggled to come up with a reason why someone from our growing South Asian population should visit our public library’s local history room. We have little-league baseball records from the 1970s, but I had few ways to similarly document the the town’s new cricket club because it mostly functions online. We have church records that go back to the founding of our town, but I had no mechanism to document the building of the new Sikh Temple in our community. One of the leaders of that project was excited about the idea, but he could mainly just point to their website as the place where such documentation was happening.

Local history is all about providing context, understanding, and meaning to how each resident fits into the continuum of a place. I am working to to fulfill that promise by diversifying our contemporary holdings so that they more accurately represent our town’s current character and demographics. This promise means diversifying the formats of our collections as well. In 2017, our library applied for and received a grant to participate in the Community Webs program, designed to teach public libraries how to use web archiving tools and enable them to curate local history collections. Suddenly, we were in a position to be able to collect the records that adequately represent life as it is currently lived in Westborough.

Westborough is a town of  ~18,000 residents, positioned between Boston and Worcester, MA. Once an agricultural and then an industrial community, Westborough has been transformed in the last fifty years by rapid residential, commercial, and corporate growth. We continue to maintain our rural character too, though, with working farms and a classic New England downtown. We combine small-town elements with worldly sensibilities. Westborough is also a  multicultural community. While some local families trace their roots back to before the founding of the town in 1717, others move to town for its schools (and then out when their children graduate), and a large population has immigrated in recent years from South and East Asia. The town has several active civic organizations and clubs, and residents participate in a Town Meeting form of government wherein all of the voting members of town gather twice per year to decide how the town will be governed. While there is a strong sense of continuity with our historical past, Westborough embraces change and celebrates the contributions everyone makes to the town.

Local history at our library is accordingly going through a bit of a renaissance. Our program had functioned under a nineteenth-century paradigm, with a focus on the founding families and their descendants, black-and-white photographs of buildings, and genealogical reference books. We waited for people to build up the nerve to enter the glass-encased, climate-controlled room in order to ask about, say, Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, the town’s famous first minister. Now we are moving into the digital age and making it more relevant to our twenty-first-century, multicultural community. The local history room is now the “Westborough Center for History and Culture,” and its new mission prioritizes active participation in creating and documenting our town’s unique identity. We have started to digitize our collections in-house and in conjunction with the Digital Commonwealth. We launched to facilitate access to digital resources. And we now create programming, such as architecture tours and a photographer-in-residence program, to bring local history out into our community.

Still, with so much social activity occurring online, we lacked the means to collect the records that would truly represent life today for the historians of tomorrow. The microfilm of our local newspapers end in 1974. Residents gladly share local history knowledge and memories on Facebook, but preserving that ephemeral information was near impossible. Despite our efforts to update our program, future generations were on pace to knowing more about Westborough during the American Revolution than in the twenty-first century!

Web archiving now enables us to collect the digital records of life in our town. So far, this includes:

  • Celebrations and events: The website and Facebook page created to plan and coordinate Westborough’s many 300th anniversary celebration events. We have other physical collections relating to past Westborough celebrations, so this digital collection will allow us to continue to build on this collection theme.

  • Westborough Town Government: Collecting records required by Massachusetts state law, and in the way that people today actually find and use them–through websites with links to other government offices and resources.

  • Westborough Foodways: New foods and restaurants signify changing demographics in a community, so I’ve been collecting a representative sampling of menus in order to follow the patterns and trends. Once a laborious process of retrieving print menus from restaurant managers, this web archive makes it easy to update and add to the collection on a regularly scheduled basis.

  • Westborough Sports: Documenting the activities of our town’s cricket team along with those of little-league, lacrosse, and soccer teams!

  • Westborough Social Media: A more permanent collection of the memories and photographs of Westborough that residents share through ephemeral Facebook feeds.

Screenshot of archived Westborough Gurdwara Sahib website

Website of Westborough Gurdwara Sahib, part of the new Westborough Religious Institutions web archive.

I have learned a few key lessons from my experience web archiving for local history in a community of our size. First and foremost, local history programs must actively collect the digital creations of their city or town, or else the picture of twenty-first-century life that they leave behind will be inadequate or even give a false sense of how we live our lives today. Those that do not collect digital records will prevent future generations from understanding twenty-first century life in their communities to the degree that they can for the eighteenth or nineteenth.

Second, these collections will change and grow as people in the community suggest more and different categories and resources to include. No matter how comprehensive it aims to be, any collection will need to respond in order to maintain a true picture of its community. Community histories are all about change. And just as our print collections cannot stand in for the entirety of life as it was lived when those records were produced, they can teach us about what the community deemed important and necessary to understand it. Public libraries can do this same work through born-digital records even if their scopes must by necessity have limits.

Finally, many of our communities experience demographic change in particular. And because of the way that our modern interaction is so heavily mediated by digital technologies, it is important to meet and document the changes and trends as they are represented there. These can be helpful inroads into new parts of wider communities–engagement that affirms the importance of each individual in the community to write its history.

Many public libraries’ local history programs still function in the nineteenth-century paradigm that grew out of the Industrial Revolution–itself a period of rapid social change. Those programs were created to contextualize these changes and to preserve aspects of life that people thought might be lost. They tend to focus most of their efforts on the preservation of print objects and photographs from the period. As a result, the idea of a community’s history becomes fossilized and further removed from relevance to today. We certainly don’t want to discard or neglect these collections of our past, but we also need to reinvigorate them by connecting them to new collections from the present. History should help us connect our present lives to the continuity, or discontinuity, of our past. Only then can we gain an understanding of why we live where we live and what kind of impact we have on our community. Digital collecting approaches like web archiving can help us to do just that.