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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 18, 2008

Thrills and chills as library links community to its past

Cutting-edge technology has made the past accessible. Sitting at your computer, anywhere in the world, with a few clicks of your mouse, you can now read the pages of The Enterprise from over a century ago. The words, the etchings, the advertisements from 1884 on are all there.

Barbara Nichols Randall has shepherded our paper into the 21st Century. The director of the Guilderland Public Library, she made the announcement at a party for members of the Library Foundation on Friday.

It reminded us of the sort of event our paper reported on in the 1880s, back when Altamont was named Knowersville and we were called The Knowersville Enterprise. Our correspondents described the details of festive gatherings — right down to the sumptuous fare and the ladies’ wear.

Resplendent in red beads and a polka-dot dress, Nichols Randall warmly greeted guests Friday evening at what was to have been a party in the library’s Literary Garden until dark skies forced the affair indoors. The mood was light, though, as the Pine Hills String Band played lively tunes and guests snacked on elegantly prepared food.

Frank Sheehan, the president of the foundation, sporting a bow tie with his brown suit, explained the foundation’s role, “We buy the things needed by the library that the taxpayer can’t be expected to pay for,” he told us.

His wife, Joan, who wore a turquoise glasses that matched her turquoise pumps, lauded her husband’s work. “He’s here every day,” she said.

Old friends with a common cause — love of the library — caught up on news. Robert Ganz, who heads the long-range planning committee, sat next to 94-year-old Helen Haverly to show her plans for the library’s expansion. She said she was a long-time faithful reader of The Enterprise.

“We lured you here with a promise of music, food, and a surprise announcement,” Nichols Randall told the gathering. “With the coming of the digital age, we have things available on our website you can’t get anywhere else.”

Nichols Randall used to be project manager for the New York State Newspaper Project, which preserved crumbling papers across New York, including The Enterprise, with what was at the time state-of-the-art technology — microfilm.  She recently made arrangements with the Northern New York Library Network to digitize nearly the first century of The Enterprise — from July 1884 to December 1979. She said fund-raising would be ongoing to continue to digitize the rest of the editions.

”We have digitized 100 years of The Altamont Enterprise that is now available for all the world to search,” said Nichols Randall.

She projected on a large screen the library’s new website — http://historicnewspapers.guilpl.org — to show how the search engine works. She searched for the name of one of the foundation members, Dr. John Brennan, a long-time Guilderland veterinarian, and came up with a 1978 Enterprise picture of Brennan and his wife, Mary, being served by a chef in a tall white hat. 

“Isn’t that cool?” she asked to an audible murmur. “You won dinners for a year.”

Nichols Randall went on, “I’m a genealogy and history buff myself.” Bringing such a great resource of local history to the public is the culmination of years of effort.  She also worked with The Guilderland Historical Society to put Arthur Gregg’s carefully researched regional history, Old Helleburgh, online. With just a click, you can see on your computer screen the narrow columns of handset, hot-lead type, carefully saved by The Enterprise, where Gregg’s columns first appeared, to be made into a book.

Nichols Randall then went over the databases — most recently, Footnote — to which the library subscribes so that patrons can research their roots.

Footnote has an agreement with the National Archives to digitize military records, starting with the Revolutionary War and including the Vietnam veterans’ wall. “It allows people to add to the database, so, for some people, you’ll get a record, a picture, and stories about the person,” said Nichols Randall. “It gives you chills when it’s someone you know.”

She typed in the name of one of her ancestors, Peter Demass, who fought in the Revolutionary War. As his laboriously written signature appeared on the screen, Nichols Randall said, “You can see he wasn’t used to writing. He was a farmer.”

After Demass died, his wife, Mary, signed to get his pension. Her name is written in flowing, flawless script, with an “X” in the middle. Under the “X,” it says “her mark,” indicating her name had been written by a record keeper as she hadn't known how to write.

Seeing those signatures gave her the chills, said Nichols Randall. “I didn’t know what to say,” she said. “I just think it’s so cool.”

Ganz then told the gathering that plans for expanding the library include 5,000 square feet for local history and genealogy. “Our current room is clearly inadequate,” he said. “This will be a beautiful mezzanine area...with state-of-the-art technology with appropriate printers, exhibits, and trained librarians to help.”

Nichols Randall concluded her announcement by encouraging the onlookers to use the new website. “If anybody wants to come up and play with this, I’ll be happy to tell you how to do it,” she said.

We’ve been playing all week, mining our own newspaper’s history online. We had always been too cautious to play with the carefully stored papers in our attic room, looking only for the old articles we needed so as not to damage the crumbling newsprint.

Hardly a week goes by that we don’t get an inquiry or two — sometimes from across the country and occasionally from the other side of the world — to look up some long-lost person or event. The task has been arduous since, until now, there had been no index.

Journalism, Washington Post publisher Philip Graham said, provides “a first rough draft of history.” The Enterprise for 124 years has been recording history of Guilderland, New Scotland, and the Hilltowns. It’s depth you can’t get anyplace else. Now it’s at our fingertips and yours, too. We’ll provide a link on our own website —www.altamontenterprise.com— so readers can also access our back issues that way. Our website is full of current local news — tomorrow’s history — and now will have a direct link to our past.

We are happy to share our words and pictures. The paper’s current owners, James and Wanda Gardner, have never asked for any money when articles or pictures are reprinted, just a line of credit. We’re proud of our work and pleased it will now have a broader reach.

Bravo, Barbara Nichols Randall. You’ve given us chills.

Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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