Residents asked to contribute to online WWI archive

During Wilton’s first-ever Digitization Day on May 20

The Connecticut military questionnaire of Wilton WWI soldier George Dewey Barringer. (Click to enlarge)

The Connecticut military questionnaire of Wilton WWI soldier George Dewey Barringer. (Click to enlarge)

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, Wilton Library is partnering with the Connecticut State Library to help grow its Remembering World War One project by holding a World War I Memorabilia Digitization Day on Saturday, May 20.

People with World War I memorabilia are invited to stop by Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room between 11 and 3 that day to have their stories recorded and keepsakes scanned, photographed, and digitized, and added to the State Library’s digital project.

Remembering World War One is a community-generated archive of World War I stories, for which the State Library has been partnering with libraries, museums, and community organizations throughout Connecticut to hold Digitization Day events.

The idea to do a Digitization Day at Wilton Library came from Wilton Library’s community engagement manager, Michael Bellacosa.

“I’ve been involved in digitizing historical materials for several years and found out about this State Library program a year or so ago,” Bellacosa told The Bulletin.

“Last fall, I saw that the North Haven library was having a World War I Digitization Day, so I went up on my lunch hour to see it in action.”

It was there he met Christine Pittsley, the Remembering World War One project manager.

“Since I knew that April 2017 was the actual centennial of the U.S. declaration of war, I immediately booked us [Wilton Library] on their calendar for this spring,” said Bellacosa.

Pittsley told The Bulletin the State Library has held 18 Digitization Day events across Connecticut since the project started in 2014 — including five so far this year, with 13 more scheduled.

“We have profiled between 150 and 200 men and women who served,” she said, “and have digitized well over 600 objects associated with these people.”

Photographs, letters, and discharge papers are some of the most common items people bring in for digitization, said Pittsley, “but every event brings some new object that we’ve never seen.”

Other types of memorabilia found in the State Library’s online World War I archive include pledge cards, snuff boxes, trench boots, combat helmets, and medals, as well as items like German watch fobs and railroad car signs.

Memorabilia

As common as photographs are, said Pittsley, “they are incredibly powerful because they allow us to put a face to a story.”

Although the State Library has to limit what it scans, said Pittsley, “every object is unique in its own way.”

“We encourage people to bring as much as they are comfortable bringing in,” she said, “and our staff will help figure out which objects are most representative of the person in question and should be digitized.”

Pittsley said one of her favorite things about the Remembering World War One project is “the ability to tell the stories of the men and women who served — both over there and over here.

“It has been incredibly rewarding to help people — often the children of World War I veterans — to learn something new about their loved ones,” she said.

Oftentimes, soldiers or their family members filled out questionnaires that the Connecticut State Library created in 1919 and sent to every man and woman in the state who served, said Pittsley. More than 13,000 questionnaires were returned.

“We had one event where a woman brought us the story of her uncle who had been killed in France. She also told us the story of her grandmother, who was the founder of the Hartford chapter of the Gold Star Mothers,” said Pittsley.

The woman’s grandmother had filled out a questionnaire on behalf of her son and included a picture of him. State Library archivists were able to share the picture with the woman, who had never seen a picture of him before, said Pittsley.

“It is moments like that that make everything we do so important and fulfilling,” she said.

To be considered eligible for digitization, items — which do not need to be Connecticut-related as long as they are owned by a Connecticut resident — must:

  • Pertain to the World War I era, which the State Library defines as 1914-1919.
  • Be related to wartime, home front activity, or other war efforts.
  • Be original, and be owned by the individual submitting the item for digitization.

Post-war memorabilia must clearly reference the war, and post-war items related to World War I veterans will be accepted — including veterans who served on the Mexican front in 1916.

Digitization in Wilton

May 20 — which is also Armed Forces Day — will be the first Digitization Day held in Wilton, and the third in Fairfield County.

“We’ve done two events in Fairfield County — one at the Barnum Museum [in Bridgeport] last year and one at the Pequot Library in Southport in March, but this will be our first event in this part of the county,” said Pittsley.

“We’re really excited to come to Wilton and record some of the stories from this part of the state.”

During Wilton Library’s Digitization Day event, digital archive experts from the State Library will scan and photograph items and briefly interview those who bring them in order to catalog and later upload them into the online Remembering World War One collection. The whole process takes about 15 minutes.

Bellacosa said the Digitization Day fits in as a component of an ongoing World War I theme the library has been programming for more than a year, including a variety of historical lectures to which several audience members brought memorabilia.

“We also just concluded a four-week literature seminar about the ‘World War I Poets,’ and we have another historical lecture on the topic coming up in early June, to be given by Wilton resident Jean-Pierre Lavielle,” he said.

The library will be collaborating with American Legion Post 86 and working with the Wilton Historical Society, which Bellacosa believes has “some interesting and relevant World War I materials.”

Bellacosa said there are “many reasons” for people to participate in the Digitization Day.

Not only would they be “commemorating and memorializing the service — at home or abroad — of a family member or friend during World War I, he said, but also “contributing to an online collection of resources on an important topic that is accessible to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. They’d be helping to ‘make’ history.

“Some of the most valuable items to add to an online cultural/historical collection come from the unique, local content that only our community has,” said Bellacosa.

Those unable to attend Wilton Library’s Digitization Day event can still contribute to the Remembering World War One project via online submission here.

Click here to learn more about the Remembering World War One project.

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