Library Memory Lab Takes Users on a Journey to Unlocking and Preserving the Past
By Kate Poindexter and Photography by Turner Photography Studio
Photos often fade, but memories can remain—even really old memories. That’s what Frederick resident Nancy House discovered when she inherited photos from her great- great-grandfather’s collection. She sifted through slides, photos, negatives and old tintypes in all shapes and sizes.
She did much of her own research to begin the journey back in time. Then she turned to the Frederick County Public Libraries’ Memory Lab to transform the information into an accessible digital format to preserve it for the future.
“To regard the value and importance of photographic preservation of ancestors, signatures, documentation, homes and the dignity of our forefathers provides enlightenment into their lives and stories,” House says. “Once a day is gone, hopefully a digital image of the events held during those 24 hours can live a bit longer for generations to come.”
House is one of the many people who have used the library’s free Memory Lab service that enables the public to convert old images into new formats for sharing, remixing and safekeeping. House’s project is a big one; she is examining thousands of images of her ancestors, dating back to the 1800s.
Other library customers simply want to scan some photos from a birthday party or baby shower and put them in a format that can be accessed by family and friends. Some want to view, update and save old video and audio recordings, but what was once state-of-the-art technology a couple decades ago is obsolete now and it’s difficult to find equipment to get started. For example, a wedding video shot in 1990 and viewed on a VHS player may have been converted to a DVD in the early 2000s and now may be destined for the cloud. The Memory Lab makes this technology leap easy (and you don’t have to ask your local teenager for help). There are plenty of library staffers and volunteers—teens and adults—who can demonstrate the equipment and help you plot your course for your project.
“The service not only allows people to enjoy memories but to share and remix them,” says Becca Reeves, assistant branch administrator at the Brunswick Library where the Memory Lab currently resides.
Since it was established in 2017, hundreds of people have used the image scanning, video and audio conversion equipment. It’s a mobile service that travels from branch to branch to provide maximum access for county residents. In addition to the scanners, VHS, VHS-C and mini-DV video and compact cassette audio equipment, there are five laptops, allowing for five stations to be set up at any time.
Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh have similar programs, but FCPL’s Memory Lab is the only service of its kind in this region.
In addition to hosting Memory Lab events at the library branches, FCPL also makes the service available for special programs for community organizations. The library recently shared the lab during separate events with the African American Resources Cultural and Heritage Society and Frederick Health Hospice.
The lab complements Hospices’ free grief counseling services, according to Jessica Thornton, bereavement coordinator. “The Memory Lab is very cohesive with that part of our mission,” she says. Family members often have photos or videos they want to enhance and share and they appreciated having the equipment on hand at Hospice. The first event was so well received that another is scheduled for Nov. 17 at Frederick Health Village. Information about reserving time slots is available at www.fcpl.org and frederickhealthhospice.org.
Digging and Uncovering
By categorizing the photos and documents left to her, Nancy House became the de facto family historian. With help from genealogical expert, Mary Mannix at Maryland Room in the C. Burr Artz Free Library in Downtown Frederick, House pieced together her family history. Using her photos and by doing some more digging, she assembled the story of her great-great-grandfather Heinrich Forschler, who was born in Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany, in 1824. Forschler came to the United States in 1850 and changed his first name to Henry. He and his wife, Catherine, settled in Rochester, N.Y., and had six sons. Henry was a partner in a shoe retailer called Forschler & Kron. He was also a volunteer firefighter who was among several who were killed in a major fire in 1867. His name even appears on a statue honoring fallen firefighters, at the Greater Rochester International Airport.
House has photos dating back to 1860, chronicling the lives of Henry and Catherine Forschler, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Memory Lab helped her organize and scan the images to store on flash drives to share with her family. She also loaded selected photos onto Ancestry.com.
Because of the sheer volume of images she needed to scan, House made several appointments with the Memory Lab, visiting the Brunswick, Frederick, Thurmont and Urbana branches. She says she has so many photos because several generations of her family lived in Rochester, the headquarters of camera and film manufacturer Eastman Kodak Company, where her father worked for 35 years.
Her project is ongoing and no small amount of work, but she says FCPL provides a pleasant learning environment where she can contemplate her connection to the people in the photos. “It’s amusing to see which one of your progenitors you look like this year, as it changes as you mature,” she says.
Back to the Future
Frederick County resident Beth Zang says she heard about the Memory Lab from a friend and checked it out at the Brunswick Library. She says it was easy to access and get help with the equipment. She was familiar with other FCPL services, having used interlibrary loans in the past and watched Mannix’s genealogy videos during the pandemic. So, she gathered her cherished family images and headed to the Memory Lab. Zang says she was able to preserve photos of her parents, siblings and her great- and great-great grandparents, who immigrated from Cornwall, England.
“It’s amusing to see which one of your progenitors you look like this year, as it changes as you mature.” – Nancy House
“I think it is important for us all to preserve our family history. Knowing our roots, where we came from and who our ancestors are, gives us a foundation for understanding who we are, which also helps us to understand others,” says Zang.
Library customers can book two-hour time slots with the Memory Lab online. It is currently docked at the Brunswick branch and may be rotated out to other branches soon. Of course, reproducing and distributing copyrighted information is prohibited and customers can consult library staff about the proper use of the equipment.
“In the 21st century we have seen unprecedented change,” says Reeves. She says she anticipates that technology will continue to change at a rapid pace and the need for the Memory Lab will grow. She plans to keep taking the show on the road. As sharing and storing formats change, so will the Memory Lab. The library will keep its finger on the pulse of change as much as possible and help the community bridge the past and the present by riding the techno waves to come.