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How Facebook is helping librarians decipher hundreds of vintage postcards

Faced with illegible handwriting and images of long-vanished sites, librarians digitizing piles of old postcards at UPEI turned to social media to tap into Islanders’ collective memory.

By RAPHAELA NEHME | MAY 23 2017

Snapshots through time – this is what two librarians at the University of Prince Edward Island say they’re hoping to offer the public by transcribing a pile of vintage postcards.

The transcription project started when the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation asked UPEI to help scan over 1,000 postcards it had collected for digitization, says Mark Cousins, a project librarian at the university’s Robertson Library.

A vintage postcard offers a look at how Prince Edward Island was marketed as a rural destination for city-dwelling tourists. Photo courtesy of UPEI.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Cousins and digital librarian Meghan Landry to realize there was also value in transcribing what people were writing to each other in the 1900s. “We digitized both sides and realized there was a lot of information on the back,” says Mr. Cousins. “We felt that it would be great to get the transcriptions online, that [it] would really be a valuable asset to researchers.”

Mr. Cousins says he transcribed around 400 postcards but found a few too difficult to decipher in-house. He and Ms. Landry decided to get the public’s help by sharing 35 of them on social media. The pair started posting one postcard a week to the library’s Twitter account and to Reddit, but received limited response. They ultimately found success by posting on the Historic PEI Facebook page, with fans of the page becoming a treasure trove of information for the librarians.

“Facebook followers were very enthusiastic and we got a lot of great responses through this partnership,” Mr. Cousins says.

Mr. Cousins says his most intriguing find was a set of more than a dozen postcards addressed to a TV studio in Boston for a show called Candlepins for Cash. “They would pick a postcard that was sent to them out of a basket and whoever’s postcard was chosen won a prize,” he explains. In a few other choice postcards, writers gushed about the British Royal Family’s visits to PEI – Mr. Cousins even found one addressed to his great-great aunt.

The handwriting in these postcards gives “a sense of what people cared about 50 to 70 years ago,” while the images offer “an idea of how the island was marketed,” Mr. Cousins says. During the early 1900s, for example, “there were a lot of pictures of scenic views, which would’ve been really appealing to someone living in the city.” These rural views gave way to tourist attractions in postcards dating from the 1960s and ’70s.

Over the summer, the library will digitize close to 3,000 additional postcards. The collection so far is available on UPEI’s digital repository.

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  1. Donna Longo DiMichele / June 9, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    What a great way to crowd source local history and engage the community with the university. Kudos!

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