By Sarah McCleskey, THC Marker Program Staff
In the digital age, many historical research materials are available to the public through online collections. Researchers have primary and secondary source documents available at their fingertips from the comfort of their home or office. Not all research can be done from a computer, but with the technology available today, it is much easier.
A new and exciting collection on the Portal to Texas History—one of many notable websites devoted to digitizing Texas’ rich heritage maintained by the University of North Texas (UNT)—is the Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (RTHL) collection. RTHLs are buildings and structures that are judged to be historically and architecturally significant, and are commemorated through the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) Official Texas Historical Marker Program. Since the designation’s origins in 1962, the THC has marked more than 3,600 RTHLs throughout the state.
As part of the application process, structural plans or drawings and photographs are required and kept in the RTHL file in the THC’s library. The RTHL designation and the maintenance of their files are a method of preserving the tangible heritage of our great state. In the past, RTHL files were only available by request, or in-person for researchers who opted to visit the THC’s library.
In late 2013, UNT received a TexTreasures grant from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission to digitize half of the THC’s RTHL files for access through UNT’s Portal to Texas History. After many hours sifting through hundreds of marker files, the documents were transported (carefully) to UNT’s Digital Projects Lab in Denton. State-of-the-art equipment and processes fill the Digital Projects Lab, from flatbed scanners to experimental techniques with digital cameras to large machines for scanning delicate historic newspapers.
UNT student Sean McLellan, an electrical engineering major who has worked in the Digital Projects Lab since 2013 and assisted with digitizing the City of Dallas’ JFK files, scanned documents and photos of RTHL properties. McLellan said he enjoyed working on the RTHL project because he was able to see historic photographs of places he has visited.
Other students entered metadata on each file, an extremely painstaking and detail-oriented skill that allows the files to be keyword-searchable on the Portal. In total, more than 10 months were devoted to preparing, transporting, scanning, and cataloging the first phase of the project by UNT and THC staff.
“In some ways, this can be a thankless project because the results of all the hard work aren’t necessarily tangible,” says Bratten Thomason, director of the THC’s History Programs Division. “However, it’s extremely meaningful for generations of future researchers and members of the public who will undoubtedly be accessing this information for things such as historical reports, academic projects, and even family genealogy.”
Thomason adds that the scanning project encompassed half of the THC’s Texas Trail Regions, including Mountain, Pecos, Tropical, Hill Country, and Independence—more than 1,700 files spanning 94 counties. Just a few of the counties represented are Aransas, Bexar, Caldwell, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, San Patricio, Travis, and Washington.
Digitizing the RTHL files has been beneficial for public access and preservation, and it also assisted the THC’s marker program staff while preparing the files for digitization. The project gave staff members an opportunity to cull through files and familiarize themselves with decades-old RTHL properties throughout the state, providing an opportunity to correct or add information about a property to the agency’s database.
“This closer review of historical files has allowed the THC to make important corrections and updates to entries on the Texas Historic Sites Atlas,” explains Bob Brinkman, coordinator of the THC’s marker program.
According to Brinkman, another positive outcome of the project was the opportunity to view remarkable photos, images, sketches, and paintings of Texas’ most historic and iconic buildings. Many structures that were designated in the 1970s and 1980s included ink sketches by notable Texas artists or the property owners themselves.
Reviewing the files also shed light on the application process for certain properties. For example, some files revealed interesting developments that the applicant uncovered during the research process such as the architect of a building that was previously unidentified. Other files disclosed tense communication between local historians that disagreed over a date, place, or the correct spelling of a name.
“Without a doubt, the most amazing portion of the project was witnessing the dedication and hard work that local historians and County Historical Commissions put into preserving their history,” Thomason says. “The vast majority of CHCs are volunteers who do historical research in their spare time. These remarkable people help others preserve their history for future generations and researchers—they should be commended.”
Open the Portal
The THC’s RTHL collection on the Portal to Texas History is available to researchers, teachers, consultants, students, and the general public to learn about historic structures in Texas. The RTHL Collection and other collections on the Portal will allow users to access primary and secondary source documents to enrich their understanding of Texas history. To view the RTHL Collection, visit http://texashistory.unt.edu/explore/collections/RTHLF/.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of The Medallion.