Until early September, the only way to peruse the 1,400 pages of Babe Ruth’s personal scrapbooks at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was to travel to Cooperstown, New York, and open one up. And you had to make an appointment first.

Thanks in part to a Portland company that helps create easy-to-search digital archives, people can now simply Google Ruth’s name and “scrapbook,” to browse hundreds of newspaper clippings about Ruth’s offseason antics performing at vaudeville theaters, battling with baseball officials, or barnstorming overseas.

A page from the Babe Ruth scrapbooks now online.

A page from the Babe Ruth scrapbooks now online. Courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

The digital scrapbook collection is just the first step in a long-range plan for HistoryIT, headquartered on Commercial Street, to put the Hall of Fame’s 3.1 million-piece collection online in a searchable and user-friendly form. The first phase of the digitalization, the Ruth scrapbooks, went online Sept. 7.

Fans all over the world will not only be able to use thousands of terms to search the archives (think Babe Ruth and hot dogs, or Babe Ruth and Red Sox), they’ll also be able to interact with the archived items to find history and context about each one.

“I want to find ways to involve people in history, even if they don’t think they like it,” said Kristen Gwinn-Becker, HistoryIT’s founder and chief executive. “Most people got interested in history because they had a good teacher or they were told a good story.”

And just about every piece in the Hall of Fame’s collection has a story behind it.

When HistoryIT has finished its work, people will be able to use thousands of subject terms to search for pictures and items that had never before existed in a digital fashion, Gwinn-Becker said. They will be able to explore across collections, between the scrapbooks and related photos or documents, for example. Eventually the digital archive will have audio files of players from bygone eras, and three-dimensional models of balls, bats or other artifacts.

JACKIE ROBINSON ON DECK

Bats in storage at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, were among the items inventoried by Portland-based HistoryIT for the Hall of Fame's digital archive project. Photo courtesy Kristen Gwinn-Becker

Bats in storage at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum were among the items inventoried by Portland-based HistoryIT for the Hall of Fame’s digital archive project.
Photo courtesy Kristen Gwinn-Becker

The project HistoryIT was hired to work on should take about five or six years and cost about $15 million, said Ken Meifert, vice president for sponsorship and development at the Hall of Fame. So far, it is about 10 percent funded. The Hall of Fame plans to launch new parts of the digital archive every two weeks into at least next spring. One of the next sections will contain items connected to Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball, plus materials related to the first five players elected to the Hall of Fame in 1936.

Gwinn-Becker and her staff of 34 – including historians and information technology specialists – began working with the Hall of Fame more than a year ago. HistoryIT staff traveled to Cooperstown to see the collection, to take inventory and to talk with staffers. The company is headquartered in Portland, but staff members are based all over the country. Other clients have included the University of Indianapolis, Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland and the Connecticut Historical Society.

To begin working on the first portion of the digital archive – the Babe Ruth scrapbooks – HistoryIT staff members read every article on all 1,400 pages. With the help of the Hall of Fame, they came up with search terms that could apply to the articles in the scrapbooks. Then HistoryIT tagged the articles and set up the program that would allow the scrapbooks to be searched.

“You can scan your whole collection and put it online, but what happens if no one can find it?” said Donny Lowe, director of digital strategy at the Hall of Fame. “HistoryIT was able to create the descriptive data that makes it really easy to search and find anything,”

Kristen Gwinn-Becker of HistoryIT holds Babe Ruth's bat while preparing the Hall of Fame's digital archive project. The first portion of the digital archive, Babe Ruth's personal scrap books, was launched last week. Photo courtesy Kristen Gwinn-Becker

Kristen Gwinn-Becker of HistoryIT holds Babe Ruth’s bat while preparing the Hall of Fame’s digital archive project. The first portion of the digital archive, Babe Ruth’s personal scrap books, was launched last week. Photo courtesy Kristen Gwinn-Becker

Though she was not a big baseball fan when she started this project, Gwinn-Becker said she’s become one. Donning white gloves to hold a bat that Ruth held during a career in which he swatted 714 home runs certainly helped.

The 38-year-old started HistoryIT in Chicago in 2012 and moved the headquarters to Portland in 2013. She grew up in the Bangor area and had worked as a software developer in San Francisco. Her love of history helped her decide to go back to school and get a doctorate in history at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. While pursuing that degree, she began to realize the potential for spreading history through truly interactive digital archives.

By making its collection digital and interactive, the Hall of Fame will allow people to dig deep into primary source material. Ruth’s scrapbooks, for instance, were put together by his agent and show how he was much more than a baseball player. He was a media sensation, before reality television, who traveled the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s, where people paid money to see him not bash a baseball.

Some of the Babe Ruth scrapbook pages now available through the Hall of Fame's digital archive project, a collaboration with Portland company History IT. Courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Some of the Babe Ruth scrapbook pages now available through the Hall of Fame’s digital archive project, a collaboration with Portland company History IT.
Courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

“Can You Dance, Babe? No! But Just Same He’s a Hit, Bo!” reads the headline of a New York Evening Telegram clipping from 1921. Another clipping on the same scrapbook page features interviews in which Ruth talks about why he likes appearing on stage. Another details his $60,000 salary for 20 weeks of show business. Some of his appearances were with Wellington Cross, a popular “song and dance” man of the day.

The clippings on Ruth’s vaudeville career alone tell a story about his popularity and the times he lived in, beyond anything his home run records or batting average can tell. For the Hall of Fame, the reasons for wanting a digital archive include getting more people familiar with what the Cooperstown shrine offers, Meifert said.

That may translate to more visitors – it gets about 300,000 a year now – and more financial support.

Another reason the Hall of Fame hired HistoryIT to help make the archives digital is to preserve the items for future generations. That is especially crucial in the case of the many interviews stored on flimsy cassette tapes. Interviews with players whose careers ended 50, 60 or 70 years ago are on tapes that may not last much longer.

Once those are online, people will be able to listen to Negro League star Cool Papa Bell, who died in 1991 and who was famed for his speed. At one point in the interview, he’s heard talking about whether he was faster than Olympic track star Jesse Owens.

“There is no replacement for hearing Cool Papa Bell talk about his career, about what he remembered,” said Lowe, the digital strategy director. “So we want things like that preserved and shared with as many people as possible.”