Iron and steel heritage gets digitized

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At the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the history of the steel and iron industry in Western Pennsylvania has collided with the digital age.

The library, using a federal grant received in 2008, has spent the past four years creating a digital catalog of more than 530,000 pages of historical materials related to Pittsburgh's iron and steel industry.

"It's always going to be steel that defines this city," said Richard Kaplan, manager of reference services and the assistant manager for the Main Library in Oakland. "And this was a unique set of materials that the library amassed."

The library celebrated the launch of its Pittsburgh Iron and Steel Heritage Collection -- located at -- last month. It's not a comprehensive history of the iron and steel industries in Pittsburgh, Mr. Kaplan said, but it is a comprehensive review of what was in the library's collection about that period.

Compiling and digitizing the collection will preserve for future study books and documents that have been made fragile by time, said Mr. Kaplan and Ryan Hughes, project manager for the digital collection.

Digitization also means that with a click of a mouse, visitors to the library's website can see items such as a photograph of the Edgar Thompson's steel works in Braddock or read the U.S. Steel Corp.'s preliminary 1902 stockholder report. Several dozen photographs -- such as a picture of a group of workers at the Sharon Iron Works in 1888 -- have been uploaded to the photo-sharing website Flickr.

Their goal from the start has been to use social media to make the collection interactive, and Mr. Hughes said he is hoping someone will look at a picture of steelworkers posted on the Flickr account and realize it is his great-grandfather or uncle.

In that hypothetical situation, the person could "tag," or identify the person, thereby adding more information to the library's collection.

For researchers in Pittsburgh and beyond, the collection -- all 12,093 books, photographs, maps, company histories, trade catalogs, journals and government records -- is "a primary source slice of American history," Mr. Kaplan said.

Its focus is on the history of steel and iron in Pittsburgh, but it also provides insight into how Pittsburgh and Allegheny County evolved and developed, Mr. Kaplan said. Most of the materials that Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Hughes sifted through and scanned into the digital collection date from the mid-19th century through 1923.

The grant that made it possible came from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Hughes said they hoped the collection could be used as a teaching tool for students and as a trove of primary sources for researchers.

Already, they've received inquiries from one international researcher about using the collection to study industrial architecture and from another about using it to study American labor history.


This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To subscribe: Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.


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