Picture a team of librarians, poring through now-antiquated card catalogs and skimming through seldom-used stacks. They're looking for specific documents: pictures, books, trade catalogs, maps -- anything that helps define the metals industries that dominated Pittsburgh for the better part of the city's history.
Then, the boxes and boxes of books and papers are shipped off to a facility on the North Side, where they're scanned into hundreds of gigabytes worth of computer files.
Library manager Richard Kaplan oversees the collection. The project team put more than 522,000 pages of historical documents on the internet over the past four years. Kaplan sorted through most of the material by hand.
"I think my true favorite is probably this set of Baldwin Locomotive Works catalogs," said Kaplan, leafing through a musty green book filled with etchings of trains. "I just love that scale of industrial production."
From the dawn of the 19th Century until the copyright cutoff year of 1923, the collection documents the rise of familiar companies in the Pittsburgh area: U.S. Steel and Allegheny Ludlum, to name a pair.
It also offers portraits of industry magnates like Andrew Carnegie, whose name appears on text, under photographs, and even on sheet music. Kaplan likes to think Carnegie would've approved of the online collection.
"I think the concept of this would have tickled him immensely," said Kaplan.
The librarian says the collection shows how Carnegie and other businessmen improved the quality of life in Pittsburgh by founding parks, museums and the public library. However, he says the database also shows another side to the story of the steelworker.
"It's obviously not all Skittles and beer," said Kaplan. "We have intense labor strife, and that's part of this collection, too. We have proceedings from hearings held before the United States Congress on anti-trust. We have proceedings from hearings on the Homestead Steel Strike, and the use of the Pinkertons. The collections we have try to take a fair look at everyone's side, both labor and management."
The digitization of the documents was managed by Ryan Hughes, Information Technology Project Manager at the Carnegie Library. He says other libraries have online databases that are bigger, but the 200 gigabyte Iron and Steel collection may be one of the most specific large anthologies on the internet.
"What we would love to see is someone identify, 'Oh, that's my grandfather in that photo,' because we have photos of not just Andrew Carnegie or [Andrew] Mellon or [Henry Clay] Frick and those sort of industrial magnates, but also some of the folks who were working in the mills, you know, at their lunch hour."
Bringing the Steelmill to the Schoolhouse
The library has also crafted public school material based on the newly digitized documents. The lesson plans add on to history classes from elementary school through high school.
Emma Connolly of the library's BLAST program helped design the classwork. She said the old-fashioned pictures help bring otherwise dry lectures to life. She said BLAST found other ways of making the industrial age interesting to students too, including one lesson plan where students make fake Facebook pages for the people of the 1800s.
"They could create either their own character, or use one of the bigwigs of the time. The idea is that kids go in and create the profile, they list the interests, the religious views, and they are to be as accurate as they can be based on the material they have read. And then, they can post pictures, and add friends," said Connolly.
She said the students could even create status updates for the long-dead people. "So, for Andrew Carnegie, [a BLAST organizer] had created a status that 'Andrew Carnegie is hoping Henry Clay Frick can settle things down in Homestead.'"
Other lesson plans include art projects for youngsters and classroom discussions for high schoolers. Connolly said BLAST will start offering the material to local teachers for the start of the next school year.