Mystery Photo Project Wins Regional Award

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The project was developed from an idea of Sonoma State University's Marketing and Media Relations Coordinator Jean Wasp. To make it happen, she linked SSU Digital Projects Librarian Lynne Prime with Press Democrat newspaper feature writer and arts blogger Dan Taylor. The purpose: to uncover important information about the photos in the collection from the Sonoma County area that lacked important historical detail.

"We knew there were local historians and others in the community who had important information who we could reach through the newspaper's print and online presence," says Wasp. "Traditional outreach would have taken far longer and may not have yielded the rich results that ultimately came from this project."

The collaboration involved the publication of approximately 20-30 historical digital images submitted to the newspaper. Many of the photographs were taken in the 1970s by Sonoma State University students enrolled in the Historic Preservation Program, part of the University's History Department.

The "mystery photos" tapped for this project were selected from among the first 200 images digitized of homes of the 19th and early 20th centuries, including barns, water towers, railway stations, bridges and other historical sites. They illustrate the setting and background of the area up to 1970 and run the gamut from a Sebastopol water tower, to a Guerneville church, a Santa Rosa windmill and a Cotati beer garden.

Taylor published them periodically in his arts blog online for several months and asked his readers to provide any personal memories or anecdotes connected with them. Each entry listed what was known about the photo and what information might be sought. In addition, the Press Democrat published a nearly full-page feature story on the front of its Sonoma Living section about the effort.

A gratifying rush of public information started to roll in to Prime as the mystery photos were posted. The biggest impact showed itself at the North Bay Historic Preservation Digital Collections website where visits jumped from 400 in October to more than 3,000 in November.

She also received unprecedented numbers of phone calls and emails that provided important and colorful historical and anecdotal information.