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History museum in Perham gets new tech for faster, easier research

Thanks to a new database system, anyone interested in history will be able to scroll through the History Museum of East Otter Tail County's online archival collections to see what's available at the Perham museum.

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The History Museum of East Otter Tail County has been part of the Perham community for more than 20 years.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

When the History Museum of East Otter Tail County first formed around 22 years ago, the internet was still catching on, and the museum didn't even have an email or website.

That changed quickly, however, and a team of dedicated volunteers have continued to navigate the museum's operations through the modern age. Throughout the past year, especially, they've overseen a number of technology upgrades.

"In the first couple years, internet was a new, popular thing," said museum volunteer Mary Pfeffer. "We did everything in books and maps. Nothing was on the internet… We keep up with technology and move toward the future, because there's an endless amount of things we can do with that."

With the help of some grants, the museum got five new computers and one new microfilm reader, a device used to project and magnify images saved on film. The updated reader can be used to read archived newspapers from the East Otter Tail County area that date back to the mid-1800s.

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Volunteer Gayle Pflager sets up the museum's new microfilm reader.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

An even bigger addition has been CollectiveAccess, a new database system for the whole building. CollectiveAccess will allow the museum to compile all the information that it currently has spread out across multiple systems and put it all in one place, making the search for information much easier.

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"We can even connect with other museums across the U.S.," said Gayle Pflager, a volunteer.

CollectiveAccess , described as a "free, open-source software for cataloging and publishing museum and archival collections," is used throughout the state of Minnesota. It's a collaborative system between the different museums in the state, and now the History Museum of East Otter Tail County is considered a collaborator.

"It's an online system whereby museums can track our artifacts and our different collections that we can share with the public," volunteer Sue Delaney said. "It gives us a nice digital presence… Hopefully it'll be a way to let the wider world know just exactly what we're about and what's available."

If someone, for example, was interested in researching Minnesota history, that person could take a look at all the archival collections available throughout the state. Within that, they'd see the exact collections and information available to them at the local East Otter Tail County museum, whereas they may have never known beforehand.

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Lorraine Weatherhead sits at one of the museum's new computers.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Pfeffer jokes that the history museum is the "best kept secret in town." She hopes that CollectiveAccess will help spread the word about all the information and resources they have available. Delaney also hopes it will help bring more people to the museum, and to Perham, in general, in their search of information.

"(CollectiveAccess is) an awesome thing," Delaney said.

The museum will receive a draft of the new database in early March. While a release date isn't yet set in stone, Delaney and the other volunteers hope to have CollectiveAccess online and open to the public in summer 2022.

Even after that new system is in place, most of the museum's archives will still remain available for in-person viewing only. But the new system will allow people to know exactly what's at the museum — from thousands of old photographs to census records to birth and death records and beyond.

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The museum also offers free usage of Ancestry.com on its in-house computers for anyone interested in researching their family history or genealogy in general. There's no charge for entry to the museum, or to do research there; there's only a charge for copies made.

Pfeffer made sure to mention that a volunteer is always available to help visitors with their research, especially on Thursdays.

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This diorama in the History Museum of East Otter Tail County shows Perham in either the 1860s or 1870s.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

For anyone interested in history, the museum is always accepting volunteers, and the team of volunteers that's already there likes to have people come by and help identify old photographs in their collections. They're also always in search of old yearbooks if anyone has one they'd wish to donate.

The History Museum of East Otter Tail County is located in Perham and can be reached at 218-346-7676 or museum@eot.com. It's open year-round, Thursday–Friday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.

For more information, visit historymuseumeot.com .

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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