CHAPEL HILL - Ernest Dollar is a historian, and the kind of information technology he’s most comfortable with is the kind you have to blow the dust off and squint at to make out the handwriting.
But that hasn’t stopped the executive director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill from looking for every opportunity to apply 21st-century digital wizardry to the work of understanding and protecting the structures and stories of the past.
Dollar and the Preservation Society have embraced new technology to get people interested in old things.
“As technology becomes more accessible and more popular, it’s increasingly important that we get out in front of it,” Dollar said. “The amount of information that you can assemble, the amount of education you can offer, is so much greater now, and we think it plays especially well in a town like Chapel Hill, where the population is so highly educated and technologically savvy.
“The question is how does the work of interpreting the past keep up with the future?”‘Easter eggs’
One way is apparent the moment you walk in the door of the Horace Williams House, the former residence of the influential UNC philosophy professor and now the Preservation Society’s headquarters.
The nearly 160-year-old home is maintained with period furniture and decor. But on or near almost everything – the chairs and tables, the clock on the mantel, the paintings on the walls, even the beaded pine ceiling – are small square stickers called QR codes.
Each one is white, with a sort of Lego-like black pattern printed on it. Each pattern is unique and designed to be read, like a supermarket bar code, by smart phones equipped with the appropriate app.
If you hold your phone up to the sticker beside the cross-stitch sampler on the parlor wall, for example, your phone reads the QR code and goes straight to a website that gives you information about the sampler: such embroidery pieces, you learn, were once commonly made by young girls, and this particular one was made by a 10-year-old girl named Sarah Spencer in either 1801 or 1810 (the cross-stitched date is a bit hard to decipher).
“They’re like Easter eggs throughout the house,” Dollar said. “As we continually strive to improve the way we engage the community, we have to ask ourselves, ‘How do we interpret this house?’ The QR codes are a way to convey information without hitting you over the head with big blocks of text beside everything.”
The QR codes are a precursor to another project Dollar hopes to implement, one that employs a technique called augmented reality.
If that can be put in place, someone with a smart phone and the right app will be able to point the phone’s camera lens at a historic site in town, and a host of information about that site, including three-dimensional images, will appear on the screen, overlaid on the live scene.
“That will blow your mind,” Dollar said.
By way of example, he pointed to the West Franklin Street space that most recently held the Panang restaurant (and before that was home for many years to the Pyewacket). Sixty years ago that building housed the Long Meadow Dairy Bar, a segregated business that was the site of picketing and sit-ins during the civil rights movement.
“If you hold your smart phone up and look at that building, it will bring up pictures of the Long Meadow Dairy Bar and the civil rights protesters,” Dollar said.‘Living Chapel Hill’
The Digital Age initiative Dollar calls the Preservation Society’s “flagship project” is a new website, still in the works, that will be called “Living Chapel Hill.”
The site, being constructed by Preservation Society intern Miles Travis, is modeled on the “Open Durham” site, an interactive online archive and inventory of historical information about people and places in Durham.
Gary Kueber, who created and runs Open Durham (which grew out of a blog he started called “Endangered Durham”), has agreed to share his online platform with the Preservation Society in order to help build Living Chapel Hill. That partnership means Travis doesn’t have to build the site from scratch.
“It’s basically a matter of shaking the Durham information out and putting the Chapel Hill information in,” Travis said. “Open Durham is a significant online repository of historical data, and that’s what we’re planning to replicate here.
“What we’re hoping to accomplish is twofold: We want to give the community a venue for information about the history and architecture of Chapel Hill, and we want to provide a first-class research tool.”
Like Open Durham, Living Chapel Hill will include data and photographs of specific homes, buildings and other sites; suggest tours based on various criteria; and invite users to add to the store of knowledge by contributing any information they might have.
“We’ll plot on a map all Chapel Hill’s historic properties and provide basic data – when it was built, the style, who owned it – and open it up so people can put in their own photos, memories and other information,” Dollar said. “It’s a meshing of academic history with grassroots history.”History under the skin
The Preservation Society’s 21st century projects aren’t limited to smart phones and computer screens. Some of them delve into the genetic structure of the human body.
Deardra Green-Campbell, a resident of Atlanta, was researching her family’s history when she came upon her great-great-great grandmother’s name on the Chapel Hill Preservation Society’s website, where it was listed in the will of Thomas Lloyd Hogan, who built what is known as the Hogan-Rogers House north of Chapel Hill in the mid-1840s.
Green-Campbell’s ancestor, Harriet Hogan-Latta, was one of the Hogan family’s slaves. Green-Campbell was surprised to find that the documents indicated that she was descended not only from Harriet but from the white Hogan family itself; it appeared that Thomas Lloyd Hogan’s son William Johnston Hogan was her great-great-great grandfather.
She traveled to Chapel Hill earlier this year to visit the house and talk with Dollar.
“She was very excited and a little overwhelmed,” Dollar said. “It’s an emotional experience for her. She was eager to pursue this connection.”
To try to confirm the link indicated in the documents, the Preservation Society is coordinating a DNA test. Green-Campbell found a male relative, a cousin, who was willing to provide a DNA sample in order to compare the results to DNA already banked by the Hogan family, which still lives in Orange County. The Preservation Society will announce the results later this month, Dollar said.
“You have history in your body,” Dollar said. “We all carry around a history book underneath our skin.”
All the new technology has the potential to open new doors to the past, and to beckon a new generation to the study and preservation of that past, he said.
He admits he’s learning as he goes.
“I don’t even have a smart phone,” he said. “I can’t read the QR codes in our own headquarters. I’m a historian, not a scientist, so this is new for me. But it’s very exciting. We’re bringing a whole host of new technologies to bear on old history.”