Tracking New Hampshire History Through Town Reports

Samantha Bradbury Koster

unh library

Over the course of 15 years, the University of New Hampshire Library (UNH Library) has been working towards digitizing all known New Hampshire municipal annual reports, with reports starting as early as the 1800s. Earlier this year, this monumental project was completed with the help of the New Hampshire State Library (NHSL) and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to finish scanning, digitizing, and categorizing more than 19,000 additional reports from 234 towns, 8 village districts, and 2 extinct towns. The now complete collection contains all known reports from the UNH and NHSL collections, 34,302 reports and counting.

“A project of this magnitude takes many partners and many years to come together, and we were honored to work with the New Hampshire State Library with funding from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, as well as with the Internet Archive, to digitize these historical records,” Tara Fulton, Dean of the UNH Library, says. “Now anyone can go to the internet and visit the UNH Scholars Repository to browse New Hampshire town reports, and they can also search for specific information by year or by topic. That’s what libraries do – we collect information sources, preserve them, and use the latest technologies to make them accessible.”

boxes of annual reports

The digitization of New Hampshire town annual reports started in 2008 when the New England Regional Digitization Center at the Boston Public Library opened. The UNH Library contracted with the center, which is run by Internet Archive, to begin the initial scanning of 14,900 reports from the UNH Library collection between 2008 and 2013. The town reports project began as a UNH library initiative to save space and improve access as the library moves toward digital collections and e-books over physical collections.

The process of digitizing this collection was entirely manual from initial contact with a report, filing and packaging a report, shipping reports, to scanning. Once the reports were received by Internet Archive, each page was then scanned one at a time. The scanning time per report varied based on the length and condition of the report. Some reports, especially from the 1800s to early 1900s, needed to be handled with care due to age and condition. Reports also vary in length, from a succinct 5-10 pages to more detailed 200 - 300 plus pages. Once each report was scanned, it was repackaged and shipped back to UNH Library where they were carefully reshelved in the UNH Library collection or returned to the NH State Library.

In 2013 when the initial budget for this project was spent, UNH Library returned to digitizing the reports in-house as time and resources allowed. Without funding to outsource scanning to Internet Archive, at approximately 117 reports scanned a year, it was estimated to take UNH Library Digital Services more than 160 years to complete the backlog alone, From 2013 to 2020, the UNH Library was only able to add 800 reports to the collection, a 96% decrease in progress compared to outsourcing the work.

During the COVID-19 pandemic the project took a surprising turn. Sarah Stinson, digital collections coordinator and manager of this town reports project after 2017, explained that while the transition to remote work was a challenge at first, the time and flexibility the pandemic created allowed UNH Library staff to hone in on the town reports to transcribe titles. In the early stages of scanning town reports, the reports were given generic titles such as “Annual reports for the Town of Bristol, New Hampshire, 1916,” instead of their longer, original titles like “Annual Reports of the Selectman, Road Agent Board of Education School Board, Firewards Trustees Minot-Sleeper Library and Park Commission of the Town of Bristol for the year ending Feb. 15, 1916.” While the generic title was more concise and took less time to document, the original title increases discoverability.

 student with catAngela Constantian with pup Atlas working from home office. Photo by Angela Constantian.

The COVID project’s goal was to add titles and dates to metadata records to the then-scanned 15,000 reports. It was estimated to take 3 minutes per record to update the title and metadata of each report, which was projected to take 750 hours to complete. This project allowed UNH Library Digital Services and student workers to maintain their jobs during a difficult time.

“We handled thousands of Town Reports, and it was essential to keep records of which Town Reports we had physically, where they were from, what stage of the process they were in, and which issues we still needed,” says Molly Gearhart, one of the student workers assisting with the title project, among other tasks. “It could be a lot, but working with the digital collections team made it easier and worthwhile.”

Like scanning, this work was done one by one and is tedious work that requires incredible attention to detail. To make sure the titles were cataloged correctly, each report was also checked for accuracy, which means all 15,000 reports were reviewed multiple times throughout the process.

In the spring of 2021, NHSL invited UNH Library to apply for the American Rescue Plan funds -- grant funds the NHSL was being tasked to distribute to libraries across the state as part of COVID-19 relief. As the designated repository for the printed town and city reports, NHSL approved UNH Library for $242,364 in sub-grant funds to complete the digitization process they had started in 2008.

The American Rescue plan funds came at a perfect time to complete the project because the UNH Library had processes in place to better support the town reports initiative. These processes included a newly integrated digital collections platform, updated metadata on all previously scanned reports, and a developed workflow for both in-person and remote work. In addition to established processes, UNH Library had established vendor relationships from when the project began. With a short 12-month timeline to approximately double the size of the collection, UNH Library contracted with the Internet Archive again to help with the digitization process.

“I remember from the first phase of the project, I would be excited when new shipments of the Annual Reports would arrive, I found them easy to digitize and interesting to glance through (especially anything with a winter scene of the town on the cover).” says Tim Bigelow, New England Regional Digitization Manager for the Internet Archive. “Fast forward about 10 years and I was so happy to hear that the project was going to be restarted. For me, it was a great full circle moment from digitizing the first set to being the manager and shepherding everything through for the second set.”

studentStudent assistant, Sophia Zydel, sorting town reports at the UNH Library storage facility. Photo by Sarah Stinson

To begin the final scanning and digitization of the town reports, the process of pulling reports, packaging, and shipping them began. Like every step of the process, each physical report is reviewed before packaging to make sure there is no damage. When there is damage, repairs can be made prior to shipping. In addition to keeping the integrity of the reports, the better the condition of a report, the easier it is to scan.

The Town Reports serve not only as a way of tracking town history, but also as a resource for documenting family history, land history, and so much more. Many of the staff members and student workers learned a lot about New Hampshire's history by working with the reports.

“Being a NH transplant, this project was a great help in getting my bearings in the state," says Angela Constantian, one of the UNH students that worked on the digitization project. “The thing I enjoyed the most would be the human element of the reports. Among all the financial and practical reports, there can be so much personality with the creative covers, dedications, citizen highlights, and funny stories from that year.”

One example of town personality is the town of Sutton, whose 2018 annual report features a photo of a policewoman lassoing a llama on the loose.  Others include individual town logos, prints, drawings, paintings, and photographs.

loose llama

At the completion of this project, UNH Library digitized, described, and uploaded nearly 19,000 known annual reports and added 1,700 born digital reports. The collection now has over 34,000 reports that can be accessed online. In order to complete this project, nearly every cent of the American Rescue Plan funds was used with only 56 cents left over—an incredible accomplishment for the entire UNH Library staff.

“UNH is really the only library in the state in a position to be able to launch this kind of collection, and certainly the only public institution library with the systems and people in place to be able to do this kind of project,” Eleta Exline, scholarly communication librarian and the principal investigator on the project, says. “It highlights our role as a library that functions as a resource for the university but also in many ways for the public.”

Since its completion, the digital collection has nearly 9 million views and has been downloaded more than half a million times around the world. The most frequent users of the collections are members of the UNH Community, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, other state agencies, and local governments.

The town reports are an incredible resource that is now accessible to anyone through UNH Library Digital Collections.

Samantha Bradbury Koster is the Library Communication Manager at the UNH Library. Sam can be reached by email at or via phone at 603.862.3193.

Project Partners:

Eleta Exline, Scholarly Communication Librarian; Sarah Stinson, Digital Collections Coordinator; Mary Russell, New Hampshire State Library; Tim Bigelow, Internet Archive; Carla Caforio, W.B Meyers (Shipping)

UNH Students and Staff:

Melissa Bauer; Nikki Cogdill; Angela Constantian; Emeline Dehn; Molly Gearhardt; Jake MacInnis; Grace McNally; Elizabeth Slomba; Ella Truesdale; Morgan Wilson; Sophia Zydel