Preserving The Past

In 2010, America’s national parks hosted 280 million travelers and in the past year tallied 398 million page views at their websites, a seemingly popular alternative to hitting the road.

That digital reality has not eluded the historians and rangers at the National Park Service, who’ve labored more than a decade to populate their Web pages with in-depth histories, photography, reproductions of artifacts and agency studies.

It’s a massive undertaking, requiring coordination among 400 park sites that during the past century have produced more than 100,000 reports. And that tall order recently grew taller with the June 30 retirement of historian and Web manager Harry Butowsky, who has logged 35 years of experience and written a dozen scholarly works.

“The Park Service is like a university with 400 branch campuses with libraries that have never been indexed,” Butowsky says. The far-flung collection of brochures, booklets, maps, books and articles “is like wealth capital in a bank—you can use the capital only if you know about it and can access it.” 

But with rumors of Interior Department budget cuts approaching 10 percent, there is an uncertain future for the role Butowsky played, a one-man band uploading content from his perch at NPS’ National Register, History and Education office. Reminiscing from a cubicle and clearing out a lovingly created paper trail from all stages of his career, Butowsky says he drew the assignment in the late 1990s because he was an accomplished historian who was Internet-savvy. Even more important, he knew the parks, the literature and where much of the gray material in old reports might be hibernating in crannies across the country.

“The greatest thing about the job is it’s self-directed,” he says. Assembling the collection meant tapping his personal contacts at museums, stations and cabins of the nation’s historic parks, many of which lack staff for the task. Eventually word circulated to produce a steady flow of submissions. But flying solo also meant Butowsky received no dedicated funds and had to do his own scanning of aging paper reports—some of which topped 1,000 pages. There are now more than 4,500 documents online, mostly internal studies dealing with such topics such as land management that, “if not for the Web, would be unobtainable,” he says. “I’d like to say I’ve read all 4,500, but not so.”

The bulk of the e-library collections were written by NPS historians, geologists or archaeologists, including 130 studies by star historian and battlefield tour guide Ed Bearss, who retired in 1995 but remains emeritus and continues to lead battlefield tours.

Complicating the collecting is the fact that the publications go back a century or more with multiple editions. A booklet featuring picturesque images of Oregon’s Crater Lake, for example, was first published in 1912, but the Park Service released more than two dozen updates in subsequent decades. There was no convention requiring authors at each park to submit a copy to a central repository.

Some publications, like Butowsky’s first paper on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Civil War headquarters in City Point, Va., now known as Hopewell, were not printed but simply typewritten and photocopied in quantities as low as a half-dozen. Today’s brochures have a press run of at least 50, he says, but budget cuts have forced parks to charge fees or give them out sparingly.

Other materials have been lost, lent out or exist only on microfilm. After former Park Service director Roger Kennedy died in 2011, his widow found an array of brochures in the attic, part of a collection of 2,000 publications Butowsky thinks is now complete.

“Some I had to buy on the open market, on eBay,” he says, routinely paying $5 to $10, but going up to $45 or $50 for rare editions. Astonishingly, the Park Service for decades did not own, and hence could not post, a copy of what’s called the McMillan Plan, the basic blueprint for Washington’s National Mall created in 1902. Butowsky finally located a copy on Amazon that was owned by a used bookstore in Arlington, Va. He paid $500 and sent it to the Park Service’s technical facility in Denver for scanning and safekeeping in a vault.

Another snag in enriching the portal  is concern about photos that might be copyrighted. The Park Service’s Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., won’t allow their posting on the Web without new permission. Publishers are wary, fearing loss of profits if their book covers are reproduced. Even some parks have resisted. Many on the East Coast Civil War battlefield staff, he says, were worried no one would visit the physical sites if too much material was available on the Internet. But to their surprise, publication sales actually rose.

Parks generally update brochures every three to five years, Butowsky says. Many operate on the edge financially and might have to choose between hiring a visual manager for updates or keeping the grass mowed. “Back in the salad days, we had a whole stable of historians as employees, who did good work in the regional offices,” he says. But 20 to 30 years ago, the agency moved toward contracting the writing to academics and organizations. Still, “the NPS person monitoring the contractors needs to know how to do the work,” he adds.

Butowsky will continue teaching history at George Mason University and adding to the Park Service’s e-library as a part-time volunteer. “Once things are up on the Web, they have to be maintained,” he notes. “Collections disappear and errors are found.” 

He delayed his retirement out of worry the endeavor might be abandoned, begging his boss to hire someone who’s been on staff for at least 15 years. Yes, park knowledge and technical skills count, Butowsky says. But mostly, he says, “it
has to be someone who is committed.”

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