The Bulletin Board

Effort to digitize town reports close to completion

By: - August 23, 2022 1:47 pm

The New Hampshire State Library and the University of New Hampshire are partnering to make town reports from the state’s 234 towns available online. Some reports date to the mid-1800s. (Screenshot)

This story was updated on Aug. 23, 2022, at 3:05 p.m. to include comments from the state librarian.

In 1891, the town of Acworth returned $3.96 to two residents who’d been charged too much in property taxes. Berlin reported 123 marriages, 443 births, and 202 deaths in 1916. And in 1940, the city of Concord planted 565 shade trees along city streets and paid $100 to settle a lawsuit involving a minor injured at Kimball playground.

This and similar information for 214 of New Hampshire’s 234 towns is available – and easily searchable – in the University of New Hampshire’s Scholar Repository of town reports. Soon, reports from the missing 20 towns will be available too under a contract between the university and the New Hampshire State Library. Those include Mont Vernon, Windham, Lebanon, and Randolph.

If there’s any question about the $242,000 contract being worthwhile, consider that people from 136 countries have downloaded 25,000 of the existing records since December 2020. Each town report is a time capsule of a community’s most pressing issues and expenditures – for everything from new sidewalks and aid for the needy to tax abatements. Some even hint at statewide concerns. 

For example, in 1927, many towns debated employing female married teachers, according to Dover’s town report that year. Dover’s policy called for terminating any female teacher married after May 12, 1927 – unless the school committee decided otherwise. 

And in 1966, 395 acres of the state’s 4.39 million acres of forest burned, according to Fremont’s 1967 report. Today, the state has more forest land – 4.8 million acres – but on average sees fewer acres burn, about 250. The prime cause remains the same, however: human carelessness.

And sometimes, the reports serve as a fact-check, said Michael York, state librarian. “People use them all the time at town meetings,” he said. “Very often … someone will say, ‘We tried that back in (19)55 and it didn’t work. Well, if you go back to ‘55, you can find out if that guy knows what he’s talking about or doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

The state had hoped to have reports from the final towns scanned by the end of August. At the request of the Department of Cultural and Natural Resources, the Executive Council agreed to extend that to November.

The project, paid for with federal funds, wasn’t a small undertaking. There were 1.69 million pages to scan from 14,720 reports, each averaging 155 pages. Some records date back to the mid-1800s.

Each town must send its annual report to the state library, per state law. Those paper versions are available to the public, if they can get to Concord. This project extends that access considerably – to historians, genealogists, and those just curious about New Hampshire then and now.

York said increased interest in genealogy, which he called the fastest growing hobby in the country, has prompted more people to research the records because they often contain the names of people married and born each year.

Going forward, York expects more towns will digitize their own reports and even cease printing them. 

The library used some of its federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for the project. “We love spending money, but it’s hard work,” York said. “It’s hard work to spend money in a responsible and meaningful way that’s not a flash in the pan.” This project, York said, will have a lasting impact.

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.