Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Computer science students lend Norton a hand in organizing town history

Computer science professor Mark LeBlanc and four of his students are developing a searchable database of local historic images at the Norton Historical Society.

For the Norton Historical Society, assembling a slideshow now seems to take forever.

The 5,000 slides aren't organized by subject in their storage drawers in the society's Old Schoolhouse on Route 123 near the Route 140 intersection.

Soon, finding slides from one topic will take minutes, not hours - thanks to a Wheaton College computer science class and its teacher.

cs-hist.jpgData Structures students John Hatcher, Amos Jones, Christina Nelson and Carey Phillips and computer science professor Mark LeBlanc are developing a searchable slide database for the society.

Sitting in the schoolhouse for as much as three hours one night each week, the students and professors input names, descriptions and slide numbers from each image's index card, sipping coffee along the way.

"For the most part, George and Ruth know where everything is," said LeBlanc, referring to society President Ruth Goold and former president George Yelle.

"If they type into the computer, 'farms in town' or 'local schools,' what the report will tell you is 'Go check out these 20' instead of having to fish around."

cs-nhs.jpgThe database should be complete by early May, LeBlanc said. A demonstration at the society's April meeting is planned.

Goold said the database is "going to make it far easier for us."

"With this program, we could just punch in 'ice houses,' and it will tell us which of the slides we have on that particular subject," she said.

Phillips said he's inputted almost 400 index cards in one night.

The topics have ranged from hurricanes to buildings.

"You get cards that have schools, with long lists of all of the students' names," Phillips said.

Phillips, who hails from "just a little west of Richmond, Va.," said the project has been educational.

"It's pretty interesting to me to come here and learn more about the history of where I am," Phillips said.

The work is rewarding, too.

"It's a good experience for the Wheaton community to become more involved in Norton," Phillips said. "It's something that we all have experience in that we can contribute to the further education of the community of Norton."

LeBlanc said his group also will start scanning the slides into the database to help preserve them.

He said he hopes Norton High School students may help with this aspect of the project.

"If anything were to happen to these slides, there's no copies," LeBlanc said.

Goold said digitizing the slides would give the society "a backup system."

LeBlanc suggested that eventually, the historical society could put copies of the slides on DVD.

"Maybe we could sell them in town for a fairly cheap price," he said.

LeBlanc proposed the project after having past classes do others for the historians.

One former class built the historical society's Web site, http://cs.wheatonma.edu/nhs/.

Now, LeBlanc has the students acting as "a consulting company."

"We found out what's needed, and we delivered," LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc said the project counts toward 5 percent of each student's grade.

"If they just keep this up, I'm just going to write in '100' for this," he said.

BY MICHAEL GELBWASSER. Reprinted with permission of The Sun Chronicle.