AZTEC — Looking into the past is now easier with a little help from the latest technology.
The San Juan County Historical Society houses its archives in the old red-and-white firehouse on Aztec's North Main Avenue, but its reach is global.
With more than 100 members, the historical society, which started in 1988, has found greater numbers of interested people online. The society's Facebook page, which launched last year, has nearly 300 likes.
"We are in the process of putting in new shelving for our growing collection. We have a new computer for research by the public, and we've installed a modem for access to the Internet, so people interested in doing research have the latest tools to do so," said Angela Watkins, the society's president. "We've also applied for funding to get digitizer equipment to be able to scan larger-sized documents, like blueprints and maps, many of which date back over 100 years and need to be preserved."
Watkins and the society's treasurer, Kelly West, have also posted photographs and archival documents on the organization's Facebook page. The two have used the social media site to share and receive stories about the community's colorful founders, citizens and buildings. A recent posting of a decades-old photograph of the Aztec A&W restaurant received 2,677 views within days.
"That's one of the goals of the society using the Facebook page — to engage people with their own history of their area and to have people share with each other their memories of a certain place or person," West said. "It generates conversations and connections, which is what it's all about."
Watkins, who also coordinates programs at the Aztec Public Library and serves on the Aztec Museum's board of directors, was so impressed with the activity on Facebook that the society's website, sjcnmhistorical.org, is no longer active. Watkins believes the interactive quality of Facebook is best suited to the society's mission to record and preserve local history for future generations.
"Having a dynamic online presence has also boosted research and marketing and making the community aware of what we're all about and how to reach us. In order to do that, we had to use technology," Watkins said. "And that's the direction of the society, to make more connections between people in the community and the history of the area through education, access to local history and research. Providing technology, new computers, access to more archives, allows people to come in or go online and learn more about this area's history, local history that doesn't get as much focus in schools."
As part of that effort, five volunteers run the society's Aztec office, answering questions and helping people conduct research, scan family memorabilia or peruse the office's two archive rooms with more than a dozen county newspapers and scores of documents.
More than 90 percent of the photographs Watkins and West post online come from a collection of pictures taken by Henry Jackson, a prolific Aztec photographer who had a photography studio on Main Avenue where Rubio's Restaurant now stands. Jackson's iconic images, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, capture the county seat's mid-century life. A portion of his black-and-white photographs was donated to the society. Historian and society member Marilu Waybourn spent much of last fall scanning more than a thousand negatives of Jackson's photographs.
Waybourn is the author of more than a dozen books on local history, most recently a book called "Crimes of the County: Northwest New Mexico, 1876-1928." Each year, the society publishes one book on local history. Waybourn's is the most recent.
Watkins is encouraged by the rising number of people sharing stories and pictures online.
"Social media and technology is driving our numbers and bringing more people into the fold," she said. "The society welcomes new members, online or in person. Many times, people post information or photographs we don't have in our collection. People share and the results are fantastic. They provide insights into this area's social, cultural and familial past. Many elders are getting older, so time is of the essence. We want to preserve our shared past for the benefit of future generations."
James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.