Treasure trove of Pawtucket Library photos are getting millions of views

Treasure trove of Pawtucket Library photos are getting millions of views

Tim McDuff, technical services librarian at the Pawtucket Public Library, says his favorite photo scanned into a new online photo database to date is this postcard from 1911. It shows Dr. William J. Graham’s dog, Buster, with his pal, Officer William J. Laird, outside the doctor’s house at 577 Smithfield Ave. Buster and Laird walked “the beat” together, with Buster carrying his own billy club attached to his collar.

PAWTUCKET – Staff at the Pawtucket Public Library recently upgraded to a pro account on Flickr, gaining access to statistics they’d never had before on how many people were looking at the library’s historical photo collection.

“We were astounded to find out we have close to 3.5 million views since we started using Flickr back in May of 2016,” said Tim McDuff, the technical services librarian doing much of the work with colleague Paul Arsenault and others to create one of the most extensive digital libraries of photos in the state.

McDuff said he’s most satisfied about the fact that the photos, now out there for everyone to see instead of hidden away in the archives somewhere, are being used by Pawtucket residents past and present to connect over shared memories. Many people, some who’ve moved far away, are sharing photos in public forums, he said, and every day they are discussing and reminiscing in a way “that wasn’t possible 15 years ago.”

The late historian Betty Johnson collected photos for many years as part of the Elizabeth J. Johnson Pawtucket History Research Center, which has since moved from her former home on Fruit Street to the library.

“I’d estimate that at this point we’ve scanned less than 25 percent of the PHRC’s image collection and even that may be on the higher side,” said McDuff.

Johnson’s great organization has made it easier to categorize the collection online, he said. The physical collection was not one that could be staffed on a full-time basis, making it difficult for people to access it.

“In-person use of the photo collection is highly limited to individuals doing research on a specific topic, and browsing is not permitted,” he said. “Having the online collection available for anyone to browse has been the major benefit of digitizing our photo collection.”

The collection can be accessed anytime at There are three ways on the library’s homepage to reach the photos on Flickr.

Staff have divided images into three categories so far: yearbooks, historical photos and maps. Everything is in alphabetical order. The map collection is the newest, and images were primarily collected by Arsenault.

The majority of the Johnson photo collection was collected by Johnson herself over many years. There have also been substantial additions to the collection, one from the Pawtucket Planning Department when it relocated from the downtown Chester Building to City Hall, and the second from the late Mayor James Doyle, who left a great deal of material from his time as mayor.

Plans for the immediate future include “scanning, scanning, and more scanning,” said McDuff, with new material added weekly and sometimes daily.

The library conducted a survey last fall, and tied for second behind parking of what users want more of from the library was local history information. 

Library staff was previously limited to only anecdotal information about reach and use of the collection, but can now see total views since they went online with yearbooks and a few photos in May of 2016.

“These two pieces of information (survey and access to views) spurred us on to try and get new images added at least weekly and we’ve seen that translate well into views, with over 400,000 views so far this January, and by the end of week I anticipate we’ll have over 30,000 images in the Flickr collection,” McDuff said last week.

Long-term goals include better “tagging” of the photos and trying to identify and record everything in each of the photos as well as cross-posting photos into multiple albums. Staffers are also considering turning to the community to help with the work, but would still require staff to monitor and verify any information and tags provided.

“A few eagle-eyed followers have already helped point out a few photos that were mislabeled by Betty Johnson or provided info on photos that were sparse on information,” he said.

McDuff said one person who has been most helpful in spotting errors is former resident David Crowell, who frequently posts photos online.

The most popular photo to date that has been scanned into a new online photo database at the Pawtucket Public Library is this 1957 image of the Middle Street School. It had 1,543 views as of Monday, Feb. 4.