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Chronicling America: Building a Digital Collection

by on April 30, 2014

Ever wonder where a costume designer might have gotten the ideas for the movie, Titanic? Or how documentary film maker, Ken Burns could get information on the first baseball World Series? Thanks to digitization, access to tangible historic documents, images, and events through searchable database collections can assist the retrieval of visual information and newspaper pages.

Building a digital collection is more than a preservation tool. It creates an accessible database of information linked to historic newspapers or digitized newspaper pages, as well as digitized photographs or images. Local initiatives such as Long Island Memories, regional projects, and New York State Archives Digital Project bring local history alive to communities.

In the fall of 2004, the Freeport (New York) Memorial Library joined the Long Island regional digitization initiative, and partnered with the Freeport Historical Society. Together they developed one of the largest digital collections on Long Island. Today, it has a digital collection of over 5,000 photographs and seven newspapers. The goal of Freeport’s collection, as librarian Regina Feeney puts it, has always been “to get material out of the basement, and attic, and from behind locked doors and let the public use it.” Feeney understands the “Archivist’s Dilemma”—allowing access without worrying about loss. That old “look but don’t touch” library policy of the past doesn’t exist today.

Digitization gives the public access to the materials without compromising the integrity of the items. Digitization also brings order from chaos. And digitization welcomes exploration. Feeney stresses that technology is the biggest impediment to starting a digital project. She admits that the foundation of the initiative is only a basic scanner—“nothing fancy.” She started with an all-in-one and eventually moved to a Microtek 1800 and Epson Expression XL 10000.

Her advice is to spend the money on storage devices. When Feeney scans, she always saves a high resolution .TIF (tagged image file) as an archival copy and prescribes a fail-safe method—redundancy (backup!). The library uses terabyte drives that meet military drop test standards like LeCie and Transcend.  Feeney emphasizes the need for technology training, often offered online through the LCC Office of Digital Preservation Education and Outreach. The American Library Association also includes a Fundamentals of Preservation course.

The New York state sponsored-initiatives—which digitized newspapers dating from 1690 to the present and which led to the digital collection at Freeport—the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities initiated Chronicling America, a long-term effort to develop an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers. Their hope is to develop a long-term permanent digital record, regularly maintained by the Library of Congress, of US newspapers from 1836-1922. Many states are working with the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities through this program. On a one institution per state recipient basis, selected newspapers are presently processed into the larger collection.

However, libraries such as the Freeport Memorial Library and archivists such as Feeney can participate on a smaller scale through NEH’s Preservation Assistance Grants for Smaller Institutions. These grants, up to $6000, can be used for preservation after devastating events such as Hurricane Sandy, which affected Freeport, or in small communities that would like to begin the process of preserving their county newspapers. Today, a diverse cross-section of the Freeport community and larger Long Island community accesses the Freeport Memorial Library’s digital collection.  Feeney observes that “we get students from grade 4 to graduate school. We also get many genealogists and people researching their houses.”

And as for that costume designer? She or he would only have to go to the present Freeport digital collection database and link to the current digital exhibit, Ladies at Leisure to see actual dresses from the Edwardian Era. And for Ken Burn’s documentary? The evening edition of The World, Tuesday, October 6, 1903, accessed through Chronicling America, displays the headlines for the Boston/Pirates first ever World Series game and gives you an inning by inning score.

Digitizing permits the preservation of history while maintaining access. Local digital collections connect communities to their past. The growing, ever-expanding national initiative, Chronicling America connects the events once captured in the enormous expanse of daily newspapers to a searchable digital database.

Technology proves a friend to the library once again.


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