With recent news of the Public Library investing in their own StoryCorps-ish effort with the Chattanooga Memory Project, it got me thinking about digitizing local newspapers again.
It's been two and a half years since the Chattanooga Public Library committed to sending out a request for proposals to digitize the local newspapers they have on microfilm. Back in May 2015, Library Director Corinne Hill said, "The library will send out a request for proposals, and once a suitable vendor is lined up, the process toward digitization can begin quickly" She had estimated that they were about two months away from the starting the process. She also said, “It’s time. I’ve been here three years. We’ve paid attention to the print collection and the access to broadband. The local history stuff is starting to really pop, but I want to do it right. And trust me, I’m the first person who wants it done quickly, but we need to do this well so that people have access for a long, long time.”
This was in direct response to an initial proposal from Sam Hall and myself to take advantage of an inexpensive method to digitize papers from their microfilm collection. Sam had worked several months conversing with the Library until the progress halted due to concerns that an amateur lead effort would not be executed with the professional standards needed for a sustainable resource.
Since Sam has worked with the Cherokee Regional Library System in NW Georgia to digitize their microfilm service copies of the Walker County Messenger using the same resources offered to the Chattanooga Public Library. Those editions are available to search on site at their physical location. This has greatly expedited searching for relevant information using keywords. Most recently, the Cherokee Regional Library System has worked with our resource directly to digitize Dade County newspapers.
The current method of searching through microfilm at the Chattanooga Public Library, a patron is required to have some point of reference and must rely on physically eyeballing of the information. Hours of manual research can be completed in seconds once the microfilm is digitized and run through an OCR program.
In early 2016 Sam Hall and I reached out to the Tennessee Library and State Archives about using their microfilm copies to digitize a select group of Chattanooga newspapers. State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill and his team agreed to run a test with several small and early titles. This resulted in successfully digitizing 6,600 pages from 14 reels, dating back as far as the 1830s. The TSLA felt that our source's work was in the 97 percent accuracy range and they were not able to get significantly better results on their own. In summary, they felt that the work was of good quality and great research value. Great results are often dependent on the condition of the copies of microfilm. Often service copies are scratched or worn with repeated use.
For under $4,000 the Chattanooga Public Library could have local searchable versions of their newspaper microfilm available to the public. $1,500 was raised for this project back in 2015. Bang-for-the-buck, this remains a great value to patrons, researchers, and the library staff. The $4,000 cost would be would be in comparison to a six-figure cost to the taxpayers of Chattanooga to have it done through a vendor.
Since 2015, our "amateur" process has been vetted by other libraries, even at a state level, to be quite suitable and valued as a research tool. And our source has added an additional 10,000,000 digitized pages, making a total of 40,000,000 pages of newspapers he's personally digitized. In comparison, the Library of Congress has currently digitized 12,455,027 pages that are currently available online.
Sam and I would be quite willing to work with the Public Library again to help make this finally happen in 2018. The process is pretty automatic, and it is completed in a few weeks. As a bonus, we'd include public access to the already digitized 6,600 pages from our work with the TSLA. After all, at the end of the day, we want the same thing — easy access to local history for everyone.
David Moon is the founder of Picnooga.org
* * *
Kudos to you for work on making newspaper data available for research purposes. Years ago University of Kentucky library led such an effort statewide for old papers. Such a resource to get lost in squabbling as to how to do the work and make folks happy who are not getting exorbitant fees.