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Ilsley helps preserve Vt. history

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Posted on September 16, 2010 |
By John Flowers



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ILSLEY LIBRARY ADULT Services and Technology Librarian Chris Kirby is participating in a federally funded effort to digitize 100,000 pages of old Vermont newspapers. The newspapers will eventually be searchable online. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library is participating in a statewide project that, once completed, will allow global, on-line access to up to 100,000 pages of Vermont newspapers published from 1836 to 1922.

The “Vermont Digital Newspaper Project,” funded through a $391,552 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will make available through the Internet a wealth of historical and genealogical resources contained in microfilmed archives that can now only be accessed at specific sites where that information is stored.

“It makes this material accessible to anyone who has Internet access,” said Chris Kirby, adult services and technology librarian at the Ilsley.

The newspaper project is a collaboration of the Ilsley Library, the University of Vermont Libraries, the Vermont Department of Libraries and the Vermont Historical Society. Together, the organizations will establish an advisory committee to select a cross-section of already-microfilmed newspapers to digitize. That microfilm will be digitized by a company that will be selected following a competitive bidding process, according to Kirby, who is playing a key role in coordinating the project.

Kirby said Vermont will be joining around 30 other states that have already begun digitizing historic newspaper collections as part of a national archive that will based at the Library of Congress. That archive — knows as the “Chronicling America ” database — now includes more than 2 million newspaper pages and continues to grow.

The project, according to Kirby, builds upon work of a federally funded Vermont Newspaper Project that, from 1997 to 2001, identified, catalogued and microfilmed close to 1,000 historical Vermont newspaper titles in more than 3,000 libraries, historical societies, and other repositories throughout the state.

Kirby explained that the Vermont Newspaper Project microfilm work is of particularly good quality and therefore prime for digitizing. The focus here will be on the period 1836 to 1922. Project organizers reasoned that many Vermont towns had their own newspapers by 1830, with the ensuing decades providing a wealth of coverage of watershed events, such as the Civil War and anti-slavery movement, the evolution of agriculture, the abolition of capital punishment, immigration, political changes and various weather disasters.

The newspaper information was in the public domain until 1922, after which news copyright laws kicked in to restrict the duplication and use of such material.

It will be up to the project advisory committee to determine which of the state’s microfilmed newspapers will make the cut for the 100,000 pages to be digitized — a process through which the microfilm will be scanned and recorded in computer hard drives. The material will be scanned in a manner that will allow a researcher, based anywhere in the world, to go to the http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers/ website and type in some key words or names to lead them directly to the newspaper article(s) he or she wants.

“It will have a tremendous impact on local history research in Vermont,” said Vermont Historical Society Librarian Paul Carnahan. “A lot of research boils down to information found in newspapers and until now there has been no easy way to get at it except sitting in a dark room with microfilm and winding your way through reels one at a time. It will be like day and night.”

Criteria likely to be factored into which Vermont newspapers make the cut, according to Kirby, include whether the publication was the town’s “paper of record”; whether it covered significant events, trends and themes in Vermont history; and its intellectual content.

Examples of newspapers the could be selected, according to Kirby, are the Middlebury Register, the Middlebury Record, the Brandon Union, the Rutland Herald, the Burlington Daily Free Press, the Swanton Courier, the Vermont Union Journal and the St. Johnsbury Republican.

Kirby acknowledged that 100,000 pages will represent a comparative “drop in the bucket” when it comes to the total Vermont newspaper coverage from 1836 to 1922, but he added there will likely be more grant opportunities to digitize more material. Other states, according to Kirby, are in their third year of funding for the project.

Plans call for the digitizing of the 100,000 pages to be completed by July of 2012. Kirby, among others, will verify the quality of the work as it is completed by whatever firm is hired to do the job.

Project Director Birdie MacLennan of the UVM Libraries said, “This will go a long way in dissolving information barriers by offering an important link to Vermont history for scholars, researchers, historians, genealogists and the general public. It’s a dream come true for users, who have been asking for years when Vermont newspaper content will be made available online. We are pleased to now be able to say: Coming soon, to a computer near you!”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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