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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

Digital News You Can Use: Observations on Digitizing Historic Newspapers

Christopher Raab

Archives & Special Collections Librarian, Franklin & Marshall College

One of the biggest challenges to digitizing archival and special collections material is to prioritize your projects. Budget pressures aside, there are the standard considerations of historical subject matter, material format, current preservation needs, technical limitations and institutional priorities. After directing several digital projects, I've realized that one guiding principle has always helped me to decide.

During one of my first workshops in digitization, the presenter advised the audience that whatever digital project you decide to create, you will marry it for life. The presenter that day was Liz Bishoff, founding coordinator of the Colorado Digitization Project, now the Collaborative Digitization Program. Most people don't think of a digital project as a long-term commitment, but that's exactly what it becomes. A digital project is a digital collection, and all collections need not only a vision, but also a commitment to accuracy, service and preservation.

With Ms. Bishoff's advice in mind, I considered a number of potential subjects for my first digital archives project at Franklin and Marshall College. I quickly settled on digitizing the college's student newspaper, "The College Reporter." Established in 1873, the Franklin and Marshall student newspaper already had a long-term relationship with the students, faculty and alumni of the college. Digitization would enable the paper to be indexed and keyword-searchable for the first time. In addition, full images from the paper would now be available for browsing via the Web, all completely free of charge. The appeal and benefits were obvious. It was now just a matter of contracting the scanning, distillation and hosting processes with Olive Software, Incorporated.

With initial funding from the President's Office and the Friends of the Library, I had the most recent 14 years of the paper scanned and mounted on the Web. The initial response was terrific, even greater than I had expected. Not only did students, faculty and alumni find the new collection valuable, but also other administrative units at the college, including admissions, athletics, development and facilities & operations. Another interesting response came from former newspaper staff writers who suddenly had access to an online portfolio of their previous work.

This past year, the library added an additional 23 years of material, bringing the total student newspaper digital archive to 37 years. With the popularity of the digital newspaper, new curricular uses have also arisen. A history course focusing on the 1960s recently used the newspaper to analyze campus responses to key events of that turbulent decade.

In conjunction with the development of the student newspaper digital archive, Franklin and Marshall joined forces with local Lancaster county institutions that were also interested in digitizing historic newspapers. The result was the creation of the Lancaster County Digitization Project in the spring of 2004. To date, the project has built collaborative relationships among eight Lancaster county institutions, and it has received numerous grant awards for newspaper digitization and preservation microfilming.

So, in the end, the big question remains—will the library be faithful to its digital newspaper commitment? Well, time will tell, but like all good marriages, commitment, cooperation and communication are the key ingredients. And, of course, a healthy cash flow never hurt any household!

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