JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
It’s not just classic movies in jeopardy of being lost as the stock they were produced on deteriorates. Durango’s own history, in the form of its newspaper of record since 1881, The Durango Herald, was in danger as the microfilm records were decaying in the collection of Durango Public Library.
“Half of it’s on acetate, and it literally self-destructs,” library Director Andy White said. “Some of those old Hollywood films just burst into flames.”
Fortunately, the Library Advisory Board and the Friends of the Durango Public Library stepped in. The library is a few weeks away from completely digitizing the Herald back to Day One at a cost of more than $50,000. White said the library is the only institution that has the complete run of the newspaper.
The money for the project came from the remnants of the building fund for the new library, which opened in December 2008. The Friends of the Public Library manages the fund under its nonprofit umbrella. The money is restricted to “technology, furnishings or landscaping,” Friends President Nancy Peake said, so there were several discussions about whether the project would be an appropriate use of the fund.
The answer was “yes.”
Goodbye, microfilm, hello, search engine
Not only is the project preserving the information for posterity, it’s making it more accessible.
“This is one of the most exciting things that has happened for researchers of local history,” said Julie Pickett, vice president of the Southwest Colorado Genealogical Society. “We’ve been limited to looking for birth dates, marriage information and death announcements, because we usually know the dates for those.”
Researchers have been able to refer to an index-card catalogue of names mentioned in the Herald of the first 10 years or so of the paper, which was compiled by the late Charlie Langdon and a crew of volunteers.
“That can be hit or miss,” Pickett said. “It’s dependent on how accurate the researcher was.”
But for the most part, anyone looking for an old story, whether it was the time the Durango High School football team won the state championship in the 1930s or the death of an ancestor in the late 1890s, had to request the pertinent roll of microfilm, load it onto the machine, and fiddle with focusing and finding the right date. It was tedious at best, Pickett said.
“This will revolutionize my research,” said Pickett, who has been working on documenting the Animas City Cemetery with Ruth Lambert. “I will be able to flesh out these Animas City people I have now. I’m going to be able to research their lives, the clubs, the societies, their visitors, learn about their family and friends, the travels and events in their lives.”
Getting it done
“It was a huge project for the library staff and the Library Advisory Board,” Peake said. “They looked over all the databases and interviewed all the companies that specialize in this kind of work.”
The newspapers were sent in batches to the selected company, Creekside Digital in Maryland, in part so the collection was not all at risk at once in transit, and in part so researchers would still have access to most of the paper. Creekside has been doing a big project for Philadelphia Free Library at the same time, so the completion date moved from September to January.
But, along the way, the library has received what Creekside calls “mules,” or microfilm rolls from several years on a hard drive, for the library staff members to check for quality. On a recent trip to the library for a look at what researchers might expect, the pages from a mule containing the converted microfilm from Nov. 11, 1991, looked as clear as the PDFs created at the Herald today.
The headlines, too, were still pertinent in the 21st century:
“Personal drug use not a good example,” from Dear Abby.
“Tackling smoking is smart,” from an editorial.
“Virtual reality aids military in designing training,” on a Nation page.
The digitized issues, which will be in the form of PDFs with embedded search terms, will be available on only one computer at the library near the reference desk. It will be a special computer with a large hard drive and a high-powered search-engine capability.
“The Friends are buying that,” Peake said. “We had to sell a lot of books.”
At this time, the information will not be available online because of the cost. And the microfilm rolls and reader will still be available for the next two to three years, White said.
“We haven’t been able to look at every single page to confirm quality,” he said.
The Herald has agreed to keep the records up to date, providing PDFs from 2006, when the library’s microfilm records end, to a few weeks short of the present to keep the historical record complete, White said.
“This was money well spent,” Pickett said. “I think there could be a real rush to begin with because there are several of us who are excited to be able to pick a topic and pull up a list of stories. Stories about the railroad, stories about the smelter, stories about our community.”