Conversation to action: Digitizing Chattanooga’s historical newspapers

Authored By seanphippster

Searching online for digital versions of former Chattanooga newspapers is a frustrating endeavor, but a local history curator has proposed an interim solution that could make them available soon. However, the owners of the microfilm-including The Public Library-are understandably hesitant to work with him.

The silver lining is that a conversation has been started about preserving Chattanooga’s historical papers, and the public could soon benefit from the results.

A call to action
In 2012, the Tennessee State Library and Archives began releasing the results of a time-consuming process of scanning reels of aging microfilm into a searchable online database. The TSLA worked in tandem with Chronicling America, a digital archiving platform sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Library of Congress.

Currently, 88 historical newspapers are available on the site, but only one from Chattanooga-The Daily Rebel (1862-64)-is available. The Chattanooga Times and the lesser-circulated Chattanooga News exist only in difficult-to-search microfilm archives.

But digital archiving can be expensive. And the possessors of original copies of the microfilm-including the library and TSLA-must apply for grants, seek endowments and secure substantial funding for the process to even begin.

Sam Hall, creator of the historical photo site Deep Zoom Chattanooga, noticed the dearth of digital archives and began researching ways to jump-start the process. Recently, he released scans of a Sept. 18, 1938, copy of the Chattanooga Sunday Times on his website. The 40-plus pages were scanned and pieced together in
Photoshop, and a technology called optical character recognition was applied. This latter step is the key to creating a searchable database.

But in addition to the newspaper pages, Hall also released a call to action to those who have the microfilm. In his research, he noticed that nearly all Tennessee counties except Hamilton County had already archived far more pages. His own research concluded that Hamilton County only had 462 newspaper pages archived, which is a glaringly low number when you look at other counties: Knox (16,764 pages), Davidson (73,203), Shelby (74,238).

“I really agonized over releasing the page,” Hall said. “I don’t want to pick a fight, but I want people to be aware that it’s a real issue.”

Click here to read his statement in full.

Hall writes on the page:

Ultimately, the institutions and/or individuals who possess microfilm are the gatekeepers of preserving history through digitization. An entire industry has evolved to serve those needs-but via costs that are only attainable through significant grant programs such as the National Digital Newspaper Program, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress. There are options today to professionally scan and digitize historic newspaper microfilm at little to no cost to the loaning institutions.

Tom the archivist
Earlier this year, Hall decided to seek out alternative ways to pursue archiving and discovered the work of retired engineer Tom Tryniski in Fulton, New York.

Tryniski’s work would technically need to be described as “amateur,” but the quality is evident. Thus far, he has scanned and made searchable more than 30.6 million pages of historical newspapers in New York, which he maintains on his website. His work was profiled on Reason TV in this short film.

After several conversations, Tryniski agreed to offer his services to archive the Chattanooga newspapers for little to no cost. Hall thought the veritable seas had parted to get the project moving.

“One thing I hear back from the purists is that this approach is damaging future archives,” Hall said. “But you can still take those same scans and make one copy so people can have quick access to it.”

At first, library employees were excited about the interest in the archives. However, they quickly decided to move in their own direction as opposed to using Tryniski.

“To me, the risk is very low,” Hall said. “They’re sent in small batches, and [Tryniski] has a track record of quality work … I don’t understand the harm if you send them in batches of 20 or 50 reels at a time.”

The library’s position
If you want to search through Chattanooga’s newspaper archives, you’ll have to trek to the third floor and search through microfilm. Much of the relatable and valuable material to readers has been painstakingly collected and archived in file folders. For example, if you wanted to find articles related to Underground Chattanooga, there’s a folder already created with printed articles.

But unless you’re searching for specific dates, the only way to search through newspapers is by scouring through the microfilms.

Corinne Hill, executive director, is aware of the interest in local history-particularly the older newspapers-and has begun the process of finding a way to digitally archive them.

But the library’s plans do not include Tryniski.

“The digitization of newspapers-certainly local papers-is absolutely part of our job,” Hill said. “This is city property, it’s library property, and it’s valuable to us … I’m uncomfortable just packing it up and sending it to some guy in New York. And I’m not saying he’s not fabulous, but we just didn’t want that.”

Hill said there are internal efforts to find funding specifically for the preservation of the newspaper archives. She pointed to a recent $1,500 donation from Marian Trotter, specifically to digitize pre-1920s Chattanooga newspapers. In addition, Noone and Kemmer endowments of $44,000 have been dispersed to the library specifically for the local history section.

The library will send out a request for proposals, and once a suitable vendor is lined up, the process toward digitization can begin quickly, Hill said. She estimates that we’re about two months away, which is the standard amount of time it takes from proposal to movement on a project.

“It’s time,” Hill said. “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.”

The pre-1923 microfilm is the most fragile, so they’ll start with that. They also have the entire collection of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, which she hopes to also digitize. The seed money will not only help start archiving the pre-1923 papers, but it will also allow the microfilm to be stored in an archival room for the next 100 years.

“By digitizing it, we can put it online and … open up the accessibility of that content, which is what we do as a library,” Hill said.

It may not be the answer Hall was hoping to hear from the library, but his efforts to raise awareness of the issue helped shine a light on the problem.

“There … really is a huge black hole where Chattanooga should have digitized newspapers,” he said.