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Volume 10, Issue 2, Spring 2010(1)

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Historic Newspapers Brought to Light

by Tracy Harter and Julia Merkel

Better late than never, right?  Almost three years ago, with the assistance of Mark Purington, Senior Cataloger in JMU Libraries’ Technical Services Unit, Special Collections received a small collection of materials that were removed from the cornerstone of Rockingham Union Lodge No.27 in Harrisonburg.  The contents documented the laying of the cornerstone for earlier Lodge buildings

Lodge Cornerstone Removal 2007
Carl Wassum, then Master of Rockingham Union Lodge #27 (left) and Mark Purington, cataloger, at the opening of the Masonic Lodge cornerstone, Water and Main Streets, Harrisonburg in 2007.

constructed in 1905 and 1860, and included handwritten materials, pamphlets and small publications, ephemera, nine local newspapers (four of which may be the only extant issues for those dates), and an 1860 broadside measuring 20”x37”.  The Lodge granted Special Collections permission to photocopy or scan the contents of the collection then return the materials to the Lodge.  Special Collections did not have an established digital archive, so staff opted first to photocopy the material and create a descriptive finding aid linked to a new catalog record in Leo, which opened the collection for immediate research. Digitization of the broadside and the newspapers, which would make them available electronically, was planned for a later date.  That “later date” finally came in October 2009.


Opening Masonic Lodge cornerstone, 2007
Removing the cornerstone's content in 2007.

Why did it take so long to make these images available to researchers?  Capturing the images was the first challenge.  Image details and lighting were difficult to standardize using a digital camera.  The library was not equipped to easily scan large-format items, and we did not have optical character recognition software to capture the newspapers as searchable text. 

To digitize the broadside, Purington contacted Craig Baugher, Graphic Designer in the Center for Instructional Technology, who scanned portions of the broadside as separate images, then pieced them together using Adobe Photoshop.  In early 2007, Julia Merkel, Preservation Specialist for JMU Libraries, worked in a similar fashion and scanned quadrants of pages of each four-page newspaper, then pieced the quadrants into individual pages in Photoshop.  The images were stored on a library server and the collection of original materials was returned to the Lodge.


Providing the digital images to the public proved to be challenging as well.  In October 2007 Tracy Harter, Special Collections Librarian, contacted Kevin Hegg, Assistant Director of Systems, Research and Development with CIT, for advice on how to proceed with the images.  Hegg encouraged Harter to “start thinking differently…You need some sort of virtual microfiche reader.”  He offered a link to a web site for a product he had heard about called Zoomify. JMU Libraries’ Web Manager Greg Brown later agreed this was an appropriate tool to explore for the relatively small number of images.  At the time, however, other projects in Special Collections and Digital Services were already ahead in the queue.  In a summer 2009 review of content on the Special Collections server, Harter noticed the “orphaned” images and took action.


In September, with budget cuts looming large, Harter considered how to quickly and cheaply serve these images.  She reviewed the Library of Congress’ website Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers for ideas.   There she found that a free version of the viewer Hegg had recommended in 2007 was still available, and the steps to use it were fairly simple.  Special Collections student assistant, Chelsea Gutshall, took charge of converting derivatives of the images, while Harter designed navigation pages that would serve as a gateway for viewing the digital images.  The link to this digitized material from Rockingham Union Lodge No. 27 is available from the collection finding aid and from Special Collections’ Rare Books and Periodicals page.


The final step in making these newspapers discoverable will involve adding these holdings to the appropriate catalog records. This is part of another project currently underway involving the inventory of historical local newspapers in Special Collections. 

1860 Harrisonburg newspaper
Image of the Valley Democrat newspaper from 1860.

JMU Libraries is just beginning to explore digital assets management, but the benefits of serving these images outweighs the cost of leaving them hidden.  A larger question is whether small projects like this are sustainable over time.  In the future, the navigation pages may become a dated delivery method and may be replaced with the next new technology.  But that is a project for another day!

Reba Leiding, Editor

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