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Harvard library converting old newspapers to PDFs

Published: Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 3:32 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 11:18 p.m. CDT

HARVARD – Karen Sutera got an email the other day. A woman in California sought her great-grandfather's obituary.

Could Sutera, director of Harvard Diggins Library, help?

The woman knew he'd lived in Harvard. She knew he died in 1909 – but what day, exactly, she wasn't sure.

Under the old archive system, such a request would have meant mining through an entire year's worth of newspaper microfilm. Under the new system, the woman was able to access the obituary through a simple online search. She found several other articles mentioning her great-grandfather along the way.

"Frankly, if we wouldn't have done the obituary search, we wouldn't have found (the other articles)," Sutera said. "It's really a gold mine of data."

For less than the cost of a new microfilm reader, the Harvard Diggins Library phase by phase is turning 120 years of microfilm newspaper archives into a searchable online database of PDF files. The archives encompass the Harvard Herald, the Harvard Independent and the merger of the two.

So far, years 1867 through 1954 – representing the first two phases of the project – are accessible at www.harvarddiggins.advantage-preservation.com. The final two phases, which will convert the archives through 1986, are underway and should be completed by early this summer.

The process will cost about $8,000 in total.

"There's such a great interest in preserving the local history that is often times in a library's collection," Sutera said. "And it's not just preserving it – it's making it easily accessible to the public."

Microfilms require those seeking archived information to come into the library and use the microfilm reader.

And the films can deteriorate over time, quicker if kept under conditions that aren't climate controlled.

"It's so much easier than people going to the library and having to go reel to reel to reel," said Michelle Maltas, an account manager with Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Advantage Preservation, which is converting the Harvard library's films. "Plus, for people doing genealogy work, it's a time saver because they may come across something they didn't know about just by using the name."

During the conversion process, the images are scanned and indexed. Software then identifies each individual typed word on the page, allowing them to show up in searches later, Maltas said.

She added that the rising cost of microfilm readers has led more and more libraries to make the conversion.

Harvard Diggins first looked into the process because its increasingly faulty microfilm reader is no longer manufactured, which makes maintenance difficult. Staying with the microfilm archive system would have meant buying a digital reader, which the library priced at $10,000 – plus a maintenance contract for another $1,000 a year, Sutera said.

Instead, they opted for the user-friendly archive system, which Sutera believes will continue to pay off, as it did for the woman in California.

"You're basically giving access to the information to anyone in the world," she said.

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