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Life after microfilm: what’s next for newspaper preservation?
FEB. 1, 2010

By Kristen Miller
Staff Writer

Smaller museums across the state are wondering what’s next for newspaper preservation since the Minnesota Historical Society ceased its newspaper microfilm lab in July.

The Minnesota Historical Society has been putting newspapers on microfilm since 1948, according to Robert Horton, director of library, publications and collection at the MHS.

Those microfilms have then been made available for purchase to libraries, museums, and other interested parties.

Due to budget cuts, the state historical society stopped producing microfilm reels and is looking for digital alternatives for online newspaper research.

The questions now are, what is next for newspaper archiving, and can smaller institutions like the Cokato Museum sustain the change?

“It’s left a lot of history museums in a tough spot,” Worcester said.

“Nearly 100 percent of us use microfilm as a medium for research materials,” he added.

The Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) was faced with some tough decisions to make when its budget was cut 13 to 15 percent, according to Horton.

It was disappointing for museum directors like Worcester, who felt MHS didn’t make them aware that the lab was closing.

“I personally felt they took this step without engaging in conversation with their partner organizations about the long-term ramifications of the lab’s closure,” said Mike Worcester, Cokato Museum director.

A formal press release was not sent out regarding the lab’s closing, Horton said, but the MHS did announce the impact of the budget cuts.

“This isn’t the only thing we’ve had to change,” Horton said. Reduced staff, services, and number of books published were among some of the cuts the society has endured, he explained.

Though the state historical society has dealt strictly with newspapers on microfilm, other records can also be found on microfilm including census, church, and township records, Worcester explained.

With history museums across the state working in an array of capacities – from the larger museums with a full-time, paid, professional staff, to the smaller museums working on volunteer time – it’s uncertain how such change will impact each one, explained Todd Mahon, president of the Minnesota Alliance of Local History Museums and director of the Anoka County Historical Society.

“It’s a disappointing thing for smaller organizations across the state,” Mahon said.

“This is the way we’ve been handling newspaper archives for a long time,” he said, adding that he isn’t sure that all the organizations will be able to provide an alternative to microfilm.

Though each roll of microfilm (which contains an entire year of a newspaper edition) purchased from the state historical society costs about $30, it has been the most affordable option for these smaller organizations. That has not been the case for the MHS, however.

Staff, alone, for the microfilm lab was costing the state historical society approximately $250,000, and revenue from the film came nowhere near the cost of operation, according to Horton.

“It’s an expensive process,” Horton said. “If it was making a profit, we would’ve kept it.”

Since the state’s microfilm lab closed this past summer, organizations like the Wright County Historical Society have been saving every newspaper edition published in the county.

For Betty Dirks at the Wright County Historical Society, that means saving 11 newspapers each week.

“It takes up a tremendous amount of space,” Dirks said, which has been the society’s biggest problem thus far.

Carolyn Holje, director of the Dassel History Center and Ergot Museum, is unsure of how the Dassel Area Historical Society (DAHS) will be impacted, but is hoping they will find a digital solution.

The DAHS keeps the local newspaper editions and can out source for microfilm as an option.

The DAHS recently received a $469 grant to purchase the remaining years of microfilm (the museum’s newspaper microfilm was through 1996).

This was part of the Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage grants made available from funding through the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment that passed in Nov. 2008.

Horton is optimistic about the change to digital since that is where the newspaper industry is heading, and how patrons expect to do research.

“It’s going to be different, but I think it will be better when we work it all out,” Horton said. The MHS is hoping to collaborate with the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

That will help the society with capturing newspapers at the point of production, since virtually all of the newspapers are created digitally and sent to press in PDF files, Horton explained.

Another option is web harvesting, which captures content on the Web and preserves it through Internet archives, since many newspapers are already online.

“This would allow us to capture content in a fairly targeted way,” he said, adding that anyone with an Internet browser would be able to access it.

Horton ensures that “nothing has been lost” and the MHS continues to save newspapers.

He also noted that the MHS will continue to purchase microfilm of the major newspaper publications in the state.

The MHS hopes to have a plan in place by the end of the fiscal year, but a lot depends on its partners, like the Minnesota Newspaper Association, Horton said.


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