Ann Arbor Library Set to Publish “Old News”

Digitized portion of Ann Arbor News archives goes online Friday

Ann Arbor District Library board meeting (Oct. 18, 2011): On Friday, the public will get online access to 18,000 articles, 3,000 photos, and an index with over 160,000 names – the initial phase of a massive digitization of The Ann Arbor News archives being undertaken by the library.

Old bound copies of The Ann Arbor News

Old bound copies of The Ann Arbor News from the early 1900s. The archives are stored in a climate-controlled office complex on Green Road.

Andrew MacLaren – one of the librarians who’s been working on the project since the library took possession of the archives in January 2010– gave board members a brief preview of what AADL is unveiling at a reception on Friday. Called “Old News,” the online archives will initially feature items selected for digitization primarily by library staff, with a focus on the 1960s and ’70s, but with other eras included as well.

The hope is that future additions to the collection will be driven in large part by queries from the public. As librarians respond to research requests – people seeking newspaper articles or photos about specific events, institutions, or individuals – AADL staff will digitize their findings to be posted online for anyone to access.

The launch will also include special features from the collection that the library staff felt would draw more interest, including hundreds of articles and photos related to John Norman Collins, a serial killer whose killings in the late 1960s drew national attention. Other features include the history of West Park, and the 1968 Huron River floods.

Podcasts will be posted of interviews with former Ann Arbor News staff – including long-time crime reporter Bill Treml and photographer Jack Stubbs. AADL staff is also interviewing owners of “heritage” Ann Arbor businesses. Initial podcasts include conversations with David Vogel of Vogel’s Lock & Safe, and Charles Schlanderer Jr. and Charles Schlanderer Sr. of Schlanderer & Sons Jewelry. Additional podcasts will be added to the collection over time.

Though the cornerstone of this collection is from the 174-year-old Ann Arbor News – which its owners, New York-based Advance Publications, shut down in mid-2009 – another 97,000 articles from local 19th century newspapers will be part of the initial launch, too.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, AADL director Josie Parker praised the librarians who’ve been the primary staff working on this project – MacLaren, Amy Cantu, Debbie Gallagher, and Jackie Sasaki – and thanked board members as well for their support. It was the board’s decision in 2009 to move ahead with the project that made the resulting work possible, she said. The library does not own the originals or hold the copyright to the material, but the library did not need to pay for the archives. AADL still incurs costs related to the project, including staff time, insurance, and leasing of the Green Road offices where the archives are located. That location is not open to the public.

A reception for the launch is planned for Friday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. in the downtown library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. The event will feature a talk on the digitization of newspapers by Frank Boles, director of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University.

The News on “Old News”

In 2009, the AADL struck a deal with Herald Publishing Co. – a unit of Advance Publications – to take possession of most of The Ann Arbor News archives, including photographs and photo negatives (except for those related to University of Michigan football and basketball), clipping files and bound copies. The deal gives the library the right to digitize these materials, excluding the bound copies. The company retains ownership of the originals. AADL has the rights to control the use of the digitized content, but doesn’t have the right to sell the digitized work.

The bound volumes can be used by the library, but not digitized. That’s because the company owns microfilm copies of those volumes and plans to digitize the full newspapers. There are also copyright issues related to non-News content, like wire service articles and ads. However, library staff say the bound volumes are valuable as a research tool – for example, to figure out which of the photographs in the collection were actually published.

The digitization process is being handled by staff of the AADL’s information technology and production department, led by associate director Eli Neiburger. Each of the four librarians involved in the digitization devote half of their time to the project, working out of a windowless, climate-controlled office on Green Road – a set of rooms that formerly housed computer servers.

At that facility, one large room is filled with filing cabinets crammed with clips – about 90,000 envelopes categorized by names and 72,000 envelopes by subjects. Binders and boxes of photographs and negatives make up a large portion of the collection. Many of the photographs have never been published – a photographer might have taken and developed dozens of shots from any given assignment, but only one or two would likely be printed in the newspaper.

Andrew MacLaren

Andrew MacLaren with shelved, bound copies of The Ann Arbor News archives, located at a Green Road office complex.

A separate room contains tall shelves on which the bound, full-issue copies of The Ann Arbor News and other local newspapers are laid flat and stacked to avoid warping. The older issues have begun to deteriorate – the newsprint is yellowed and crumbling around the edges – and some copies are missing. [For decades, the archives had been stored in a basement at The Ann Arbor News building on Huron & Division, and though the room was locked, security was casual.]

The archives also include older newspapers that AADL has acquired separately from The Ann Arbor News. That includes issues of the Ann Arbor Courier from 1880-1881 and 1883-1888; the Ann Arbor Argus from 1888-1889 and 1891-1898; and the Ann Arbor Argus-Democrat from 1898-1899. These issues have been digitized and will be part of the initial “Old News” launch. The library has previously digitized the full run of the Signal of Liberty – from 1841-1848 – and the first four months of the paper it became in 1848, Michigan Liberty Press.

At Tuesday’s meeting, MacLaren told the board that the first few months of work involved simply trying to figure out and organize what they had received. Over the years, different filing systems had been used by the newspaper’s librarians, duplicate files were kept under different names, clippings were misfiled, and in general there had not been a consistent approach to organizing the collection. Part of the work by AADL staff was to create an index for all of the envelopes, files, binders, boxes and other material – much of the contents haven’t yet been explored.

There were discoveries along the way, as AADL staff went through the collection. Most dramatically, they found a silent film – a farce – made by the Ann Arbor News advertising staff in 1936 called “Back Page.” That film has been digitized and is posted on the AADL website, with an original score written and performed by the organist Steven Ball. It was shown for the first time this summer at the Michigan Theater, with a live performance by Ball. [See Chronicle coverage: "Milestone: The Past Speaks in a Silent Film"]

The staff used several approaches to help organize the collection and select initial content to digitize, MacLaren said. For guidance regarding the earliest newspapers, they relied on the seminal book “A History of the Newspapers of Ann Arbor 1829-1920,” by Louis W. Doll, published in 1959 by Wayne State University Press. That book has also been digitized and will be included in the “Old News” collection, he said.

In prioritizing the content to digitize, librarians who worked on the project selected topics they thought would be of historical value or of most interest to the public, based in part on research requests. There was also broader staff input – AADL employees could vote on which photos to digitize through a process that Neiburger calls the “Photomic Selecterizer” – a staff-only mode of the library’s online Points-O-Matic Click-O-Tron game.

In response to a question from board president Margaret Leary, MacLaren estimated that far less than 1% of the Ann Arbor News collection has been digitized at the point. The initial set going online – 18,000 articles and 3,000 photos – is a “drop in the bucket,” he said. For example, when the collection was delivered, the News estimated there were 900,000 photo negatives, which MacLaren now believes to be an estimate that’s extremely low.

“We’re not racing against time,” he said. “We’re racing against how much we have.” New material will be digitized each week and posted into the “Old News” collection. The public will be able to make research requests – emailing – which will help prioritize the content.

At Monday’s board meeting, Prue Rosenthal asked whether there is grant funding available to help pay for the digitization work. AADL director Josie Parker said they tried to apply for a grant but weren’t qualified – the grant specified that the digitization should be done from microfilm, not from original source material. Most grants also aren’t geared toward this type of unique situation, in which a newspaper has turned over its entire archives to a library. The staff will keep looking for grant opportunities, Parker added. Now that they have something to show, she said, there might be funding available for additional work related to the collection.

Leary said the project is a spectacular example of AADL seizing an opportunity that’s unusual for public libraries. It has tremendous current and future value to the whole community. She also praised staff for its work in adding this responsibility without outside funding and without reducing other services. It’s a credit to the staff and to Parker and her managers, Leary said.

The presentation concluded with the board giving MacLaren a round of applause.

Shelves of bound copies of The Ann Arbor News

Shelves of bound copies of The Ann Arbor News, stored in climate-controlled offices that are leased by the Ann Arbor District Library.

Bound copies of The Ann Arbor News

Bound copies of The Ann Arbor News. The stack in the lower right corner represents the final years, when the newspaper editions were considerably smaller than in previous years. The 174-year-old newspaper was closed by its owners in 2009.

Boxes of photo negatives

Boxes of photo negatives from The Ann Arbor News.

Page from an Ann Arbor News commemorative book

A layout page from an Ann Arbor News special publication commemorating the newspaper's 150th anniversary in 1985. Several of these pages are posted on walls in the entryway to the offices that AADL is leasing to store the News archives. Many of the pages – like this one, with an ad from Jacobson's – feature companies that are no longer in business, like the News itself. (Links to larger image)

Present: Rebecca Head, Nancy Kaplan, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, Prue Rosenthal. Also AADL director Josie Parker.

Absent: Ed Surovell.

Next meeting: Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the library’s fourth floor meeting room, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]

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  1. October 19, 2011 at 1:57 pm | permalink

    Wow – this is an amazing project. It’s a great example of how something that seems simple (digitizing the AA News file) really isn’t.

  2. October 19, 2011 at 3:55 pm | permalink

    I hope that the AADL still has the physical microfilm copies of News editions that I recall using in research projects, and the readers to use them.

    Wonderful that AADL is carrying out this project. It is a real gift to our community and to future historians.

  3. October 19, 2011 at 8:07 pm | permalink

    This is fantastic. But also a bit discouraging that less than 1% is done. The News is already available on microfilm, the problem is finding what you need if you don’t have an exact date. Will this project result in and OCR’ed, searchable archive like the NYT? That’s what I’d like to see. The other great thing will be if all those negatives can be indexed and digitized. Scanning a photo from microfilmed newsprint, which is what we have to do now, gives a very poor result.

    It would also be nice the get the copyrights cleared up. Better yet, get Congress to re-instate limited copyright lifetimes, like it says in the Constitution, but that seems hopeless.

  4. By Andrew MacLaren
    October 19, 2011 at 8:48 pm | permalink

    Agreed, Jim! That is one of the whole ideas of making things available on the web, so everything we put up will have accompanying OCR whenever possible (some pages result in pure gobbledygook). Correcting the OCR, which is another herculean task, is something we will have to work on over time. We will also be using our traditional library skills to apply keywords and pull out meaningful pieces of information to make those more easily searchable.

    As for the photos, whenever we can locate the original negatives we are scanning from those. That means that some images will continue to exist only in newsprint but the ones we have negatives for will be clearer than they’ve ever been seen. Take a look over the weekend to see what we’ve put up, I think you’ll be pleased.

  5. October 19, 2011 at 9:31 pm | permalink

    This is a fabulous project. I am so glad both the AA News and the AADL were able to start this.

  6. By Roger Rayle
    October 19, 2011 at 10:20 pm | permalink

    I’m looking forward to reviewing the AA News articles about the Pall/Gelman 1,4-dioxane contamination with the copies we at SRSW have collected over the years to make sure we have all of the articles archived and indexed.

  7. By Eric Boyd
    October 20, 2011 at 8:56 am | permalink

    Looking forward to the date when “now” is “history”, it would be great if the AADL could work out a deal with, the Ann Arbor Chronicle, and other online periodicals to take daily “snapshots” of their new content and store it for historical purposes.

    That way if a company goes out of business or their archives fail, we don’t lose the history of “now”.

    If this undermines the business model of our modern-day news sources, then perhaps the content could be embargoed for an appropriate period of time determined by the content-owner.

  8. October 20, 2011 at 9:12 am | permalink

    Re: [7] The Chronicle has already granted all necessary legal authority to the AADL to preserve public access to the publication’s complete archives, in the event that The Chronicle closes. AADL would be able to take the whole database, not just “snapshots.”

  9. By Mary Morgan
    October 20, 2011 at 9:32 am | permalink

    One more thing re. “Looking forward to the date when ‘now’ is ‘history’…..

    We granted the archiving rights to AADL in August 2010 – I wrote about the decision and our reasons for it in a September 2010 column: [link]

  10. October 20, 2011 at 9:52 am | permalink

    That is great news, because often the Chronicle is the only source of real-time reporting on many fronts. It will be a valuable historic archive (I treat it as one now).

  11. By abc
    October 20, 2011 at 1:03 pm | permalink

    ” …in the event that The Chronicle closes.”

    Don’t even think about it.

    Also I found a certain irony in that references and links to this article about the archives. Given the history I would have expected them to have known about, and reported on this, first.