An introduction to the Historic Maryland Newspapers Project and the pros and cons of digitizing from microfilm

Because this is my first post on DigiStew, I think it would be beneficial to briefly introduce the project I’m managing and explain the parameters under which the project operates.

The Historic Maryland Newspapers Project is part of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). The NDNP is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and receives technical support from the Library of Congress. Through August 2014, our project will use its $325,000 award to digitize 100,000 pages of historic newspaper content from the state of Maryland. The newspapers will be made freely accessible and searchable on the Library of Congress website Chronicling America. By the end of 2014, Chronicling America will host digital newspapers from 32 states; it currently contains more than 6.6 million digitized newspaper pages.

NDNP awardees are expected to digitize newspapers primarily from microfilm holdings, and there are clear advantages to doing so. Many of the newspapers that fall within the NDNP selection guideline of 1836-1922 are too fragile to be safely digitized or may no longer exist except on microfilm. Microfilm is easier to preserve and store than paper and usually requires no conservation treatment prior to scanning. Digitizing microfilm is also a relatively fast process that allows NDNP awardees to get more newspaper-bang for their grant-funded-buck.

There is, of course, a caveat to digitizing from microfilm. The digital images produced from microfilm can only be as good as the condition of the microfilm—and consequently the condition of the newspaper pages that were filmed—allows. Bad microfilm will yield bad digital images and ineffective full-text searches. By being discerning in selecting microfilm, and choosing to digitize from original newspapers when necessary, the disadvantages of digitizing from microfilm are mitigated.

The microfilm used for digitization is deposited at LC at the end of the grant cycle.  By preserving newspapers in both analog and digital mediums, the NDNP is ensuring the longevity of its historic newspaper archive. Though digital archivists are doing everything they can to develop new tools and strategies that will preserve digital information for perpetuity, at this point in time, most will acknowledge that the newspapers on microfilm will likely outlast their digital surrogates.

Even if digital surrogates don’t last forever, digitization and subsequent upload to Chronicling America will make Maryland’s historic newspapers more accessible than ever, and the added metadata and optical character recognition (OCR) outputs created by the project will make browsing and searching these newspapers more intuitive and effective than on microfilm. In my opinion, increased accessibility and usability are the hallmarks of a successful digitization project, which is why I’m so enthusiastic about the NDNP!

In upcoming posts, I will describe the metadata that is created by NDNP projects, explain the difficulties of providing accurate OCR output, make project announcements, and more.

Also look for the Historic Maryland Newspapers Project on the Special Collections blog. In the fall, we will be featuring some interesting content from the Baltimore newspaper Der Deutsche Correspondent that DSS Executive Assistant (and resident German and Fraktur expert) Jill Fosse is uncovering from the year 1858. Stay tuned!