On September 10th, 2019, University of Windsor Librarian and ODW Board Member Art Rhyno gave a presentation called “Using Local Newspapers for Genealogy Research” to the Essex OGS/Essex County Branch, Ontario Ancestors. You can read a copy of his presentation slides here, and watch a video of his presentation here.
Art has many newspaper connections: his mother worked for the The New Glasgow Evening News in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, in the 1970s; his wife, Laurie Brett, is a fourth-generation former newspaper publisher and editor in Essex County. Art and Laurie were the owners of The Essex Free Press for about a decade, the second-oldest family-owned weekly in the province at the time, and they funded the first pilot project with the Internet Archive to digitize newspaper reels from microfilm in 2007. Both have contributed countless volunteer hours to the INK project.
Art talked about how his involvement with the Ontario Library Association (OLA) led to his participation in the creation of Knowledge Ontario (KO), where the cultural heritage search portal, OurOntario, established a base for local history projects to go online, including newspapers. When provincial funding for KO was discontinued in 2012, Art joined the Board of the newly-formed OurDigitalWorld, as part of ODW’s mission to continue OLA and OurOntario’s good work, and has been a participant ever since.
In his talk, Art identified INK and several other genealogy resources, including Chronicling America, the still available but static Google News Archive, and the Fulton History site. He gave an overview of the challenges of OCR, and tips for searching what is often compromised text.
Art also noted that OCR options are constantly improving, and digitization often means refreshing previous work in addition to creating new collections.
One of the promising trends that Art identified in his presentation is the use of historic newspapers content as Open Data, highlighting the work done at the National Library of Luxembourg/Bibliothèque nationale de Luxembourg (BnL). In addition to providing access to newspapers through traditional discovery methods and a state-of-the-art document viewer, BnL makes newspaper content available based on the three pillars of Open Data, Open Tools, and Open APIs, providing quick-start or “packs” of digitized newspapers to promote data-centric approaches to newspaper research and scholarship.
The results have been remarkable. For example, an economist has used the data to explore food prices in the 1870s. Other organizations are taking a similar approach, with two newspaper-related data releases announced during the DH2019 conference in July.
Newspaper digitization projects in Canada have largely been supported by public libraries, but Art described the data approach to newspaper digitization as a tremendous opportunity for universities, in particular, to work towards leveraging the massive amounts of valuable local content currently housed in microform collections, noting the University of Windsor’s partnership with ODW to support newspaper initiatives.
Art also gave an overview of ODW’s attempts to create a low-cost scanner using macro-photography, taking what he called a “MacGyver” approach, and developing a prototype that he has now used for hundreds of reels.
The output has gone from minimally acceptable to surprisingly strong. Microfilm can be incredibly inconsistent, a reel can contain all manner of page layouts, and the film quality can vary greatly. Art showed samples of ODW’s recent scanning, and how an unexpected benefit of macro techniques is clarity in photographs on newspaper pages, a component of scanning workflows that is usually lost.
Art suggested that one alternative to organizations buying expensive microfilm readers & scanners for public use would be to scan collections locally and work with the images. He described a recent trip to a public library where several patrons jockeyed for the same machines. Art also highlighted the NDNP standard used in Chronicling America for digitizing newspapers, which could support sharing of scanned newspaper content between different projects, and foster a distributed, pan-Canadian approach to newspaper digitization.
The presentation ended with Art’s description of a community newspaper publishing workflow, and its synergy with scanning newspapers. He showed a picture from the 1970s of his father-in-law, Wilber Brett (1938-2009), monitoring the presses and getting ready for the end of the publication cycle.
Newspaper content, especially content liberated from limited microform sources, has the potential to bring forward the long history and hard work of newspaper publishers and community newsrooms everywhere.