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Improving access to heritage newspaper content: Replacing microfilm with original paper scans

From guest blogger Walter Lewis, Great Lakes historian and software developer for OurDigitalWorld.

Some years ago the Center for Archival Collections at Bowling Green State University organized the microfilming of many of the early issues of both the Marine Record and the Marine Review up to end of 1902. In 2010, we added just short of 17,000 pages from that microfilm to the Maritime History of the Great Lakes website covering the years 1883-1902. Thanks to issues shared by the Dossin Museum in Detroit, along with Ron Beaupre and Greg Rudnick, I have been able to both extend the coverage of the Marine Review to its end in 1935, but also to replace all but 2500 pages of the microfilm with images from the originals. The result is just over 55,000 pages of marine journalism published in Cleveland, Ohio. The journals had deep roots in Great Lakes shipping and although from World War I, there was an increasing emphasis on global developments.

One question I have been asked is “why go to the time and effort to re-shoot the issues from the originals?” A couple of examples may explain why.

Almost all microfilm is photographed in black and white, with an emphasis on high contrast exposures that improves the ability to read the text on standard microfilm readers. The company that digitized the BGSU microfilm emphasized this contrast in the files they produced for us. For pages from the era of woodcut engravings this is less of an concern, although the additional generation of negative/positive print before digitization can still introduce focus issues. The challenge in many films comes from shadows in gutters in instances when the paper wasn’t disbound before filming (true here). Content in those columns may come up very dark, and after digitization, black on black. In part this is because many digitization projects, especially ones done ten or more years ago, were struggling to reduce file size and assumed that bitonal (aka each pixel in the image is either black or white) images would be acceptable. In some instances they are. But with the increasing use of photographs in the 1890s, the degree of greyness at which a given point on the page was converted to either black or white, makes for some very unhappy images. The Marine Review prided itself on its illustrations. Reshooting these, not just in greyscale, but in colour restored a significant amount of detail. This was especially true, when some earlier owner of the issue marked it up with a blue or other coloured pencil.

From Microfilm

The conversion to bitonal files also has a significant impact on the quality of the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) of the files. This is a computer process that converts the images of the text to text that can be searched in our indexes. When, for example, letters have parts that print more faintly, or where there is bleed-through from the ink on the other side of the page, the results are far from satisfactory.

From the Microfilm

Iuststpruentthereisalittle flurryin Wuhingtoubetween the navy department and the Marine Hospital service. navy ‘departlnent has recently yent 050.000 establishing a coding nation at Dry Tor- tuga: an In
equt wha considers. u the island. the most im- rortan ‘ 1ss::erntheChesa eand Central America. A ew bp g was en rised to receive a notifiatiqn from the ta-usury department to stop war at Dr! TOTIIIEII 5! t\P”‘ 1. 55 Surgeon General W needed the place to are for yellow lever and
bubonic plague patients. The ma thinks that the-e are sevwal other adjacent s a avail: . ‘lfllfvgaa and will de- elinetosurrenderDry ortugasnnlesslpecl yofildtdmdoiohr lhepréktthirnlell  .

From reshoot of original

A FLURRY OVER DRY TORTUGAS. Just at present there is a little flurry in Washington between the navy
department and the Marine Hospital service. The navy department_has
recently spent about $50,000 in establishing a coaling station at Dry Tor-
tugas and in equipping what it considers, upon the island, the most im-
portant strategic base between the Chesapeake and Central America. A
few days ago Secretary Long was surprised to receive a notification from
the treasury department to stop work at Dry Tortugas by April 1, as
Surgeon General Wyman needed the place to care for yellow fever and
bubonic plague patients. The navy department thinks that there are
several other adjacent spots available for hospital purposes and will de-
cline to surrender Dry Tortugas unless specifically ordered to do so by
the president himself.

There are still minor gaps in the files where pages are missing from issues, and a significant number of early issues are still missing, but the results are worth the effort. Now if we could only locate some issues of the Record from before 1883.

To read the full article, see Walter Lewis’ Maritime History of the Great Lakes website:

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