Museum’s newspaper collection being archived
The process is underway to revolutionize how the Fort Frances Museum is able to access local historical information.
Digital records developer Jeremy Hughes has devised a system to photograph, catalogue, and archive more than 100 years of newspapers, including the Fort Frances Times and Daily Bulletin.
The first step is the photographing of each newspaper page. This is done using a vacuum table, an overhead digital camera connected to a computer, a guidance system using lasers, and an arrays of lights, which have been set up in a back room on the main floor of the museum.
First putting on nitrile (rubber) gloves so as to not damage the old newspapers, Hughes carefully removes the newspaper pages of one edition of the Fort Frances Times from a large bound book.
The page then is placed carefully on a vacuum table which was built—through no small amount of trial and error—by Hughes and his dad, Michael, who contributed his invaluable engineering know-how.
The laser levels which comprise the overhead guidance system beam downwards onto the table surface. These are used as a placement mechanism so you always can find the centre of the newspaper page consistently.
This is important later on in the process when the image of the newspaper page is formatted and you want it a consistent shape and size, Hughes explained.
“It’s better if it’s in the same location,” he stressed.
“I tried doing it without any guidance, and with eyeballing guidance, and it doesn’t work.”
The surface of the sliding table is perforated with thousands of 1/8-inch holes drilled at 3/8-inch intervals across its surface, which measures 42 inches by 30 inches.
It has been covered with a green cloth.
The support structure of the table has been sealed, and to it is attached a multi-purpose utility air mover.
When the air mover is running, the newspaper is sucked flat to the table surface, minimizing creases to the greatest extent possible. A plexiglass lid also is lowered over the tabletop and locked down.
With the newspaper page in place, Hughes takes a photo of it with the overhead camera—a Nikon D3100 which has been carefully adjusted to a specific height to minimize distortion when it takes a photo.
The camera is operated by a foot switch so it can be activated by Hughes while he sits in front of the vacuum table.
The table is lit on either side by two adjustable arrays of fluorescent tubes with a high colour-rendering index (CRI) so the newspapers appear close to real colour temperatures in the photos taken (because they’re fluorescent, the lights do not generate nearly any heat, which is important when working with them for extended periods of time).
The whole process is calculated and consistent so that only one photo per page needs to be taken.
The camera, meanwhile, is “tethered” to a computer, so the photos it takes go directly to a nearby terminal.
The next step is to catalogue the photos of the newspaper pages.
The images captured in the first step automatically appear on a computer, where the image files must be given page numbers, identified as either a right- or left-side page, and put in folders according to day, month, and year.
It’s extremely important to do this accurately, although there already have been some editions of the paper that have had missing pages and incorrect page numbers.
The third step is the archiving process.
With this step, the aim is to make the now-digital copies of the newspapers accessible to the public.
Hughes wrote a script—a list of computer commands that can be executed without user interaction—to rotate and crop the photos, highlight the blacks, and, simply put, make them look better.
As well, it converts raw digital photo files into different formats: lossless compressed TIFF and highly-compressed JPEG.
What this means is all of the photos of newspapers that are taken can be run through the script—and the computer does the rest.
“I’ve designed this so you can do every single thing, every single photo that you have, simultaneously,” Hughes noted.
“You don’t have to do it for each thing, it’s totally automated.
“You tell it to go; it doesn’t need any human time now that it’s operating,” he added.
The next step was to use optical character recognition (OCR) software—which electronically converts scanned images of handwritten, typewritten, or printed text into machine-encoded text—to output a text file associated with each newspaper page and a PDF file.
In simplest terms, this will allow users to search for anything that has been written about in the newspapers which have been photographed and put into the system.
For example, if someone were to search for information on the “Hot Stove Murders,” the OCR process would identify which papers mention the crime and on which pages.
And with a click of the mouse, that person could access digital versions of all of those newspaper pages.
All of the newspaper-related files will be integrated into a website on the museum’s server, which will be searchable as a database.
Called the “Digital Newspaper Archive,” or “DNA,” the website is a work in progress and eventually will be accessible on a computer terminal which will be set up for museum patrons in the near future.
Curator Sherry George said DNA is shaping up to be an invaluable resource for the local museum.
“Right now, when people come in and make a request of the museum for some kind of research material—an obituary, an newspaper article, or anything like that—not only is it difficult to pinpoint when that article might have been in the paper, but we just hate even touching the papers because they’re so fragile,” she explained.
“To have this digitized, it’s going to cut our research time—it’s going to be huge for our museum,” George stressed.
“We’re going to be able to punch in a word, a name, an event, and the character recognition feature on this project is going to be able to give us all the newspapers, all the articles, that have occurred.
“So many times [right now] we can’t pinpoint a time or a date; somebody’s not even sure of a name or when someone passed away,” noted George.
She added this not only takes a lot of time for museum, but it’s very expensive for the person making the request as the museum has to charge them for the time spent researching.
How much of the newspaper archives will be available to search will increase on an ongoing basis. Fort Frances Times’ editions from the years 1967, 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945 have been entered into the system so far.
But the archiving process will go much faster if more people are involved.
Hughes said the photographing and cataloguing steps of the process can be done by basically anyone who has been trained by him, and the plan is to get more people helping out with that end of the project.
“We are actually looking for volunteers who might be interested in contributing to this stage,” he remarked, noting some members of the local genealogy group have expressed interest.
The museum also is looking to see if high school students, who need to get those volunteer hours to graduate, will come to the museum and take photos of the old newspapers, added Hughes, noting parents might want to mention this to their teens.
“We just need someone with basic computer skills to do this part,” he explained.
“They need to be able to understand files and folders, and to manipulate file names and folder structures, and be able to respond if a window comes up with an error.”
The number of years of newspapers that will be available through the archive will depend on how many years’ worth of newspapers have been photographed and catalogued.
This means the more people that can help out, the sooner more material will be in the system.
“We want to get in as much as possible, so we’re thinking about people taking shift work, looking for someone that would want to do it consistently, like maybe on the weekends,” said Hughes, who is photographing pages on an ongoing basis but also is busy with other tasks.
“It’s not necessary but it would be nice,” he remarked. “It would ensure that the project is completed on time and everything.
“I can handle it for the most part,” Hughes noted. “But if we have more people, we can expand to more things, more papers.
“Like we’re focusing on the Times first and then we’re going to go to the [Daily] Bulletin.
“We’ve got some other papers in our archive.”
Eventually, magazines and loose leaf documents could be photographed and included in the archives.
“So, the more we get done, the people that are interested in this, the more’s going to happen,” Hughes reasoned.
If you’d like to help out, contact the museum at 274-7891 or via e-mail at email@example.com
The project is being funded through a $39,880 grant from the Museum and Technology Fund, with a 20 percent contribution from the town.
The latter comes almost entirely from federal student grants the museum receives.