- The Washington Times - Monday, November 14, 2005


To get a sense of how much has changed over the past 100 years, there is no better place to start than the local newspaper.

Consider the first week of September 1905 in Boone County, Mo. According to that week’s edition of the Columbia Statesman, local politicians feuded over whether the county needed a new courthouse or better roads. Boys’ knee pants sold for 43 cents at the Globe Clothing Co., and the Colorado Flyer rail line promised to deliver travelers from Kansas City to Denver, a distance of 965 miles, in a mere 17 hours.

Like many old community newspapers, the Statesman is no more, its pages preserved for posterity on microfilm rolls at the State Historical Society at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

As one would expect, the newspaper library has an unmistakably musty aroma. But it’s the pungent aroma of vinegar that has historical preservationists scrambling to keep from losing valuable portions of what is billed as the nation’s largest state newspaper collection on microfilm.

Condensation has seeped into the oversized metal canisters that hold some of the library’s vast collection of archival newspapers, says Ara Kaye, a senior reference specialist. The deterioration of the acetate film is known as vinegar syndrome for the telltale odor it emits.

The collection boasts more than 3,500 titles from every county in the state — from the Audrain Journal (circa 1889) to Wyaconda’s Clark County News (1904-1923) — on 41 million pages of microfilm. The oldest title is the St. Louis Missouri Gazette, founded in 1808.

Several thousand rolls of threatened film have been sent to a Kansas City company for reproduction, Miss Kaye says. The society now will keep two copies of its newspaper files: a working copy for researchers and a second set stored in a temperature-controlled underground cave.

Although Miss Kaye and other researchers detected the deterioration before it caused widespread damage, they now are faced with a shortage of money to pay for the duplication costs, which range from $200,000 to $300,000.

Private donors, including many small-town newspaper publishers, have contributed or pledged nearly $150,000, says Gary Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

The fundraising push comes as the society grapples with a 10 percent budget cut in the current fiscal year, coupled with an expected additional 3 percent cut in appropriations. The changes have forced the society to start charging research fees for other-than-routine requests.

Missouri historians and amateur genealogists call the society’s newspaper collection a treasure trove of the state’s culture, an unmatched window into small-town life.

“This state has a far more complete collection of small-town newspapers than any I’ve heard of,” says John Bullion, a University of Missouri-Columbia history professor whose students use the collection to research 19th- and 20th-century race relations. “Without it, we’d know very little about the people of this state.”

Despite the technological advances that make seemingly infinite amounts of knowledge only a few keyboard strokes away, the black-and-white microfilm on bound reels remains the archival gold standard, Miss Kaye says. She notes how the newspaper collection once held high hopes for information stored on 5-inch floppy computer disks — a once cutting-edge approach that is now practically archaic. “Digitizing is great, but it’s not a permanent form of storage.”

Steve Gilheany, a California-based archivist, concurred that microfilm, while old-fashioned, is essential to ensuring that a permanent historical record remains intact.

“With digital records, nobody really knows how to make them last a long time,” says Mr. Gilheany, a senior systems engineer with ArchiveBuilders.com. “No vendor guarantees that their software or hardware will be here tomorrow.”

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