- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - More than 75,000 Iowa newspapers are piling up in state archives while officials decide if they can afford to resume microfilming the publications as they did for more than 60 years before budget cuts prompted an end to the practice about five years ago.

Nearly 300 weekly newspapers arrive every week at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines. But since 2009, when the state Department of Cultural Affairs stopped converting the newspapers to microfilm to cut costs, workers have simply cataloged and stored them in temperature-controlled rooms.

State finances have improved, but officials say they don’t want to resume microfilming the papers until they hammer out a larger plan for the historical society’s collection.

“We’re going to take a real comprehensive view of how it will all work,” said Mary Cownie, director of the Department of Cultural Affairs.

Tim Walch, a member of the Iowa State Historical Records Advisory Board, said the newspapers offer firsthand accounts of historic instances, and if they’re not accessible in later years, those accounts will be lost.

“It’s the first cut of history,” he said. “As a historian, I’m looking for how it was recorded the day after it took place.”

Bart Schmidt, digital projects librarian at Drake University, said converting newspapers to microfilm pretty much guarantees their survival for 100-plus years, but that the society was exploring other options, including digital copies.

“If we can, we must make sure it is a format that has long term storage and availability,” Schmidt said. “How many things that were created 20 years ago (that) cannot digitally be accessed now?”

The microfilming of Iowa newspapers began in the 1940s and expanded in 1976 when the National Endowment for the Humanities began supporting the Iowa Newspaper Project, allowing the historical society to contract with a vendor to standardize microfilm practices. When that project ended in 1992, only weekly publishers continued to send papers to the historical society to be microfilmed by the state. Daily newspapers did their own preservation practices per a prior agreement.

Schmidt said the university’s library has been privately purchasing microfilm of recent Des Moines Register copies, citing the microfilm’s longevity and small size as positives for holding onto history in this manner.

“We feel that since it’s our local paper, we need to hold on to that,” he said. “It’s Des Moines. It’s our city.”

In a presentation to the House Economic Growth Committee last week, Cownie outlined a proposal for the renovation of the historical society, including an infrastructure overhaul to address the preservation of government documents and these backlogged newspapers. Officials declined to provide details on why microfilming has not resumed, as Cownie’s plan is set to address the issue.

Jimmy Centers, a spokesman for Gov. Branstad, said in a statement that the governor supports the renovations and has included money for the project in his 2015 fiscal year budget recommendation. He didn’t comment about the specific newspaper microfilm situation.

During the 2008 fiscal year, $40,000 was allotted for the preservation of the library collection at the historical society, which included newspaper preservation and other state documents. The practice stopped amid budget cuts and then wasn’t added back in later years.

Walch said a lack of funding for all state document preservation directly affects newspaper preservation efforts.

“We’re not doing a good job with newspapers because we’re not doing a good job with historical preservation overall,” he said. “There’s nowhere near enough being done.”


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