- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

WHITEHALL, Pa. (AP) - When David Janders moved back to the Lehigh Valley after 40 years in the Arizona desert, he was looking for a way to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances.

Janders tried digging up his 1968 Whitehall High School yearbook, but soon realized that an older sibling must have tossed it out even before he left for Arizona.

He checked online for a replacement and was shocked by the steep prices they were fetching.

“I mean, we’re talking $78 for a copy on eBay,” Janders said. “That was just crazy.”

Luckily, Janders didn’t have to wait long for a much better deal to come his way.

The Whitehall Township Library recently made its entire collection of Whitehall yearbooks, which dates to 1922, available in digital form.

Alumni such as Janders can buy copies for $8 apiece or go to the library to view the discs. The library also has begun to upload some of the books online to the Pennsylvania’s Electronic Library.

Whitehall isn’t alone. A growing number of libraries, including Parkland Community Library, Northampton Area Public Library and the Allentown Public Library, either have or are in the process of digitizing their collections using a service based in Oklahoma.

For librarians, the move makes perfect sense. In the age of Facebook and Instagram, high school yearbooks remain hugely popular.

Librarians say the yearbooks are pulled by those diving into genealogical research or just looking to reminisce.

But since libraries often only own a single copy of each year, directors worry about wear and tear as well as the threat of vandalism should a visitor decide to lift a favorite photo or page. Those concerns vanish with electronic copies.

For local libraries, there’s no better price for the job than the one offered by Oklahoma Correctional Industries a company that uses inmate labor to do reconstructive work.

When Whitehall Township Library Director Patty Vahey was in charge of a library in Indiana, she used the service to salvage yearbooks there. So when she discovered the treasure trove of books at Whitehall, Vahey said she knew exactly where to turn.

“If we don’t save this, if we don’t preserve it now, who’s going to do it?” Vahey said.

In Whitehall, every yearbook has its own distinct flavor, be it the psychedelic covers of the 1970s or the elegantly simple ones dating to the 1920s.

A spin through the collection reveals some yearbook club experimentation such as in 1956 and 1957, when the school opted for a horizontal format before returning to the classic look.

The books from the 1920s offer intimate glimpses of the young men and women of Whitehall High School.

R. Stanley “Bobby” Tagert, a supporter of women’s right to vote, was hailed for his smarts and hair.

“His beautiful and curly locks are the envy of the class. But speaking of brains, he’s right there. And furthermore, he uses them,” according to the 1922 yearbook.

Classmate Lizzie “Liz” Fritz was a “Hello, Girl” operator for Lehigh Phone who “falls for the Irish, even those in the suburbs of Allentown,” according to her entry. The author pokes fun at her attempts to avoid participating in debates.

“Whenever she is a speaker, she arranges to have work or a bad headache. Too bad! Liz, they postponed the debate till you got here,” her entry reads.

Yearbooks offer a personal perspective on the past that isn’t usually captured in other historic records, according to Annie Peterson, chairwoman of the Preservation and Reformatting Section of the American Library Association.

“Yearbooks can provide a really good snapshot of the community in time,” she said. “It’s a way to preserve your memories of the community.”

But preserving them wasn’t always possible.

Robert Toothman, coordinator for the Yearbook Project at Oklahoma Correctional Industries, said the venture was born out of the state’s painful familiarity with losing valuable records from tornadoes that rip through communities.

“Someone brought to our attention that we’d been losing big parts of our history,” Toothman said.

Three years ago, the state began offering digitization of yearbooks to schools, libraries and historical societies without charge, he said. They’ve since expanded beyond the Oklahoma and provide the service to any takers within the continental United States.

“If we don’t protect it, it will all be gone for future generations,” Toothman said. “That’s what we’re all about.”

OCI offers digitization services for resources other than yearbooks for a relatively low price - 15 cents a page. Toothman said they’re able to do this because of the low labor costs that come with employing inmates who are working on perfecting new skills before their release.

“It is a good training program where we’re able to teach these folks some new skills so they can become productive members of society with the hope that it will keep them from coming back,” Toothman said.

Peterson said digitization is a great way to salvage aging records, particularly those in deteriorating shape. But budget and staffing concerns can present the greatest obstacles to such efforts.

Grant programs and projects like the one offered by OCI are the best remedy to such hurdles.

Debbie Jack, library director at the Parkland facility, said their yearbook collection was shipped off last month. It usually takes about five weeks for OCI to complete the work. Jack said she was stunned to learn the service was free.

“We would not have done it if it was not attached a free price tag,” Jack said.

Susan Sentz, director of the Northampton library, said their collection was due back from OCI by the end of January. She said she reached out to Whitehall before sending their books.

“They seemed really happy with it,” Sentz said. “It’s nice to know we’ll have a collection that isn’t going anywhere.”

Mark Sullivan, district consultant at the Allentown Public Library, said only their collection of Allen High School yearbooks were digitized in 2014, but they plan to do the same this year for books from Dieruff High School.

The program seemed “too good to be true” when Sullivan learned of it, but he opted to go for it after speaking with representatives of libraries that participated. Preserving a community resource like that is the duty of a local library, Sullivan said.

So far, neither Parkland nor Northampton libraries have determined whether they’ll be selling copies of the digital yearbooks. Sullivan said the copies will eventually be uploaded for wider access at the library, but copies won’t be sold.

Janders recommends the trip down memory lane that only a peek through an old yearbook can provide.

“I go back to that thing like once a week,” said Janders, who said he likes to cross-reference the yearbook as he runs into old classmates or reads names in the newspaper. “It’s a good reference. It’s an interesting way to look back on the good times and the bad times - the people you like to remember and even those you don’t care to.”

He said he’s transported to a simpler time, be it a heart-stopping football game, an educational moment on the golf course or a thrilling slow dance with that special someone at prom.

“When you begin high school that last year is far from your mind, but once you were there you suddenly realized . you had to try to make something of yourself,” Janders said. “It was scary and exciting at the same time.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1SyJDWF

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Information from: The Morning Call, https://www.mcall.com

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