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150 YEARS OF LOCAL HISTORY
May 10, 2013 · Jake Krob


All known newspapers published in Mount Vernon and Lisbon - from the Mount Vernon News of 1860 to the Sun of 2012 - are now accessible and searchable on the Internet thanks to the efforts of the Cole Library.

"It's exciting to see how excited people get about it," said Paul Waelchli, director of the library and librarian for Cornell College. "It's pulling open the shades for our community."

The Cole Library, which serves as both the Cornell library and Mount Vernon's public library, spearheaded the project. Thanks to about a third of the cost being picked up by the Mount Vernon Historic Preservation Commission, and donations from Mount Vernon Bank & Trust, Cornell and Cole Library, Hills Bank, the Deb and Richard George Foundation, the Lisbon History Center, the Lisbon Public Library, the Sun and Bridge Community Bank, the $4,500 project makes all past newspapers available to the public for free.

It's available through a link from the Cole website (colelibrary.org) or directly at mountvernon.advantage-preservation.com. There are 10 different local newspaper names on the site (see sidebar below).

The project began a year ago, launched this week. Already, it's being put to use for research and entertainment alike. In fact, even during the testing phase, library staffers directed people with questions about Mount Vernon-Lisbon history to the site - and visitors quickly found it useful to find answers to their questions.

Creating access

Cathy Boggs, director of the public library at Cole, has thought for years that it would be helpful to have the library's extensive local newspaper microfilm collection available online.

Momentum grew this year.

"People wanted to be able to provide digital access - no matter where people live," Waelchli said.

The most recent push to make the project happen came from Deb George, the retired Mount Vernon physician who serves on the library board.

She's involved in genealogy, with old newspapers often a source of information in her research. And she often recalled when her daughter did a research project on the former Strand movie theater and its big fire, as part of an annual high school social studies project on the history of Mount Vernon.

"I couldn't help understand why we weren't digitized," George said.

She began working with Mary Iber, consulting librarian at the Cole Library, who had training in archiving.

Soon, the library teamed up with Advantage Preservation, a Cedar Rapids company that's recommended by the State Historical Society of Iowa.

With significant seed money from the Mount Vernon Historic Preservation Commission, and donations from the others, the work began.

Digital work

Ali McLaughlin of Advantage Preservation said digitally archiving newspapers is becoming quite popular.

Microfilm is the best way to preserve historical documents, she said, because the medium can last as many as 500 years if stored properly. But it's a technology that often requires time-consuming work to find information because it's not searchable.

Advantage Preservation runs the microfilm reels through a scanner, which turns each page into a PDF. An optical character recognition software program then scans all of the PDF files, making them searchable.

McLaughlin and Waelchli point out that the search process isn't perfect, because optical character recognition is still developing. However, with a few tips (they're available on the Cole Library website), users will have good success in finding what they need.

In addition, the Cole Library has invested in a digital microfilm reader that people can use to get even better copies than available from the website. As an example: Pictures on microfilm are often difficult to view; the reader at the library has filters to help correct that.

Discoveries

The test site for the archives was available in February, and those checking it out have enjoyed the discoveries.

"The think I've enjoyed the most is going back and looking at the advertisements," Waelchli said. "It really gives you the sense of the culture."

For instance, an ad in a 1907 Lisbon Herald touts the sale of land in the "famous blue grass and corn region of Minnesota," priced as low as $37 an acre. And many old editions have front page ads - like a 1920 edition with an ad from Mount Vernon Bank about its $100,000 capital.

Waelchli said the library often gets calls from people doing research, and planning trips to Mount Vernon for it. In recent weeks, they've sent those researchers to the archive website to find everything from obituaries to sports' statistics.

George noted that those involved in family research will find it very useful - particularly the ability to search for obituaries. She also guesses it will be a great tool for people to gather news of the past for class reunions.

Many will also find interest in reading about the biggest events of the community.

One example is found in the first year - 1860 - when the Mount Vernon News published an extra edition on a Monday following a Sunday night tornado. The editor wrote that the "whirling demon" that struck June 4, 1860, killed at least 15 people in the Mount Vernon-Lisbon area. Add in communities to the east, including DeWitt, and the death toll rose to more than 75.

"It's invaluable," Waelchli said of the wealth of information available.

And it will continue.

A donor has agreed to pay for archiving the next few years of the Sun. They will be available when a calendar year ends.

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