MARC CHASE: Don't yawn, library film is window to region

2014-05-22T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Don't yawn, library film is window to regionMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
May 22, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Hundreds of reels of microfilm are the storage vaults of our region's story — from casualty reports in the Civil War to local reactions to the first man stepping foot on the moon.

If you have the time to dig — and know what you're looking for — the genealogy and periodical rooms in Lake and Porter county public libraries containing these reels are a window to the human stories of our region's past.

The Indiana State Library is reaching out to libraries and news offices throughout the state in an effort to digitize these old newspaper layouts into a computer databank — a tool that would massively expand ease of access to records of local history.

The Times is participating, and local libraries just learning of or pondering the initiative should jump in with both feet.

Now don't yawn when you read the words "microfilm" and "library." Some of these reels contain records of real-life human drama.

Microfilm reels at the Lake County Public Library in Merrillville chronicle the aftermath to the Civil War's bloodiest battle — the Battle of Gettysburg — and the pain of bodies of local sons coming home for burial. We're talking scanned likenesses of the actual newspapers region residents held in their hands and read for the news of that day.

Just last week, I came across a May 1864 — 150 years ago for those doing the math — account in the Crown Point Register that immediately caught my eye. It was the edition that brought news to the region of the death of Pvt. James Merrill, the son of Merrillville's namesake, in the Civil War's Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. It also told of a number of other soldier deaths and injuries during Gen. U.S. Grant's famed Overland Campaign during the war's final year.

More modern reels blast the local headlines of the day when the Germans and Japanese surrendered, ending World War II.

Rich stories abound on these film reels — visual links to days in time of our region's past.

It's these kinds of links with history the state library seeks to preserve in a medium accessible to all.

The state's software also makes it far more user-friendly to search such records. Right now, you have to know a newspaper date and then devote the time to travel to a local library, load the corresponding role of film onto a microfilm reader and sift through hundreds of editions looking for the one you desire.

The state's software uses a special program that makes old newspaper clippings searchable by names of people mentioned, dates and subjects covered.

The Indiana State Library is offering grants to local libraries of up to $20,000 each to digitize old microfilm newspapers and add them to the developing state databank.

The Porter County Public Library and Lake County Public Library systems both report interest in this program. All local libraries with microfilm archives should apply for the grants.

It's about preserving our region's story in a way more people can access and use that information.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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