Some years ago, I worked at a small journal under an executive editor who was, to put it kindly, very old-school. Curmudgeonly might be another word you would use. Cranky might be a third. Along with the standard editorial duties, a fair amount of my time was spent trying to convince him that the move to digital was not a terrible, horrible mistake. This wasn’t easy; although the journal’s reach and influence had probably peaked in the late 1960s, he was deeply invested in hanging onto the status quo, not to mention the fact that this was someone who couldn’t send an email with an attachment without help.
Because there had been reach and influence once upon a time, one of the big pushes was to digitize all the journal’s back issues, dating to 1924. This was before I went back to school to learn about this kind of thing, and at any rate I wasn’t part of the decision chain, so who knows if I would have convinced him to go with someone other than the digitizer he eventually hired—a guy whose main credentials turned out to be pending contracts that never came through, who went a year and a half over his projected timeline, and who managed to lose an entire bound volume of the year 1936—certainly the company’s workflow didn’t help, wherein the original had to be couriered to New Jersey, where they were scanned, and then the scans emailed to the Philippines to be uploaded and metadata-ed up and… who knows what else. As I said, I didn’t know much about this kind of thing at the time. What I did was spend a lot of energy keeping the executive editor from melting down over how badly it was going. “The guy’s a professional—he knows what he’s doing,” I told him, and “It’s not as simple as it looks.”
Which, in retrospect, is roughly the same logic that kept physicians in the business of cupping people and applying leeches for so long.
Granted, it’s never a good idea to minimize the work people do professionally, no matter how easy it looks. It’s a whole lot harder to lay a tile floor than it looks from the Home Depot aisle, and no, your five-year-old cannot paint a Mark Rothko. But sometimes it’s not quite as complex as you think, either. Take the case of Tom Tryniski, a retired engineer in upstate New York who turned an interest in historic postcards into a one-man digital archive—all processed on his own time, in his living room.
Tryniski originally caught the scanning bug 14 years ago, when a friend lent him a collection of postcards featuring his hometown of Fulton, New York, in Oswego County. He set up a website to share them, Fultonhistory.com, and then went on to digitize his local paper, the Oswego Valley News, from its first edition in 1946 to the present. That project took him roughly a year, at which point Tryniski decided it was time to get serious. In 2003 he bought a used microfilm scanner for $3,500 in a fire sale and set up a network of PCs, using a keyword recognition program, to automate the work. He maintains his database on a server that lives in a cheerfully-lit gazebo on his front deck.
According to Jim Epstein at reason.com,
Tryniski pays all expenses for the site himself. The only significant costs are bandwidth, for which he pays $630 per month, and hard drives, which run him about $200 per month. He gets his microfilm at no cost from small libraries and historical societies. In exchange, he gives them a copy of all the scanned images analyzed for keyword recognition. Most of the papers Tryniski has digitized are from New York, but he’s rapidly expanding his coverage to other states as well. He is adding new content at a rate of about a quarter-million pages per month with no plans to slow down.
At this point he’s digitized nearly 30 million historic newspaper pages, including all 115 years of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, as well as photos, postcards, and old yearbooks. While the metadata doesn’t meet professional cataloging standards, and the interface is—let’s just say it—pretty ugly, Tryniski’s work is still a terrific resource for anyone interested in New York state history. Even more to the point, he’s done it himself, for fun, and as a result enriched the reference universe in a big way. Though Epstein points up how Tryniski’s project has outstripped the Library of Congress’ historic newspaper site, Chronicling America, let’s not forget that LoC has been encouraging people to create their own archives for a while now, and it’s cheering to imagine that with a little extra push in the direction of discoverability and interoperability we could see some seriously fascinating collections become available. As it turns out, there is a place in history for the hobbyist, for the DIY dabbler. As Tryniski says, “You can come to my site and say this is gaudy, this is crazy, I’m never coming back here. That’s not the point of it. The point is the newspapers I have available.”
(Video courtesy of reason.com.)