Credit: Lauren Shotwell/IowaWatch file photo
Bundles of daily papers have overflowed onto the floor in the library of the State Historical Building in Des Moines on February 17, 2015.
Bundles of daily papers have overflowed onto the floor in the library of the State Historical Building in Des Moines on Feb. 17, 2015. Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Bundled stacks of newspaper fill shelves and overflow onto the floor in the archives of the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines. Traditionally, the papers would have been sent off to for preservation, but a 2009 budget cut ended that 50-year practice.

Some historians and activists are anxious to have the papers preserved to ensure the so-called first draft of Iowa history is available to future generations.

A bill proposed last year would have provided funds for the backlog, but the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the historical society, put on the brakes. It rejected the proposed funding citing pending completion of a master planning process and assessment study to evaluate what it has in the archives and how to preserve those materials in the future.

Following budget cuts in 2009, the historical society no longer has funds to microfilm the papers.
Following budget cuts in 2009, the historical society no longer has funds to microfilm the papers. Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

The moves come as newspapers increasingly are adopting digital means of producing and publishing their work, and while historians and preservationists debate whether future preservation should move abandon microfilm for that digital world. Microfilm long has been considered a preservation gold standard but it lacks the accessibility of digital archives.

The backlog, which includes 1,600 to 1,700 bundles of newspapers, would cost roughly $255,000 to preserve on microfilm. And papers continue to pile up.

Officials with the historical society said the collection assessment will provide the cultural affairs department with a complete picture of what exactly is in the state archive. It also will help officials plan for future preservation efforts for newspapers and other items in the collection such as photographs and manuscripts.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that we have never done an assessment this detailed and this extensive across a hundred plus years of holdings,” Anthony Jahn, the state historical society’s archivist, said.


Bill Sherman, who has been on the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Board of Trustees for nearly four years, said he is concerned about the current backlog and frustrated with the lack of progress in preserving the newspapers, which he said is needed to create an historical record for future researchers.

Bill Sherman
Bill Sherman

Sherman has used the newspaper archives himself in conducting research. A three-paragraph news story from a 1947 Fort Dodge Messenger chronicling a teacher strike kicked off a recent foray into the archives.

“I said, ‘Well, that couldn’t be. We’ve only had one teacher strike in Iowa and that was in Keokuk in the mid-70s,” he said.

But research from the archive showed additional strikes dating back to the 1920s.

“They weren’t in the records by the state Department of Education. They weren’t reported anywhere except in local newspapers,” he said.

Jennifer Ewing, executive director of the Iowa State Genealogical Society, said the newspaper archives also are vital for individuals looking to research their heritage.

“It provides the stories behind the cold names and dates. It’s those stories that make us who we are,” she said.

In conducting research on her great-grandfather, she found a 1943 article with a clue to an idiosyncrasy friends and family members had often wondered about but never understood: when he parked his car on the street, why did he take the battery out and place it on the curb?

Apparently, in 1943 there was a problem with his Ford’s battery that caused the car to catch fire, she said. The experience must have stuck with him.

“He was on his way home from the tavern, which was owned by his brother, on Christmas Eve and his car caught on fire and he escaped with his life and a few valuables,” she said.

Without local newspapers, Ewing said, details that fill in family stories like her own would be missing.


Sherman said he understands that budgets are tight and newspaper preservation “isn’t a flaming, burning problem with rank-and-file Iowans. I understand that, but we need to preserve our history.”

He said the board, which has the power only to recommend policy and actions, had unanimously passed a motion requesting the department include a budget item for resuming microfilming. But, he said, the board was told the effort would have to wait until the department finished its master plan and received recommendations from a consultant.

The master plan also was a barrier when Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, presented a bill during the last legislative session proposing $250,000 be put toward microfilming the newspaper backlog. The bill gained 22 co-sponsors, but did not make it out of subcommittee.

Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines
Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines

Anderson said she was told the department “didn’t want the money,” that there was a study analyzing the department’s collections and the department didn’t want to do anything before that point.

“We had a good healthy economy last year. We had a healthy forwarding of money from the previous year. We had a good reserve. To choose not to take up what hasn’t been done for four or five years when it is possible was very hard on me. It was one of the harder things that I had to do as a freshman legislator,” Anderson said.

A statement from the department’s spokesperson Jeff Morgan stated using the words “opposition” or “opposed” would be inaccurate in describing the department’s position on the bill.

“In March 2014, Director Cownie shared the Department’s appreciation with Rep. Anderson for bringing attention to the newspaper collection,” he wrote in an email to IowaWatch, referring to Mary Cownie, the Department of Cultural Affairs’ director.

“Director Cownie explained that rather than investing at that point, without a comprehensive plan for responsible use of state funds, it made more sense to wait for the Master Planning progress to give the [department] a better understanding of:

  • Newspaper preservation efforts being done across the state;
  • Best steps forward for preserving its own collection, including newspapers;
  • Best timing for the investment of taxpayer dollars into preservation efforts, including newspapers.”


Jahn, the historical society archivist, entered the job in July and immediately started planning for the collection assessment that began in December.

The assessment is to be completed in June or July. In addition to the newspaper collections, historical society archives include governors’ papers, archival documents, manuscripts and photographs.

Anthony Jahn, archivist for the State Historical Society of Iowa, opens a drawer of newspaper microfilm in the State Historical Building Library in Des Moines on Feb. 17, 2015. The Des Moines archives include more than 30,000 rolls of microfilm.
Anthony Jahn, archivist for the State Historical Society of Iowa, opens a drawer of newspaper microfilm in the State Historical Building Library in Des Moines on Feb. 17, 2015. The Des Moines archives include more than 30,000 rolls of microfilm. Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

He said most of the newspapers have been put on hold since the 2009 budget cuts, which were ordered statewide. The department is using the collection assessment to see if unpreserved papers from before 2009 exist as well.

The bundled papers are either awaiting preservation or are in the process of being shipped off for microfilming through a partnership with local libraries, Jahn said.

The historical society, at last count, collects roughly 299 weekly papers and 35 dailies. Currently seven daily papers and 53 weeklies are completely preserved through library partnerships, according to preliminary numbers from the department. The libraries put up the money to have local newspapers microfilmed, sending copies to the state archives. In return the historical society helps the libraries fill in gaps in their own archives.

One such library, the Manchester Public Library, hosts a genealogy room with microfilm archives of city and county newspapers, including current issues of the Manchester Press that are updated twice a year. The Delaware County Genealogical Society maintains the room and funds the Manchester Press microfilms as part of the partnership with the historical society.

“Having the newspapers on microfilm is invaluable. That’s the only way we can look up, especially for genealogy purposes, death records, obituaries and some marriages,” said Kathy Heyer, the library’s assistant director.

Preservation of an additional 110 weekly papers is “partially complete” and 136 weeklies have had “no action to date,” the historical society’s preliminary numbers show. Although some daily papers, such as the Des Moines Register, handle their own preservation, a spokesman from the historical society said the number of papers that do so is unknown. The Gazette in Cedar Rapids also handles its own preservation.


A tour through the state archives showed the daily papers overflowing their shelves and stacking onto the floor, each labeled and tied up with string in a sort of ordered chaos.

Each bundle represents about 550 microfilm images, a full microfilm roll. Each microfilm image shows two newspaper pages, as though a reader had unfolded it and laid it out on a table. Pages are put into chronological order until reaching the maximum number and are then wrapped in Kraft paper to protect the edges and prevent fading.

Backlogged newspaper storage is based on the microfilm process, with bundle sizes determined by maximum reel capacity, Jahn said. Yet, whether or not the department continues with its current preservation process or changes course and starts digitizing papers, remains to be seen.

On one hand, digitization follows the preservationist practice of preserving the most primary form of a record. In the past, historical societies couldn’t save the plates and typesets used in printing papers, but could save the papers themselves. Digital technology has changed that approach.

“The writers who create the content, the advertisers who provide the advertising that funds the content, and the papers themselves have all moved to a digital form, ” Jahn said.

But digital archives face some issues, such as copyright law.

While the historical society owns the physical copy of the paper, it does not own the intellectual property for items published after 1923. Without permission, the historical society cannot create a digital archive for current papers.

Additionally, Jahn said a change to digitization would require both a commitment to managing the archive and operational savvy.

“The thing that we have to be concerned with is in 10 years, when those digital formats have evolved a couple generations and the content itself has gone through a number of years either sitting on a server with activity or constantly being used, will you be able to get access to that content?” he said.

Newspapers bundled into Kraft paper waiting to be sent off for microfilming are shown in the State Historical Building Library in Des Moines on Feb. 17, 2015. Seven daily papers and 53 weeklies are currently preserved through partnerships between local libraries and the historical society.
Newspapers bundled into Kraft paper waiting to be sent off for microfilming are shown in the State Historical Building Library in Des Moines on Feb. 17, 2015. Seven daily papers and 53 weeklies are currently preserved through partnerships between local libraries and the historical society. Credit: Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Microfilm has longevity on its side.

Depending on the quality of the microfilm and storage conditions, it can last from 75 to 500 years, and although the quality and standards have changed over the years Jahn said at least 100 years would be a safe bet.

“Three hundred or 500 years from now, all you need is a light source and you can view those images. With digital we don’t know — with how fast everything changes — whether you will be able to access those images in the future,” Jeff Brown said. He is director of sales with Advantage Preservation, a division of the Advantage Companies in Cedar Rapids, which partners with the State Historical Society of Iowa to provide newspaper microfilm.

Brown said that while digitization can provide wider access to material, microfilm still is the best practice for preservation.

Advantage charges the historical society a discounted rate, $150 per bundle, Brown said, which puts the cost between $240,000 and $255,000 to complete the backlog given the archive’s current numbers.

Currently the company produces microfilm for local libraries partnered with the historical society. Advantage can create a searchable digital archive for libraries that have permission from publishers.

Although microfilm can be digitized, the practice can be pricy. The process of scanning microfilm doesn’t take much time. But the additional work of running the scans through Optical Character Recognition, which makes the scans searchable, and indexing records by city, state, date, title and page, brings the price up to $95 per reel of microfilm, Brown said.

Advantage doesn’t tackle some of the more demanding projects, but he said that for some highly indexed records, such as those in the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America series, he has seen price tags upwards of $500 to $1,000 per reel.

The company maintains copies of digital images as well as master copies of the microfilms it produces. Currently the company holds some 100,000 reels of film for the historical society, Brown said.


Chris Mudge, executive director of the Iowa Newspaper Association, said the association is working to help Iowa papers create digital archives and e-editions of their current and future content. The association has been part of discussions with the Department of Cultural Affairs on newspaper preservation.

She said about 60 to 70 percent of Iowa newspapers are using Newz Group, a Columbia, Missouri, company, to digitally archive their content. The company, a subsidiary of the GeoTel Corporation, provides newspapers that are part of a partnering state press association with a free digital archive. The company also offers options for e-editions.

In the future, Mudge said the association would like to digitize all member newspapers, but preserving past newspapers is cost prohibitive.

She said the organization is focused on digitization rather than microfilm because online material provides greater access and many newspapers already are designed and formatted digitally before being printed.

“If newspapers are already being captured and archived digitally somewhere, there is no reason that it needs to be captured and archived somewhere else,” she said.

For now, the historical society has not indicated whether it will continue microfilming, go digital or opt for another route entirely. And the newspaper bundles likely will continue in limbo until completion of the department’s master plan and collection assessment in June or July.

This IowaWatch story was published by The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA), Iowa City Press-Citizen, KGAN-TV (Cedar Rapids, IA), and Des Moines Register under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. To learn how IowaWatch’s nonprofit journalism is funded and how you can support it, go to this link.

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