For decades, microfilm stations at local libraries have unlocked history for Georgians. Scanning through the old editions of newspapers preserved on film, a grandmother can find her favorite childhood dessert recipe because she remembered her mother read it in the newspaper, siblings can piece together their family tree and genealogy projects for the next generation, and schoolchildren can look up what happened in their town on the day they were born and how much groceries cost in the advertisements.
Since 1953, the Georgia Newspaper Project at the University of Georgia Libraries has microfilmed more than 100 community newspapers, providing free access to the stories of the state’s small towns, big cities, and close communities. But with an 11-year backlog and outdated equipment no longer in production, the future of the project is in flux, and librarians are seeking partnerships to transform the practice using 21st century technology.
“Microfilming is a time-intensive process that is approaching obsolescence,” said Sheila McAlister, who heads the project at the UGA Libraries while also managing the Digital Library of Georgia, a statewide GALILEO initiative based at the Athens campus. “It is increasingly difficult to obtain supplies, and they are increasingly expensive. Upkeep of equipment is difficult as parts and repair services are scarce. We need to pivot away from filming if we want to sustain the project.”
In 2021, the project piloted a born-digital deposit program, allowing newspapers to send current issues electronically. After an embargo period determined by the publishers, the issues are published on the Georgia Historic Newspapers website, allowing free access to community members across Georgia. The site, maintained by GALILEO and the Digital Library of Georgia, includes more than 3 million digitized newspaper pages from more than 1,000 titles dating back to the mid 1700s.
As of June 30, 2024, the Georgia Newspaper Project will conclude microfilming, and McAlister and other leaders are hoping that the 126 titles currently engaged in the project will continue to be preserved through the digital program.
Pam Permar Shierling, managing editor of The Islander Newspaper, said she and Publisher Matthew Permar were quick to sign on to the digital deposit program because they understood the importance of preserving back issues after a 2013 fire destroyed their local archive.
“Matthew and I are thrilled with the project. I appreciate the fact that (UGA Libraries) are scanning all of the issues,” she said. “For us, the project is a godsend.”
In the end, preservation is just as important for the community, noted Angela C. Spitzer Stanley, assistant state librarian for innovation and collaboration with the Georgia Public Library Service, who said that library patrons across Georgia search microfilm for genealogy research, to learn about how neighborhoods developed, and to delve into their community’s history.
“Public libraries and community newspapers share a common purpose: to circulate reliable information accessible to all. In 2022, Georgia’s public libraries served 35 million visitors seeking everything from the daily paper to 3D printing. But with the transition away from print journalism and the decline of microfilming, libraries are finding it harder and harder to provide continuous access to local news sources,” she said.
“Georgians rely on hometown newspapers to document the stories of our communities, and libraries rely on institutions like the Digital Library of Georgia to provide ongoing digital access to that history,” she continued. “The Georgia Newspaper Project is an innovative way to bridge the access gap: publishers retain their rights and revenue streams, libraries are able to provide free information resources, and Georgians stay informed through frictionless access to their hometown newspaper.”
Learn more about the Georgia Newspaper Project at libs.uga.edu/gnp and explore the Georgia Historic Newspapers site at gahistoricnewspapers.galileo.usg.edu.