Today’s post comes from Brenna Lee, a graduate of the Pratt Institute in New York who recently worked as a metadata consultant for the Newberry. She also helped build the Scholl Center’s Chicago Foreign Language Press Survey site. Here, Lee discusses the process by which the FLPS went from typescript pages to a searchable database, and reports on the discovery of heretofore unknown material in the collection.
When browsing a digital resource such as Google Books, Ancestry.com, the Oxford English Dictionary, or even Wikipedia, it’s easy to forget about the amount of paper that made such websites possible in the first place. In the grand scheme of things, it’s only in recent years that these physical records have entered into the digital realm, and for many historical, physical resources, enduring fires, floods, and the ravages of time itself is no easy feat, because even if the materials survive, giving the public access can be another long journey all together. In the case of the Foreign Language Press Survey (FLPS) website, a project officially started in 2009 and launched by the Newberry Library’s Scholl Center for American History and Culture just this past January, it was the dedication and vision of a select few that brought this collection online and available to anyone with an internet connection.
The FLPS is a collection of translated newspaper articles published in Chicago from 1861-1938, offering a unique view into immigrant life and culture in Chicago. It began as a project administered and sponsored by the Chicago Public Library in 1936, with funding from the U.S. Federal Works Progress Administration, and was one of the many initiatives that employed Americans during the Great Depression. Over a short five years, the FLPS produced 120,000 sheets of typescript, encompassing 50,000 articles from 22 ethnic groups, before its premature termination in October 1941. The collection was eventually donated to the University of Chicago, and was later microfilmed. Though multiple libraries hold copies of the microfilm, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign digitized its copy and contributed it to the Internet Archive, the collection remained cumbersome to access.
In 2009, the Newberry Library received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a digital transcription of the Survey that would be keyword searchable and available to the public online. Using the digitized microfilm on the Internet Archive, the Survey was transcribed in XML files, according to the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). However, even after the transcription process was completed, there were 1,186 articles that contained gap elements, or portions of the text that were illegible in the microfilm scans, and therefore unable to be transcribed. These gaps ranged from a single letter to multiple pages worth of typescript.
The only way to fill in these gaps was to travel down to the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago where the original paper sheets for the FLPS are now housed. These sheets were then cross-referenced with the transcriptions, and the missing parts filled in, if possible. Since these gaps were spread over 22 language groups, each article had to be searched for and examined individually, both on the FLPS website and among the physical copies spread over 55 boxes of materials.
While working on correcting the gaps in the transcriptions, it was noticed the Welsh language group was missing from the digitized copy used from the Internet Archive. We’re not sure whether a reel of microfilm was missed when it was digitized, or whether the Welsh language group was simply never microfilmed at all, but thanks to the well documented finding aid at the University of Chicago that we were able to catch this overlooked section of the FLPS. The Welsh language group was then manually transcribed into XML using the original paper collection.
Work like this can often be tedious, dirty, and tiring. Sorting through reels of illegible microfilm, or box after box of brittle, dusty papers held precariously together by twisted staples isn’t always easy or fun, but despite these drawbacks, helping to construct a new point of access into a previously little known collection is always an entirely rewarding and fulfilling process. It takes a lot of dedicated people to bring valuable physical, historical collections from the archive and library shelves into the digital realm, but seeing researchers, students, and the general public learn about our collective history makes it all worthwhile.