129 years of Allen County history, digitized

The Iola Register's past newspapers -- more than 33,000 editions -- are now available online, with the exception of a few years.

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August 4, 2020 - 10:23 AM

For over 150 years, The Iola Register has documented life in Iola and Allen County.

The Sept. 28, 1964 edition of the Register documents the first concert ever held at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.

The thousands of pages of newsprint we’ve published contain the first draft of our community’s history. In countless instances, this newspaper has told stories no one else has, covering events both monumental and others seemingly inconsequential.

Yet it’s all important. It all matters. The birth announcements and county fairs and church suppers form the fabric that makes us who we are. Stories like these define our community, and it’s been an immense source of pride to be able to share them.

And now, we are thrilled to write, they’re all in one place.

A Dec. 1, 2010 edition of the Register after being scanned from its original microfilm. Photo by Tim Stauffer / Iola Register

In 2018, the Register began working with the Kansas State Historical Society to digitize over a century’s worth of our archives, dating all the way back to 1875. We now offer these digital archives free for subscribers. To access them, click here. An active subscription is required.

There are still holes in the collection, most notably from 1965-1970 and from 2001-2012, but the scope of the project is still inspiring. An idea: 129 years of Allen County history. 258 rolls of microfilm. More than 33,000 editions. Over 336,000 pages of newsprint.

And from 2014 on — where our digital archives project ends — all Register articles can be found on our website.

GATHERING AND DIGITIZING 129 years of microfilm has been a long slog. Over the decades, the Register entered into a variety of contracts with private companies that scanned newspapers to microfilm. Before the digital age, microfilm was all that really mattered to archivists, and the Register opted for companies that could do the job in an efficient manner. What company did the work changed over time, as some sold, consolidated or simply went out of business.

Along with the complete archives of the Register, the Kansas State Historical Society also houses the letters of Charles F. Scott. Among them is this 1932 telegram from President Herbert Hoover, celebrating Scott’s 50th anniversary as publisher of the Register. Photo by Tim Stauffer / Iola Register

Understanding the dense contracts — some of which the Register was still party to, exiting them honorably, and then securing the microfilm and master rolls, took just short of a year. Then, the dirty work of cataloging, scanning and digitizing newspapers dating back to when Ulysses S. Grant was president really began.

Such an undertaking would not have been possible without the collaboration of Michael Church, Senior Archivist at the Kansas State Historical Society. 

With his assistance, the Register was able to store and scan our microfilm in Topeka. For Church, projects like these are a historian’s dream. “Digitizing the Register will provide an unprecedented level of access to newspaper content that has been well-preserved but also locked up for more than a century,” he remarked. “We believe digital archives like these can bring about a Renaissance of sorts in local history and give a community new perspectives on its past and its local press.”

“The Register’s case has been more difficult than most,” Church continued. “So much of the Register’s microfilm was held by commercial vendors in different states and in different time periods. But the Register has been wonderful to work with.” Church said the Kansas State Historical Society has worked with “between twenty and thirty papers across the state” to digitize their newsprint.

“Our mission is to preserve and promote Kansas history,” Church said. “Broadly speaking, the cornerstone of the Kansas State Historical Society is its relationship with newspapers and publishers.” And now, by helping take thousands of their pages online, Church sees a huge opportunity. “The impact can be so substantial. Digitized archives allow us to rediscover our history and deepen our understanding of the history of our state.”

The reference room of the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. Photo by Tim Stauffer / Iola Register

THE KANSAS MUSEUM OF HISTORY is located down a winding path, nestled among the trees and quiet of northwest Topeka. From the outside, it’s a concrete giant of a building, with the most recent section, where the Kansas State Historical Society has its offices, built in 1995. Inside, however, natural light floods the entryway, and exposed wood beams and supporting cables add a distinctly modern feel. At least that’s the case until you head into the archives wing, a bunker of painted concrete walls, humidity-controlled rooms and no windows.

In addition to a crowded storage room housing newspapers from across the state, a darkroom, several photography studios, microfilm labs and a rather random assortment of offices, five archive rooms, known as bays, make up the vast majority of the Historical Society’s archives. Each bay is roughly the size of a large airplane hangar. Together, they comprise the largest public collection of Kansas history. Exodusters, suffragettes, abolitionists, homesteaders and journeymen all lie silently together. History’s heroes and villains both are crammed into boxes or oversized folders that burst at the seams. Dignified letters from governors mix with the records of insane asylums. Rooms like these have no space for pride or vanity; it’s all part of history, after all.

The actual process of digitizing newsprint into searchable, interactive web files depends on the primary source. If only the print paper is available, editions are placed on a large table with studio lights hanging around the perimeter. Each page of newsprint is then photographed and uploaded onto a secure server. Microfilm, however, must be digitized with an Eclipse scanner and stored on an external hard drive. In both cases, the next step involves a trip to Lehi, Utah.

ANCESTRY’S headquarters are located in Lehi, Utah, a corporate suburb between Salt Lake City and Provo. The parent company of Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com, Ancestry is one of the world’s leaders in digital archives used for genealogy and historical research. While the company has six offices scattered across the globe, their Utah location is home of America’s largest collection of digitized newspaper content. The Kansas State Historical Society and Ancestry have an agreement which allows Ancestry to host digitized newspaper archives online, letting users search via keyword and also chronologically.

The pre-dawn fire on Iola’s square on Aug. 10, 1990 destroyed the China Palace Restaurant, T.C.’s Diner and Hixon’s Office Supply and Equipment. The General Fred Funston Boyhood Home & Museum now occupies land where the buildings once stood.

The agreement between The Iola Register, the Kansas State Historical Society and Ancestry presents each side with tangible benefits. For the Register, our content is digitized and available online at no cost to our business, allowing us to grant subscribers free and unlimited access. Additionally, the Register retains rights and full control of the microfilm. 

In Ancestry’s case, they own the digitized content and can also charge premium membership fees to view the Iola Register’s archives. The Kansas State Historical Society, meanwhile, advances its mission to digitize as much of Kansas’s newspapers as possible. The Kansas State Historical Society also offers access to the digital archives of newspapers across the state through their online portal. All a user needs is a valid Kansas driver’s license.

THE REGISTER ARCHIVES are a true treasure chest. Even granted our obvious bias as a newspaper, the luxury of reaching back to the past, of making the old new again, is a marvel we can’t seem to tire of. When one reads how Ray Looker, Iola’s finance minister, flew to Topeka during the Great Flood of 1951 to ensure Iola got its share of federal flood relief funds, the sense of urgency leaps from the page. 

And the words of H. Roe Bartle, the former mayor of Kansas City, are just as soaring and inspirational now as ever. Addressing an audience of 750 at the Bowlus Center’s dedication on September 27, 1964, he proclaimed, “We’re all of one mind and one spirit in cultural life, becoming a human symphony. It is one of the great ways to build the brotherhood of man.” Delivered 56 years ago, Bartle’s message still rings true, urgently reminding us in today’s pandemic era of why the arts will always matter.

The front page of the July 13, 1951 edition of the Register was dominated by reports of the Great Flood, the worst in Iola’s history.

Daily life and its humor hum through the pages as well. On July 8, 1908, Register readers learned of how a group of farmers, loosely organized around the anti-machine movement, gathered in Emporia. Under the subheading, “One Disturber is Silenced When His Inspiration is Revealed,” the Register details how an unruly individual hijacked the meeting and launched into a fiery endorsement of Republican candidates. His comeuppance arrived once a whisky flask — prohibited in such times — was discovered in his pocket, and the crowd yelled the individual into submission. 

The power of a daily paper to enrich our community, and to capture its essence, is unique. Indeed, as one scrolls and scrolls, a sense of guilt almost creeps in, as if one’s trespassed a certain privacy belonging to those whose time has long past. Anecdotes that enrich our lives, the memories big and small, hold such sweetness. We hope you enjoy the opportunity to savor them.

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