Almost half of the published history of the 168-year-old News-Gazette now resides at the Urbana Free Library and eventually will be open to the public to browse and enjoy.
Earlier this month, a semitrailer backed up to the newspaper’s former home in downtown Champaign and workers hauled away a cache of newspaper clippings, books, photographs, documents and a dimly lighted microfilm reader more antique than me.
Hundreds of boxes of newspaper clippings, neatly organized in envelopes dating to 1947, now belong to the library’s Champaign County Historical Archives. Because of space limitations at the library, they’re being stored across Race Street in 1,600 square feet of rented space in the lower level of Lincoln Square Mall.
It’s a massive accumulation of information, equal to more than a quarter of the archives’ collection, said Donica Martin, director of the archives.
“We’re super excited about this,” she said. “We’re very happy to have been asked to take it. I’m really looking forward to just digging in and processing it. It’s going to be one of our top priorities to work with this and get it going.”
It won’t happen immediately, Martin said, because the archives just reopened Friday and staff are still getting them reorganized.
“I’ve already had a few people write in to say, ‘I hear you got this collection. Can we see it?’ And I have to write back and say, ‘No, but we’ll help you find what you’re looking for,’” she said.
Once The News-Gazette moved from downtown Champaign to smaller quarters in south Champaign, it was clear there wasn’t enough space for the newspaper’s library, which took up two good-sized rooms in its old home.
“We took everything that was in that library,” Martin said. “It’s the ‘People’ and the ‘Subjects’ clippings, all of those files. That was 50-plus file cabinets. We took some of the local history reference books and magazines. There were other documents and photos and research files and records. There were almost 350 boxes of ‘Inactive’ clippings that (former N-G librarian)
Carolyn Vance had organized. There were a few pieces of furniture and bound volumes and that old microfilm reader. We filled that semitrailer.”
Jim Rossow, the newspaper’s vice president of news, coordinated the donation.
“I wanted our history to remain intact, and this is a way to ensure it happens,” he said. “The library showed an interest in preserving our history, and we were happy to help them do it. This will give the public access to our community’s documented history.”
Rossow helped distribute other items from the News-
Gazette’s former downtown offices to the Champaign County History Museum, the University of Illinois Archives and the UI History, Philosophy and Newspaper Library.
Vance, who served as The News-Gazette’s librarian for 38 years until last November, said she was relieved to see the library’s collection preserved.
“It’s been over the last 10 to 20 years that newspapers no longer have librarians, and so The News-Gazette isn’t unique in that respect,” she said. “But I’m very thankful that all of this is being preserved. What I was afraid of is that it would end up in the landfill. That was a horrible, horrible thought.”
Martin and her staff of eight to 10 employees, plus volunteers from the University of Illinois School of Information Sciences, soon will begin to reorganize the collection.
“The first goal is to just get out to the public what we have,” she said. “We also want to digitize some of the clippings. At first, what we’ll do is digitize ones by request so that when people write in and ask for something, we’ll scan it and send it, we’ll preserve a digital copy and then make it available.
“I haven’t wrapped my head around doing all of this yet, but honestly, with the (limited) staffing and the building situation, I think I’m in a better place to just say, ‘Hey, I’m going to pull this person and take them over to Lincoln Square for the day.’”
This isn’t the first large collection the historical archives has acquired. It also received the library of the old Urbana Courier after it went out of business in 1979 and the archival holdings of the Chanute Air Force Base museum.
The Courier items are modest, occupying a few file cabinets at the library. Much of the Chanute connection is in a separate building to the west of the library.
“The News-Gazette stuff by comparison was over 50 file cabinets plus 350 boxes,” Martin said. “It’s a lot more right now, for sure. Currently, we don’t have any plan on discarding anything, even after we digitize it.”
Martin said she’s aware of two other libraries in the Midwest that have acquired large newspaper collections, in Dayton, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Mich.
“But I know that as newspapers go digital-only or downsize, I feel this is something that could definitely happen more often,” she said. “This information should go somewhere, and if there is someone with the capacity to hold them, it’s most likely a local library or an archive at a university.”
Once the News-Gazette files are better organized, Martin said patrons will be able to “send us a request and we’ll have to send someone off site to look it up. It’s the same with our Chanute collection at the annex next door. We ask for a 48-hour notice and a list of what you might want and we just pull it.
“If we had more space, I would bring the clipping-file cabinets and just line them up for people to search through,” she said, “but we don’t have that space.”
Tom Kacich’s column appears Sundays in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.