Off The Shelf: Treasure Trove of Local History

Off The Shelf

Treasure Trove of Local History


Last week, The Hawk Eye donated stacks of bound volumes of recent years of the newspaper to add to the library’s existing collection of historic newspapers. Did you know that the library has a collection of bound copies of The Hawk Eye and predecessor local newspapers dating back to the 1830s?


A community newspaper is one of, if not the most, important local history resources available. The story of a community can be found in its local newspaper. At the Burlington library, we are fortunate to have multiple ways to access this treasure trove of information about events, businesses, and individuals.


Because of the fragile state of aging newsprint, we rarely bring out the bound copies. Instead, those are retained as an artifact and archival resource that backs up other formats.


When entering the library’s local history and genealogy section, the first thing most people notice is the giant painting of Burlington by George Harvey that hangs on the north wall and once was displayed at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The second thing is the bank of microfilm cabinets and the reader/printers that go with them. The majority of the films in those cabinets are old newspapers ready to be explored.


Microfilm is an old technology that still can serve an important preservation function. It is an easy to store, stable medium that doesn’t require ongoing migration to new updated formats as digital content does. The downside is that it can only be searched by scrolling chronologically. Most people don’t have much call to use a microfilm reader/printer regularly, so our staff is able to help. The newer printers can adjust the image and make very clear prints. They also can scan the film allowing you to save an article or picture on a flash drive or email it to yourself so you have a digital copy.


The film works great if you know a date or narrow date range that you want to search. If you want to search by name or other keywords, the digital version of the paper is needed. Our library subscribes to NewspaperArchive. This online tool is available through the library’s website at the library. Card holders also can access it remotely using their library card. The remote access option can be a bit tricky to find at first because of requirements set by the company. Start by logging into the library catalog using your card and pin number. After that, the link you need to log in remotely will appear on the left column of the page. If you need assistance, don’t hesitate to contact a staff person.


Once you are in, you will have access to historic newspapers from all over Iowa. You can narrow down your searches by keywords, date, or location. Searching by a name may be the most common, but it can even be fun to search for your home’s address to see what all happened there in the past.


The results will take you to full page scans of the pages that fit your search parameters. Not only can you read articles that include your search terms, but you’ll also get to enjoy the ads and take in other articles to get a feel for what was important to people at that time.


When we started offering this resource for remote use early last year, searches in this tool shot up by 442%. NewspaperArchive continues to show high use as people discover it and use it for family history research, researching area organizations, or other dips into the past.


One frequent user discovered that, while NewspaperArchive has several different Burlington newspapers over many years, it also has some gaps. There are some individual issues and even whole years missing in this digital collection. We currently are working with the company on filling some of those gaps. In the m.eantime, the microfilm is a good alternative. In fact, I regularly recommend that people start with the digital searches, but, in cases where they have a relatively narrow time frame, to also try the microfilm if they aren’t finding what they expected.


We also are exploring another newspaper resource that includes additional years of The Hawk Eye, as well as other newspapers. Watch for that new resource to be available in the coming month, when we will also be migrating to a new website platform with a new look.


While obituaries are the most requested item from our historic newspaper collection, we also have helped people find articles about a fire that was at their house, awards that family members received, visits by famous people to Burlington, and much more.


Whether you scroll through a roll of film or key in a search term, you can find a window into a community through its newspaper. These historical records show you what issues were important at the time and record the lives of individuals through birth and marriage notices, obituaries, and other stories. Local libraries are typically the best place to find these sources. Your library staff members can help get you started.


See you at the library!