Museum of Northwest Colorado project preserves local newspapers for public access

The Museum of Northwest Colorado is working toward digitizing an archive of newspapers from 1945 to 1982 in an effort to better preserve that period of local history and make the records more available for research. 

The museum is home to more than a century’s worth of original newspapers, containing local records of happenings and history that are often requested by different kinds of researchers. 

A proposed project — earmarked in Craig’s 2023 budget for $24,000 — will digitize Craig Empire-Courier newspapers from 1945 to 1982 on to the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection, which is a free website provided by Colorado State Library. 

The Historic Newspaper Collection already contains images of local publications from 1891 to 1945, which are optimized on the website by optical-character recognition, which makes the printed words searchable on a computer. 

“It’s a game-changer to a golden era of research — we have access to newspapers during a piece of history and a part of the region where people moved around a lot,” said Paul Knowles, assistant director for the museum. “It helps connect dates in other stories that have been written and explains exactly how events went down and what dates they occurred.”

Currently, to research newspapers published after 1945, museum staff have to pull the original copies from large binders in the museum’s basement. 

“You have to know generally when a story took place so you can pull the book and search through the pages to find it,” Knowles said, adding that some of the original copies, especially those dating back to the late 1800s, are starting to deteriorate and becoming delicate to handle.

Since the late 1800s, there have been several publications covering local news, such as the Pantagraph, which ran from 1891 to 1895; the Craig Courier, which ran from 1895 to 1902 and again from 1922 to 1928; and the Craig Empire, which ran from 1911 to 1929.

The Craig Empire-Courier was a combination of two former publications and the successor of the earlier newspapers until it ceased publication in 1982. The digitizing project will bring the historic newspaper collection up to date with the Craig Empire-Courier.

Because negative images, or microfilms, of the papers taken by the Colorado State Library already exist, it should be a fairly simple process to digitize the microfilms and upload them into the collection.

“Colorado did a great job of preserving its newspapers,” said Dan Davidson, director of the museum.  

The optical-character recognition, which makes the newspaper print searchable, is where the cost of the project comes in, Davidson explained. However, once the pages have been downloaded into the collection, the newspapers can be searched by date, county, city, year, names, keywords or pretty much any other parameter.

“It’s a limitless resource that can inform other sources,” Knowles said. “Especially for the era we are filing to put in, it’s a time period that people who are alive today actually have memories of.” 

These are key decades because as residents age, there are fewer people to ask about the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, Davidson said. Being able to reference newspapers from a certain time period or for certain events should allow researchers to confirm details and double-check sources. 

“The local paper historically is like two legs of a four-legged chair. It’s priceless really. What you are doing is opening up a community’s history of information.” 

Dan Davidson, director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado

The museum is known for being heavy on research, and because of that, museum staff get a lot of requests from authors, genealogists and other researchers. 

“Not a day goes by that we are not on this website,” said Knowles, adding that staff sometimes receive items they don’t know anything about until they stumble across details in a newspaper that helps them learn more. 

“We are constantly able to find more information about our artifacts through this resource,” Knowles said.  

One of the biggest assets to the museum is newspaper obituaries, as they can help people track down family records. Newspapers also carry the history of a community and can help people find out when a building was built, which can be useful to obtain a historic status. 

“And to me, that is what makes it fun — you’re looking at the actual newspaper — it helps give you a feel for the time period,” said Knowles, who shared an image of an old Pantagraph newspaper with tears, wrinkles and creases.

The details of the original newspaper may also have brief clips or advertisements carrying specific information that may not be elaborated on elsewhere. 

The optical-character recognition is only as good as the image, and some of the images were taken a long time ago. In old fonts, sometimes letters can get mistaken, or the original reporter could have spelled it wrong. 

Because of this, Knowles said researchers may have to go broad in searches or search for similar keywords that could be associated with the information being sought. While it does have some nuances, Knowles said, the digital archive can gets researchers most of the way there. 

Once the museum has the approval from the city, the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection can start scanning in the digital images and uploading the optical-character recognition. Davidson didn’t have a specific timeline for the project, but he anticipated it could be done in about a month or two.

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