Digitizing microfilm and the Great Quake

Originally posted April 18, restored from Bloglines’ archive, thanks to David King’s suggestion

Today’s the hundredth anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake–which, combined with the fire that followed, was the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history until Katrina.

The San Francisco Chronicle has been running a series of long articles regarding the quake, its effects, and the likely results of an equivalent quake these days, along with lots of online features at SFGate (most of which I haven’t looked at). For the last few days, and continuing for the next few, it’s also running full-page facsimiles of the front page of the Chronicle of a century ago—and today’s paper came wrapped in a special section, comprising a facsimile of the four-page special edition of the Chronicle-Call-Examiner (I’m not sure of the full list, but it was all of the SF papers of 1906) published from Oakland the day after the quake, with additional stories in another four modern pages.

This is fascinating stuff, and a lot of it, carefully done. Carl Nolte is the lead writer; he wrote the text for a recent SF Chronicle book, The San Francisco Century. (Note that Chronicle Books is no longer associated with the SF Chronicle; it’s the one piece of the old Chronicle family-owned business that’s still owned by part of that family, who bought it from the rest of the family as they were selling off everything.)

I’d be surprised if a book doesn’t come out of all of this. There’s already more than enough text for a book, I think, and obviously plenty of good photographs. We’re spending way too much time reading the daily paper, because the articles are so well done. (We’re both native Californians. We were here for the much-smaller 1989 quake, living on a hill at the time. We live on flat bedrock, far from landfill, in a single-story wood-frame house. We should bolt a few bookcases to the walls, but otherwise we’re in pretty good shape–and yes, we do have an earthquake kit, renewed every six months or so.)

The digital preservation and usage angles? Those pages from the 1906 paper(s).

Some of them were scanned (digitally) from copies of the newspaper itself kept by historical associations; I’m pretty sure today’s 4-page edition is in that category.

The rest were scanned from the Chronicle’s archives–which means they were scanned from microfilm.

The good news: The results, blown up to full page size (possibly a little larger or smaller than the original page size), are almost always readable, except sometimes for a line or two at the fold, or in at least one case a portion of the leftmost column where the paper wasn’t quite level when it was microfilmed.

The bad news: “Readable” is the word. Easily readable–not so much.

I have no idea how OCR would work against this scanning. For those lines on the fold, probably not at all. Otherwise? Probably pretty well.

Of course, the scanned-and-printed results are a lot better than working with the microfilm itself, at least based on my almost-buried memories:

Long ago (late 1960s or early 1970s, as I remember) and not so far away (Berkeley), I had an idea for a book–and did the research and writing for the only book-length manuscript I’ve written that didn’t result in publication.

The book concerned local press coverage of the Free Speech Movement.

I reviewed the four or five daily papers most involved, in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, and (possibly) San Jose), every day during that period and shortly thereafter.

It was a fascinating story. I’m not sure it was all that good a manuscript. It was, of course, typed (on an electric typewriter, but still).

When I say “I reviewed,” I mean “I stared at one of those bloody roll microfilm readers with the facing-forward screens, in the UC Berkeley library, every afternoon after work until my head hurt too badly or my eyes couldn’t take it any more.”

The manuscript has long since disappeared. (It was submitted to, and kindly rejected by, one local publisher. I loaned it to a colleague…who never returned it, and disappeared.)

I can’t say I would never do anything like this again. I can say I’d only do it if there was no other way to do something I really wanted to do. It was agonizing, and I was a lot more resilient back then.

Addendum 4/20: Unfortunately, I have no way to restore the comments on this entry. I will note that a quite substantial photo archive of the Great Quake is available online, hosted by UC Berkeley’s Bancroft archives.

One Response to “Digitizing microfilm and the Great Quake”

  1. Laura Says:

    It’s a pity the manuscript disappeared–I’d be interested in reading it. I actually love microfilm and have spent many happy hours in front of microfilm readers at various libraries over the years (although probably not nearly as many as you spent), largely in the pursuit of research for a probably never-to-be-written book. I just took a stash of microfilm from the library down to the local museum, only to discover that they also don’t have a microfilm reader anymore–though apparently you can buy them on eBay.


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