Process of Digitizing at State Historical Building to Provide Iowans With Wealth of Accessible Information

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- The East Village is a maze of construction projects right now, but the busiest room in the area might be the one on the second floor of the State Historical Building.

Many of us have shoeboxes full of old photos and family history, all waiting to be digitized so we can use them in today`s electronic world. But no matter how tedious that sounds, it`s nothing compared to what one man and his staff are facing in downtown Des Moines right now.

The sterile, quiet second floor of the State Historical Building is where every thread in the rich embroidery of our past is documented, stored and about to be called on.

“It`s a very large job,” said Anthony Jahn, Iowa State Archivist. “I sometimes wish there were multiples of me.”

The task Jahn’s got in front of him is staggering. Take every photo, newspaper, governmental record, and otherwise significant historical documents in there and digitize it.

“We want to remove the barriers to information so that people can more easily discover their past, learn from it, and do the things that they want to do into the future,” he said.

In short, he wants to make all this stuff available for your next Google search.

“Digitizing this becomes more useful,” he said. “It becomes very useful again because we would do it in such a way where the words can be indexed and they`re searchable.”

So you could search for the some of the very first Iowans, and not only find the Meskwakis, but identify each man in the photo.

“That may be the only photograph that exists of some of those people,” Jahn said.

Grants from the Library of Congress have Jahn and his crew off and running on photos and death certificates, but with this job, it's just projects after projects, including the largest single collection of newspaper on microfilm in the state.

There are 55,000 rolls of microfilm in there holding virtually every newspaper published in Iowa, ever, many with stories that deserve another telling.

Iowa once had many papers printed in German, but then came World War I and William Harding.

“The governor at the time, he issued something called The Babel Proclamation,” Jahn said. “In that fervor, they banned German language and it was a direct assault on German culture.”

Only here is that history still alive. Digitization will give it new life, and let it be there to remind us of all these lessons we learned the hard way.

“When the next group of people come in from other parts of the world or part of the country that we would never expect today, we can be comforted by the fact that it`s not the first time it`s happened, it won`t be the last and let`s learn from it and be better for it as Iowans,” he said.

With a little time, money, and Tony Jahn, we`ll have it.