Old Franklin County papers preserved via Newspapers.com partnership

Shawn Hardy
Echo Pilot

Thousands of pages of local newspapers stored in cells on the third floor of the old Franklin County Jail are slowly being released for worldwide access through a Newspapers.com pilot project.

The Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny is the first organization to partner with Newspapers.com for the Paper Preservation Project, and volunteers are scanning close to 50,000 pages of newspapers, some more than two centuries old.

Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny President Neil Rensch scans an old newspaper page for Newspapers.com’s Paper Preservation Project

“We are very, very lucky we got selected for this,” said Neil Rensch, president of the historical society.

Past, present and future

For decades, microfilm was the best way to preserve copies of old newspapers. Some, including the Public Opinion through 2018, are available on microfilm at the historical society’s headquarters in the old jail at 175 E. King St. in Chambersburg.

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Digitization is the latest way to preserve and provide access to papers from the past. In 2019, 150 rolls of the historical society's microfilm were sent to Newspapers.com to be added to its system, which includes nearly 750 million pages of newspapers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and Canada.

While that was being done, Elizabeth Bell, senior manager of content acquisition for Ancestry.com, which owns Newspapers.com, mentioned the Paper Preservation Project to Rensch.

Old newspapers awaiting scanning in the Paper Preservation Project are housed in cells on the third floor of the old Franklin County Jail in Chambersburg, headquarters of the Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny.

“For hundreds of years, newspapers have chronicled a broad range of subjects. Historical newspapers provide a snapshot for researchers and genealogists to find the headlines and stories that impacted individuals, families, communities and nations,” Bell said.

“The Paper Preservation Project was born with the goal to provide publishers, historical societies, libraries and institutions a way to digitally preserve delicate newspapers,” Bell said.

“Aging newspapers fade, become brittle and deteriorate. Each time a newspaper is lost, a piece of history could be gone forever,” she said. “That is why Newspapers.com is thrilled to announce the Paper Preservation Project.”

FCHS-K was the first to sign on. The Paper Preservation Project now has three remote camera stations to lend, and hopes to have more in the future.

“Neil saw the value in preserving these fragile papers and worked closely with Newspapers.com to help develop the workflow,” Bell said. “We are thrilled to have worked on this project over the past two years with Neil and the Franklin County Historical Society to save this local history.”

In the news

There was a lot of legal back and forth involved, but once an agreement was signed, Rensch knew he had to get organized for the project. He spent three months comparing newspapers stored in the jail cells with what was already available locally on microfilm and online at Newspapers.com.

The Aug. 17, 1905, edition of Greencastle’s Echo Pilot highlighted the community’s Old Home Week celebration. It is among the newspapers being scanned by Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny volunteers through Newspapers.com’s Paper Preservation Project.

“In the summertime, it was hotter than anything,” said Rensch, who had to focus on the task at hand and not get sidetracked too often with the headlines.

“Some are so, so brittle,” Rensch said, adding it feels good to be getting them scanned.

“I’m not doing this for my generation, not my daughter’s generation, maybe not my granddaughter’s, but future generations,” Rensch said.

His list is lengthy and diverse, including publications from different communities of differing sizes. Some newspapers are as big as 4 to 5 feet across when opened wide and have columns and columns of miniscule print.

Some old newspapers were massive, measuring 4 to 5 feet across. Neil Rensch, president of the Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny, is shown with one example.

“How did they sit and read this stuff?” Rensch wondered.

FCHS-K has just a copy or two of some publications and months and even years of others. Some date back the early 1800s.

The Franklin Intelligencer and the Franklin Repository, both of Chambersburg, are among the old newspapers being scanned by Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny through Newspapers.com’s Paper Preservation Project.

The selection from the county seat includes names like the Chambersburg Times, Chambersburg Whig, Chambersburg Gazette, Daily Herald, Franklin Republican and Chambersburg Advertiser, Franklin Telegraph, Democratic Adviser, Saturday Local and The Acorn, with the motto “Tall Oaks from Little Acorns Grow.”

There are many years of the weekly Franklin Register, which sometimes totaled nearly 900 pages annually.

“That’s going to be massive,” Rensch said. “That’s a lot of scanning.”

From elsewhere in the county, the shelves contain pages of Waynesboro’s Record Herald from 1928 to 1948.

The Aug. 15, 1945, edition celebrates the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II with the headline “VICTORY USHERS WORLD INTO PEACE ERA.” One front-page story recounts “Waynesboro Celebrates Hilariously All-Night Long: People Shout and Celebrate Victory” and plans for Waynesboro’s Victory Parade are announced.

The Aug. 15, 1945, edition of Waynesboro’s Record Herald marking the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II is among the newspapers being scanned by Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny through Newspapers.com’s Paper Preservation Project.

Other Waynesboro papers include the Village Record, Waynesboro Press and one copy of the Blue Ridge Zephyr.

There are single issues of Greencastle’s Echo Pilot from 1894 to the early 1900s, along with the Greencastle Pilot, Greencastle Press and Franklin Ledger.

The headline on the Aug. 17, 1905, Echo Pilot is “Reminiscences and Anecdotes Inspired by Old Home Week.” That was the first year the town’s triennial celebration, originally held as the Old Boys Reunion in 1902, was known by the name that endures to this day.

The Mercersburg Journal makes a few appearances, along with the Shippensburg News-Chronicle and the Democratic Chronicle.

Volunteers lend a hand

The scanning equipment arrived in February, Rensch installed it and volunteers were trained. In addition to Rensch, the scanning crew includes Deanna Harris, Cindy Dinsmore, Dale Dinsmore, Sue Hershey, Cathy Cellucci, Linda Cummings, Kathy Harmon, Dave Parrish and Barbara Parrish. They scan in two-hour shifts once a week.

Neil Rensch, Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny president, watches as volunteer Sue Hershey prepares to scan an old newspaper page for Newspapers.com’s Paper Preservation Project.

“I like to preserve history. I think this is an important way to do it,” Hershey said. She noted people all over the world will be able to see “these little Franklin County papers.”

The old newspapers are dry, brittle, dirty and dusty. They’ve been cut apart and are placed on the scanner one page at a time. The volunteer checks the computer screen to make sure the page is centered and in focus on the scanner then hits the space bar to capture the picture.

Rensch periodically uploads a group of completed titles to the Newspapers.com server for digitizing and hosting on its website. It is expected to take nine months to a year to get all 50,000 pages processed.

A page of the Weekly Messenger appears on a computer screen, ready for scanning by the Franklin County Historical Society-Kittochtinny through Newspapers.com’s Paper Preservation Project.

A key feature of the agreement is that access to all the Franklin County papers on Newspapers.com is included in FCHS-K’s annual $25 membership fee, Rensch said.

Members and others can learn more about the project when he speaks about it at the monthly membership meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday, May 26, at the Grove Family Library, 101 Ragged Edge Road South, Chambersburg.

Shawn Hardy is a reporter with Gannett's Franklin County newspapers in south-central Pennsylvania — the Echo Pilot in Greencastle, The Record Herald in Waynesboro and the Public Opinion in Chambersburg. She has more than 35 years of journalism experience. Reach her at shardy@gannett.com