Monday, January 09, 2006

Deep in the Microfilm the 1950s Still Live

The Thomas Ford Memorial Library got an interesting email a few days ago. Sian Brockhurst at the Rugeley Library in South Staffordshire, England is gathering information, documents, and photos about the Twin Towns relationship between Rugeley and Western Springs, Illinois for a display in her library. Of course, we volunteered to help. In the effort, I got out the 1956 microfilm of the Western Springs Citizen to see if I could find some original news reports from the time the relationship began. Because there is no index to the old newspaper, I started scrolling through the pages to see what I could find.

I find looking at old microfilm is like venturing into tar pits. I can hardly pull away. My eyes glue to the screen. My hand sticks to the film advance. Last Thursday I slowly scanned the pages and started reading the news.

Local News

The first big story I noticed was the plan for building the the local expressway, which now skirts the western edge of Western Springs. Nearly every front page for weeks had hand-drawn maps showing the path the expressway would take, the houses that would be removed, and the streets that would be divided. I thought these maps seemed crude, but much wanted information was disclosed. Readers were quite interested in the big development.

People also seemed to be very interested in local government. There were detailed disclosures of budgets, including a complete list of checks written by the local school district during the year. Every candidate running for local office was profiled. A map of voting districts was on the front page, as was a list of polling places. I do not think our current local newspapers cover elections nearly as well.

For weeks there was debate over fluoride in municipal water. Stories of polio and the campaign to inoculate the public were frequently reported. Civil defense training was big. The building of a shopping center also garnered numerous stories.

Citizens of Western Springs

While all of these news reports were interesting, I think I was more impressed by the volume of news about people in the Western Springs Citizen. I sometimes hear that people today feel a little threatened by the amount of personal information on the Internet. In 1956 there was a tremendous amount of such information in the weekly newspaper. Of course, there were announcements of births, engagements, marriages, and deaths, as you might find in today's paper, but to a greater degree. One wedding story listed everyone who came.

When a family had relatives visit, the Western Springs Citizen had a note. When families took vacations, the paper included that, too.

Each month there was a list of all the new residents with their addresses on the front page. Appointments, promotions, and other employment items were highlighted individually, often on the front page. Photos of all the new teachers at the local schools were in the late August issues. Another regular feature listed college students with the names of their schools, their fraternities and sororities, and their academic achievements.

Many reports on church activities made the front page. Times for services were listed, titles for sermons given, and elections of elders and deacons reported. Church picnics, building campaigns, and other activities often merited photos.

There were pages and pages of news from local clubs and organizations, much more than you find in today's newspapers. Programs at clubs were described. The Young Men's Business Club had track star Jesse Owens speak at an annual awards banquet. Foods served at club luncheons were reported. Even the craft projects at Brownie meetings were described.

The sports pages listed all the individual bowling league scores and standings. School sports were covered well, too.

The Library in 1956

1956 was an important year for the Thomas Ford Memorial Library. One story said that space in the basement was remodeled into a children's library. Lists of new books were printed, and the summer reading program was described. One director left to take another job and a veteran staff member was chosen as her replacement. Soon after the new librarian was appointed, the hours of operations were modified. In the 1950s, the library closed for two hours each day for the staff to go home for dinner.

Thoughts About the Old Newspaper

A lot has changed since 1956 in Western Springs (and everywhere else). The look of the Western Springs Citizen on the microfilm is closer to that of newspapers of the nineteenth century than to the current local papers. The pages were filled with small items and grainy photos. On the front page of the December 12, 1956 issue, I counted 32 items. The weekly issues also seem to have more pages with news content (not just ads) than the current papers. (Of course, the ads can also be interesting.)

How did the Citizen get so much news? Did it have a large team of reporters? I think the answer to the last question is "no" and "yes." No, the newspaper did not have many reporters on its payroll. Yes, many people in the community called the newspaper with every bit of news they had. They participated in the making of the newspaper. It really belonged spiritually to the community. Many people liked seeing their names and the names of their family members in the newspaper.

I have sometimes thought that it would be interesting to index the old newspapers - just sit down with the microfilm and a laptop and start entering names, dates, page numbers, and subject tags into a database. Having just looked through an entire year of a small local paper, I realize how monumental a job it would be. A project would have to involve some compromises, but how would anyone decide where to draw the line between important and not important details for indexing?

Unfortunately for us, the microfilm was made from old newspapers that were sometimes damaged. I do not believe any digital equipment could recapture all the data in a way that could be digitally searched. I could be wrong. I would like to be wrong. So much of the life of the community is still recorded on the old microfilms.

By the way, I had to continue into 1957 and 1959 to actually find the stories I sought, but I have no regrets. Reading the old microfilm was very interesting.

4 comments:

nyscof said...

Adding fluoride to drinking water is still politically controversial; but scientifically invalid.

Fluoride is neither a nutrient nor essential to healthy teeth. Fluoridatoin has proven to be ineffective, harmful and a waste of money.

For more inf:
www.FluorideAction.Net
www.orgsites.com/ny/nyscof

Jane said...

I can smell the research from here... Those small moments, surrounded by history and books were a driving force on my path to becoming a librarian.

Thanks for sharing all the great detail. Fabulous.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating to see you have been looking back through Western Springs Citizen archives from the 1950s.

I am doing family history research and have come across a 1959 article in the Rugeley Times (Rugeley was twinned with Western Springs in the 50s). The article describes a painting of fields outside Rugeley where a bypass was being built (the bypass was names Western Springs Road in honour of the twin). The painting was sent anonymously to the editor of the Western Springs Citizen, a Mr Karl Bell.

He was so impressed he asked the Rugeley Times to find the anonymous artist, who turned out to be my aunt. She is now elderly and I know it would please her to see a photo of her painting again.

Anyone know how to access the Citizen archives remotely, or whether the Citizen is still published, or whether the painting is still known? Any information at all gratefully received. Also contact me for a copy of the Rugeley Times article.

Email "rugeley at billysugger dot com".

jer said...

I lived in Western Springs during the 50's and delivered the Western Springs Citizen. How well I remember the construction of the expressway a few blocks from our house.
A wonderful and quaint village to reside and to spend your youth.