In 1893, Charles P. Ehr died of consumption at age 25 in Lewiston.
Adults Services Librarian Tawnee Calhoun found that information, in seconds, for someone who called the Portage Public Library in search of Ehr’s obituary.
She searched his name in the library’s new digitized newspaper collection online, which arrived courtesy of Ancestry.com. Calhoun found the obituary in the archived Feb. 8, 1893 edition of the Portage Daily Democrat.
“Without the service,” Calhoun said of not needing to sift through reels of microfilm, “it would have taken me a lot longer.”
Ancestry provided the library with a free subscription to its newspaper archive when the library agreed to submit to the company all of its microfilm and hard copies of Portage newspapers. Ancestry pays for all of the postage and insurance and returns the items to the library when the archiving is completed.
Ancestry created a collection for the library that gives patrons access to more than 500,000 pages of six Portage and Portage-area papers, including 470,000 pages of the Portage Daily Register — from 1886 to present.
The link — accessible on any public computer in the library or any device that uses the library’s WiFi connection, even from the parking lot — is portagepubliclibrary.newspapers.com/welcome.
Other papers in the collection include Portage Daily Democrat — 1886-1912; The Wisconsin State Register — 1861-1942; Portage Weekly Democrat — 1892-1894; River Times of Fort Winnebago — 1850-1853; and The Independent — 1855-1857.
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Library patrons can access the company’s entire collection that’s otherwise available to subscribers and that currently includes 568 million pages from more than 16,000 newspapers. The company adds millions of pages to its collection every month, receiving permission from the entities that hold their rights, including the Daily Register.
“Talk about, ‘Wow,’” Library Director Debbie Bird said of how quickly Calhoun found Ehr’s obituary. “It’s a remarkable piece of technology that costs us nothing.”
Bird and Teen Services and Technology Coordinator Chris Baker said the library will continue to help Ancestry update its collection and on Wednesday submitted 20 boxes of Daily Register editions from 2010 to 2016 to help Ancestry round out what’s still missing.
“The search feature is very intuitive in looking through old, grainy newspapers to locate and highlight these words,” Baker said. “Newspapers use all different fonts and type sizes. Sometimes they’re fanciful and stylized and sometimes they’re straightforward, but regardless of that, the search feature locates them almost immediately. It finds them wherever they are, in the body of the (article) itself, in the headlines or in the photo captions.”
After the library staff or its patrons find what they’re searching for, they can clip it, save it, print it or email it to anyone in the world, Baker said.
The service is especially useful for patrons doing historical and genealogical research, Bird said.
“Historical searching in Portage seems to be a very popular activity and more so than I’ve ever seen in the other libraries I’ve worked in... I think that popularity has to do with the historical nature of our town,” Bird said. “The people who live here are very proud of that history.”
Baker said the Wisconsin Historical Society lists Portage as the state’s 10th oldest city — 1828 — and the third oldest settlement.
“I think this service is sort of the perfect marriage of modern technology preserving the past: Looking to the future but never forgetting the past,” Baker said of what’s already been used by members of Portage Area Genealogists, who meet at the library at 1 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of every month. “For the people who were already using our microfilm, I think this is a game-changer.”
Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.