The yellowing, fragile pages are chocked full of information, but because of their delicate state the Forest Park Historical Society has been unable to display its copies of the village’s oldest newspaper. The Harlem Post, a weekly publication printed between 1886 and 1903, sits bound and dusty in a basement room of the public library alongside dozens of other artifacts collected over the years.
“If I had a room large enough, I could display so much stuff it would knock your socks off,” society President Rich Vitton said.
Thanks to a grant-funded program that’s actually part of a nationwide effort, historians will soon have almost unfettered access to the pages of the old Post. Vitton recently handed off his collection to the Chicago History Museum so it can be transferred to microfilm. Archivists there are working with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on behalf of the Illinois Newspaper Project, which is part of the U.S. Newspaper Program. Once filmed, residents statewide can view the pages of any newspaper through interlibrary lending.
The process for the Forest Park paper is expected to take six months to a year. Filming the pages isn’t necessarily complicated, according to cataloguer Josh Mabe, who has been working on this project for some 18 months, but there’s a backlog of work to be done. For his part, Mabe said the most difficult task has been tracking down old collections.
“That is really the largest part of the project,” Mabe said. “Just getting an idea of what’s in the state, newspaper wise.”
The newspaper’s title refers to the village’s original name, Harlem. The town was renamed Forest Park in 1907 when it was discovered that Illinois already had a Harlem.
Before he handed over his copies to the Chicago History Museum, Vitton peeked at the front page of the first issue and saw a story on the Harlem Maennerchor and Damenchor. The singing and social group still exists in Forest Park. But, said Vitton, he was unable to understand much of the story because the Harlem Post was printed in a German dialect native to the area’s immigrant families.
Hopefully, said Vitton, it will be easier to have the paper translated once he can make it widely available.
“It’s too old and brittle for people to thumb through,” Vitton said. “That’s why I was so happy to be part of this project.”
According to Mabe, the effort is winding down and the Post is one of the last papers to be identified. A Web site maintained by the university lists 208 Illinois titles so far that have been filmed. As for the medium of choice, the Forest Park Historical Society does not currently have a machine on which to view microfiche, and the technology certainly is not new.
The advantages though, said Mabe, are that a microfiche reader can be easily obtained and access to the information isn’t at the mercy of digital equipment.
“You’d be surprised, most libraries and public research institutions still have them,” Mabe said of microfiche readers. “It’s the most stable way to save something.”
Electronic files created only a decade ago can be difficult to view because of constant upgrades, he said.