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Amateur Beats Gov't at Digitizing Newspapers: Tom Tryniski’s Weird, Wonderful Website

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One computer expert working alone has built a historic
newspaper site
that’s orders of magnitude bigger and more
popular than one
created by a federal bureaucracy with millions of dollars to spend.
Armed only with a few PCs and a cheap microfilm scanner, Tom
Tryniski has played David to the Library of Congress’ Goliath.

Tryniski’s site, which he created in his living room in upstate
New York, has grown into one of the largest historic newspaper
databases in the world, with 22 million newspaper pages. By
contrast, the Library of Congress’ historic newspaper site,
, has 5 million newspaper pages on its site while
costing taxpayers about $3 per page.[*] In
January, visitors to
accessed just over 6 million pages while Chronicling
 pulled fewer than 3 million views.

Fourteen years ago, Tryniski, a retired engineer, launched his
website after a friend loaned him a collection of old postcards of
Fulton, New York, the town where he’s lived all his life. He
decided to scan and share them online with his neighbors.

Fulton fell on hard times in the mid-1970s, and Tryniski is
nostalgic for the thriving factory town in which he grew up. He
relishes in particular the small details of life in old
Fulton—wedding announcements, obituaries, school events, society
gossip—the sort of information that’s the bread and butter of local
newspapers. So after the postcards, he digitized the entire
run of the Oswego Valley
, which is the paper of record for Fulton and its
surrounding county. It took about a year to finish scanning by hand
the entire run of the paper, which began publishing in 1946.
really got going in 2003, when Tryniski, a high school graduate,
bought a scanner that handles microfilm for $3500 in a fire sale.
That meant he didn’t need access to the original newspaper copies
and he could work quickly because microfilm scanners are largely
automated. He installed a keyword recognition program, set up a
network of PCs to do the heavy processing, and began uploading his
scans to a server that’s located in a gazebo on his front deck. He
never bothered to change the original name of his website.

Tryniski pays all expenses for the site himself. The only
significant costs are bandwidth, for which he pays $630 per month,
and hard drives, which run him about $200 per month. He gets his
microfilm at no cost from small libraries and historical societies.
In exchange, he gives them a copy of all the scanned images
analyzed for keyword recognition. Most of the papers Tryniski has
digitized are from New York, but
he’s rapidly expanding his coverage to other states as well. He is
adding new content at a rate of about a quarter-million pages per
month with no plans to slow down.

The biggest digital newspaper site on the Internet is the
with 130 million pages.,
a subsidiary of genealogy-titan,
has 34 million newspaper pages. Both companies have approached
Tryniski with partnership deals, but he turned them down in order
to keep his site free.

“I think it’s just fascinating that technology has made it
possible for a guy in a house with a server to create a pretty cool
experience,” says Brian Hansen, the general manager of Ancestry’s

, the Library of Congress site, is financed by the
National Endowment for the Humanities
. To date, the NEH has spent just over $22 million on the
site. A major reason for the sky-high price tag is that the NEH
breaks up the money into tiny grants to individual libraries and
historical societies, instead of simply paying the Library of
Congress directly to complete the job. So far, the NEH has awarded
72 grants worth about $300,000 each. Each award recipient is
responsible for digitizing about 100,000 newspaper pages. The
majority of grant recipients hire a company called iArchives, Inc., a subsidiary of,
to do the actual scanning and analysis.

Hansen, who is also the general manager of iArchives, Inc., says if the
Library of Congress hired his company to do the job in bulk he
could offer a better rate.

Asked for the rationale behind this byzantine system, a
spokesperson for the NEH denied that breaking up the funding into
small grants drives up costs, adding that the goal is partially to
teach small libraries how to digitize newspapers in accordance with
the Library of Congress’ “high technical” standards. That way
they’ll be able to take that know-how and apply it to other

But Hansen says the Library of Congress’ detailed specifications
for analyzing each newspaper page are of questionable value to
users and a major reason his firm has to charge so much.

“Why not use the money for a lighter index to get more pages
online? It would be interesting to sit down with the Library of
Congress and the NEH and have a conversation about what’s the best
thing we can do for consumers,” says Hansen.

Even so, less than one-third of the funding goes to the actual
scanning and indexing by firms like iArchives. The NEH says the
remaining money—more than $2 per newspaper page— goes for
“identification and selection of the files to be digitized,
metadata creation, cataloguing, reviewing files for quality
control, and scholarship on the scope, content and significance on
each digitized newspaper title, and in some cases specialized
language expertise.”

Another competitor of Tryniski’s is the Brooklyn Public Library,
which maintains a
free online database
of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In
its heyday as the paper of record for America’s third largest
, the Daily Eagle was among the most widely read
and influential newspapers in the nation. Poet Walt Whitman wrote
more than 800 items for the paper and served as its editor from
1846 to 1848. During the Civil War, the Daily Eagle had
the largest circulation of any evening paper in the United

The Brooklyn Public Library spent two years and about $400,000
dollars digitizing just the first 62 years of the Daily
‘s run, which comes to about 150,000 pages. (A little
more than half the funding was provided by a federal grant.) That
was back in 2003. For the last decade, the library has been trying
to raise money to finish the job.

In the meantime, Tom Tryniski digitized the entire 115-year run
of the newspaper, which amounts to almost 750,000 pages.

In its
January 2013 strategic plan
, the Brooklyn Public Library
promises that it will finish digitizing the Daily Eagle
(along with 63 Brooklyn community newspapers) by 2015. In an
interview, Library Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan said the
institution hasn’t raised any money yet towards that goal, but that
it will be a major priority once other “monstrous projects” are out
of the way.

Librarian Joy Holland, who oversees the
Brooklyn Public Library’s Daily Eagle site
, says she’s
“immensely grateful” for what Tryniski has done, and directs
researchers to the site all the time. She also thinks the library’s
site, while far more limited is scope, is “more suitable for use in
educational environments.”

The site has fewer keyword recognition
errors than,
and for casual users, it’s easier to search.
also has a bizarre interface that includes swimming fish and the
occasional live video stream of squirrels eating corn on Tryniski’s
front deck. Perhaps the strangest detail is a moving graphic in the
left hand corner of the screen that shows Tryniski’s head grafted
on top of the body of a spider.

Tryniski, who has never altered the site’s original graphic
design, says he’s emphasizing content over style.

“I could spend all my time on the interface, or I could spend my
time on the digitization and data processing,” says Tryniski. “Once
you hit the search button the interface disappears and you get to
see the newspapers.”

Tryniski’s had discussions with the New York State Library to donate
his archive eventually, but talks have stalled. He gets emails all
the time from users sharing discoveries they’ve made on his site
and thanking him for making it all possible.

“I just get a lot of satisfaction helping people find
information,” says Tryniski. “It’s just really nice looking back in
time and reading about what was going on.”

Video written, produced, shot and edited by Jim Epstein, who
also narrates.

Approximately 5 minutes.

Scroll down for downloadable versions and subscribe to Reason TV’s YouTube
to receive automatic updates when new material goes

[*]: About 2 million pages that the NEH has
awarded grants for haven’t yet made it online, so the $3 per page
estimate was arrived at by dividing $22 million (total grant
funding as of 2012) by 7,271,000 pages (total paid for by grants as
of 2012).


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