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Library at Illinois
working to preserve 125 years of agricultural history
Lynn, Humanities Editor
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Page by page, America’s rich agricultural history is being ravaged,
not by boll weevils, not by locusts, not by critters of any kind, but
However, librarians at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
are engaged in a fierce battle to save hundreds of aged publications
– the core history and literature on Illinois agriculture, as
they see it.
Their weapon? Microfilm – miles of it. More than a century of
endangered materials have accumulated and are in dire need of reclamation.
The yellow, brittle, torn and in some cases disintegrating materials
Illinois has targeted for reincarnation by microfilming were published
between 1820 and 1945, and include 450 journals, 550 dissertations and
theses and 650 books, said Joseph Zumalt, project manager of the preservation
project and assistant Agricultural,
Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) librarian at Illinois.
The vast majority of targeted titles will be drawn from Illinois’
main stacks and from its agriculture library, the Isaac Funk Family
Library, Zumalt said. Eventually records for all of the microfilmed
materials will be posted to the Web.
The funds for Illinois’ preservation project came from a long-term
National Endowment for the Humanities grant that is administered by
Cornell University – "the lead dog on this massive undertaking,"
Cornell, on behalf of the U.S. Agricultural Information Network (USAIN),
and in cooperation with a growing consortium of land grant universities,
has received five large NEH grants over 10 years to preserve the most
significant published materials on the history of state and local agriculture
and rural life. The grant is titled "Preserving the History of
U.S. Agriculture and Rural Life."
The U. of I. Library won NEH
funding to participate in the USAIN grant two years ago. Its first task,
to find the printed historic agriculture literature of the state of
Illinois, took Zumalt and students hundreds of hours of searching using
online catalogs and print biographies. Next, three U. of I. professors
emeriti, James Evans, Lowell Hill and Robert Spitze, reviewed the materials
and determined which of them were the most important and relevant, Zumalt
Some of the titles that made the cut: "A Glance at Illinois, Her
Lands and Their Comparative Value" by A. Campbell, published in
1856; "Transactions of the Illinois State Agricultural Society,
with Reports from County Agricultural Societies and Kindred Associations,"
1870; "History of Hybrid Corn," a 1940 pamphlet published
by the Funk Brothers Seed Co. of Bloomington on the occasion of "the
25th anniversary of the hybrid seed crop at Funk Farms, birthplace of
commercial hybrid corn."
With the selection process now nearly completed, the U. of I. Library
soon will begin the next phase, the microfilming, thanks to a second
NEH grant, which it received in June.
Within weeks graduate students from Illinois’ library school will
begin rounding up the targeted materials and preparing them for microfilming,
which will be carried out by OCLC Digital Collection and Preservation
Services in Bethlehem, Pa.
Three "generations" of microfilm will be made, said Tom Teper,
head of preservation at the U. of I. Library: a camera master, a print
master and a service copy.
The camera master is the original copy, "direct from the camera
and the copy of last resort, that is, never to be touched again unless
absolutely necessary," Teper said.
The print master is the negative from which all future copies are made;
two negatives are made and stored at separate locations.
"The service copies are what folks use, and they are meant to be
consumed," Teper said, adding that if this model is followed, "and
if the camera master is stored at proper temperatures, it should last
between 500 and 1,000 years."
Teper said that a facility located in a cave near Boyers, Pa., has the
right environment for preserving microfilm and is frequently used for
storing camera masters. The site, he said, "was designed during
the Cold War to protect valuable records in the event of a nuclear war."
Illinois has several claims for participating in the preservation project,
said Robert "Pat" Allen, a co-project investigator of the
Illinois preservation project, along with Sharon Clark, U. of I. newspaper
It became a state in 1818, and by 1860 was the country’s leading
producer of corn, wheat and agricultural machinery. Cyrus Hall McCormick
established his reaper factory in Chicago in 1847, the same year blacksmith
John Deere opened his steel plow factory in Moline, said Allen, the
In this fertile milieu, 94 agricultural societies sprouted up in Illinois
by 1858, many of them turning out "significant agricultural publications"
for Illinois farmers, Allen said.
The Library’s January 1884 issue of The Farmers Advance, subtitled
"devoted to Mechanical and General Agricultural Improvement"
and published by the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., not only illustrates
the clout of machinery companies on the rich prairie, but also "why
this project is so necessary," Zumalt said.
The newspaper is extremely brittle; sentences at the fold are in shreds.
Still, one can read the lead column, above the fold: "To our farming
friends, We wish the readers of The Farmers Advance a Happy New Year
… with freedom from all the cyclones, floods, tornadoes and other
disasters which have conspired to make 1883 long to be remembered as
a year of calamities throughout the world, without a parallel in modern
The paper ran several full pages of ads in its January issue for a wide
range of consumer items, including The Tally Counter, "which is
held in the hand to count cattle, railroad ties, cedar posts or any
object"; and the "Papillon Skin Cure," made of "genuine
oil cake, indispensable for keeping young stock growing and in a thriving
condition, as it will keep their hair slick and glossy."