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 by time.
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," Zumalt said.
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 said.
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 librarian.
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 ACES librarian.
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 times."
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."