MUSCATINE, Iowa — Lynn McCleary and other members of the Muscatine County Genealogical Society aren’t about to permit a brittle celluloid connection to Muscatine’s past to snap.
Hence the group’s $2,200 grant to the Musser Public Library — a gift that paid for replacing the library’s 44 oldest spools of Muscatine Journal microfilm, which dates back to the newspaper’s founding in 1840.
“People have a passion for learning about family history,” McCleary said Tuesday during a visit to the library, “and we’re passionate about preserving Muscatine history.”
Microfilm, which is stored on spools that contain page after page of historical documents, is more prone to tear as it ages, said Bobby Fiedler, the library’s assistant director.
“The microfilm is used a lot, and that’s when it starts to tear,” McCleary said. “Our concern is one day it will no longer be usable. It is a precious thing to have preserved.”
That won’t be a problem moving forward. Since 2010, the Journal has provided the library with a digital version of every page of each month’s newspaper — searchable by keyword.
In theory, those compact discs will last forever.
But for history before 2010, the library owns two machines that can scan microfilm, find the needed article or photograph, then snap a digital image of what’s needed, sending the image to a printer or a flash drive.
According to McCleary, the Society raises most of its money by selling copies of old Muscatine County Court probate records, which court officials don’t have storage capacity to keep.
Members of the Genealogical Society sorted and indexed the records — some 150 years old — and were given permission to sell the documents to interested family members.
Members have also volunteered to index the Journal’s birth, marriage and death records. The volunteers are particularly helpful to library patrons, Fiedler said, when they employ their research skills to find answers to people’s local history questions when library staff doesn’t have time — or are themselves stumped.
“They’re really good,” Fiedler said of the volunteers. “They have the time and the know-how to get it done. They’re a partner, and a really valuable one.”
“People are passionate about [having access to] genealogical services,” Fiedler added. “Of all the services we provide, those people are the most vocal proponents, and they’re really good at providing feedback. I have never heard a negative comment.”
McCleary cited this recent example of how her group works with library staff: she received an email forwarded to her by a staffer from a Frenchman who wanted to contact the surviving family members of a military man from Muscatine killed during World War II while fighting to liberate the man’s village.
McCleary was able to find a surviving niece and nephew — one in Oregon, the other in Illinois — but neither wished to be contacted by the man from France, who is working to build a small World War II museum and wished to use information on the Muscatine liberator.
“He was crushed,” McCleary said, “but we had to respect their wishes.”
She said she’s not sure what the Genealogical Society will do for an encore following its most recent gift.
“It took us quite a long time to raise the $2,200,” she said. “But we’ll think of something.”