Ya know, it happens all the time.
First you're skimming a newspaper to find out about ghost towns in Utah, and then you find yourself sucked into a story about a girl in Chicago seeing an orange horse with yellow eyes, a blue mane, gold teeth, black tongue and green tail and carrying a cleaver in its foot, which, of course, is shaped like a gorilla hand.
And, we're told, this horse is "absolutely not the scarlet one that haunted Evanston last February."
Happens all the time.
At least, it did for Chuck Flood, and it can for anyone else now, too. Flood, of Bainbridge Island, Wash., is among a growing number of people who have found interesting tidbits of time from newly digitized newspapers put online by the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library.
Twenty old Utah newspapers are part of the easily searched collection that soon will comprise nearly 136,000 pages of vintage news, features and advertising, mostly from rural weeklies before 1922.
For Flood, that horse story from the Sept. 17, 1915, edition of The Wasatch Wave is an example of the kind of oddball article he could stumble upon while fishing for info about ghost towns or mysterious airplane sightings in Utah.
"It's almost like eating peanuts," Flood said. "When I start looking around, even for a particular topic, I can't help but read the papers. It's just great reading about history and finding out about things. You start reading and, suddenly, there goes an hour."
For folks ready to sling themselves back in journalistic time, the Web site (accessible through www.lib.utah.edu/digital/unews or digitalnewspapers.org) serves as a desktop version of Mr. Peabody's Wayback Machine.
What's more, it's free, and it allows users to either browse or search for names or phrases or words.
"This is what the real promise is of this process and this technology," said John Herbert, director of the digitized newspapers project. "Anyone with an interest in Utah history and an Internet connection can do a search across our site, on any topic they want. And they will get as many hits as they can stand."
The project has been driven by federal grants. In 2001, the Marriott library received the first grant for $93,000 in Library Services and Technology Act federal funds. Matched by Marriott library funds, it allowed for digitizing of three newspapers — The Vernal Express, The Grand Valley Times and The Wasatch Wave — a project totaling about 30,000 pages.
Those papers were picked by the director of the library's special collections because they are in three different regions of the state and still exist today. They were available online late last year.
A second LSTA grant of $282,000 awarded to the Utah Academic Library Consortium expanded the project by 106,000 pages, with newspapers selected by a group of Utah historians. About 40,000 pages of the total are from the predecessors of the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, largely because the Weber County Library loaned the project hard copies of the newspaper and contributed project matching funds. Matching money for the second grant also was provided by the Murray City Library and the Grant County Library.
About half of the content from the second batch was digitized from hard copies culled from publishers' basements, public libraries and other folks with a stash of old editions.
The project has focused on pre-1922 newspapers because they are in the public domain — no copyright entanglements — although permission has been gained for some after that period. Early newspapers also were desired because they were facing worse deterioration, either from original paper editions or from microfilm, than their successors.
Lindon-based iArchives Inc. is doing most of the scanning and processing and then ships data to Seattle, where a company called DiMeMa Inc.'s software suite CONTENTdm is used to load the materials into a database that the library puts on its server.
When users start their search, they'll be provided with a list of pages and articles where their search terms can be found. Another click brings up a particular page or article.
DiMeMa, a University of Washington spin-off, creates a PDF file that has text, produced from optical character recognition, imbedded in the page images. Users pull up articles or pages and view the images in Adobe Acrobat. Using the "binoculars" on the toolbar, users can highlight particular search words on the images.
That search ability likely will be a godsend for researchers — genealogy, anyone? — compared with regional newspapers that often lack indexes, cannot be searched and require visiting because their microfilm or hard copies are in centralized locations where only one person at a time can scan them.
Herbert and Kenning Arlitsch, head of digital technologies for the Marriott Library, believe the project may be the first of its type at such a scale by a noncommercial entity.
"There have been a few other pilot projects around the country and the world, but they were very small and they gave up," Arlitsch said. "They couldn't figure out how to do it in a cost-effective way. When we started talking to iArchives and working with them and figured out how to integrate the content into CONTENTdm, we knew we were on to something. Getting full-text searchability, it really propelled us forward."
"There is so much demand for this and the need is so great, once we cracked through the technology, that was the key to the development," Herbert said.
Commercial firms put large newspaper archives online, but they can be accessed only through subscriptions. "We're out here with grant funding, doing this in the public sector," Hebert said.
Nonprofit organizations like libraries have undertaken similar projects, but they result in stand-alone products that can be used only for newspapers. The Marriott library project uses CONTENTdm, which it can apply to other digital collections like photos, books, maps, or video and audio.
The number of unique visits to the online collection jumped from about 23 a day to about 150 after some publicity in July. A national publicity campaign will start later. The future also will feature the Marriott library sharing what it has learned with other institutions across the country.
And the library is hoping to hear soon whether the Institute of Museum and Library Services will provide a third round of funding, which would result in a quarter-million more pages joining the existing online collection. Project officials also hope to someday aggregate search data with other groups that digitize daily or weekly newspapers and find other ways to extrapolate the program nationally.
That would please folks like Steve Diamond of Murray. The retired Salt Lake policeman serves as the department's historian and uses the collection to search for police department history and ancestral information about his father's family from Eureka.
"This was so keen," he said. "You get started and can't leave it alone. I'm up at night checking it and up in the morning checking it. It's a good source of information for me."
Diamond loves the user-friendliness of the collection. Without it, his Eureka research would require accessing files from the town's historical society. "This has saved me months and months and months, having it available on the computer," he said.
Flood, likewise, found the searchable repository "incredible."
Searches reveal that "something that was reported, seen or made news in one area of the country on a particular date, searching on the same topic reveals others. It's like putting a key in a lock to more information."
And, orange Chicago horses notwithstanding, the collection allows anyone to grab a glimpse of life years ago off of Utah's main highways, he said.
"I can sit here at 11 o'clock at night in Bainbridge Island, Wash., and find out a lot of interesting things about Utah."