A man drives horses pulling weights during a draft horse pulling contest on Aug. 10, 1938. This photo and 37,000 others were restored from Pantagraph negatives now held by the McLean County Museum of History. A $250,000 federal grant will help pay for more preservation work, including the release of 50,000 more images. 

McLean County Museum of History will digitize another big batch of newspaper negatives and install hardware to preserve its million-plus collection after receiving a $250,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

"This is huge for us," said Adam Lovell, the museum's executive director. "We have seen there's lots of local support for this project, and now we've gotten national attention — and federal money — saying, 'We share your passion and agree this is an important project.' That makes us feel good."

The museum is attempting to restore and release about 70 years' worth of negatives shot by Pantagraph photographers, starting in the 1930s, after the paper donated them in 2012. The first group went online in early September through the Illinois Digital Archives.

"(This) project aligns with IMLS' strategic plan through the goal of increasing public access by supporting the stewardship of collections and investing in tools, technology and training to make those collections and resources available to people of all backgrounds and abilities," said communications specialist Erica Jaros of how the grant was awarded this week.

Lovell said it could be two years before the next batch is released, but the process will be similar — starting with moving boxes of negatives from the Bloomington museum to the New Jersey office of contractor Picturae, then adding relevant data locally before the photos go up on the state website.

To achieve that, the museum will continue to employ retired librarian Rochelly Gridley part-time and can now bring on another part-time person — or multiple people at an equivalent number of hours, said Lovell. Interns may also assist with the project.

Lovell is hopeful the next batch of negatives will include about 20,000 from the 1933 to 1944 period otherwise covered by the previous project that were not digitized because they're unusual sizes. The museum could finish its cellulose nitrate negatives — an early material that's very volatile — and move into cellulose acetate, or "safety film," for later projects.

Either way, the vinegar smell of decaying acetate could leave the museum galleries after a freezer is installed in the museum basement to help preserve the aging negatives. Lovell said that will happen some time after Jan. 1; the museum has work to do first.

"We're already talking to some different companies that specialize in that type of work, figuring out logistical hassles," he said. "The ideal install time would be while 50,000 of those negatives are out of the building. That means less to temporarily relocate while we put the freezer in place."

Lovell said IMLS even offered some tips for adding the freezer.

"Their notes said, 'This is very ambitious, but we're so glad you're taking the time to address the preservation aspect with the freezer,'" he said. "It's not as simple as 'freeze it' and 'take it out.' We need to be monitoring and controlling humidity in that space, and properly sealing the negatives before they go in."

The museum also plans to improve its computer servers to better store the digital files that result from the negatives.

Lovell said response to the published photos has been overwhelming. They're available at idaillinois.org/digital/collection/p16614coll35/search.

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Contact Derek Beigh at (309) 820-3234. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_beigh


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