Amateur Beats Gov't at Digitizing Newspapers: Tom Tryniski’s Weird, Wonderful Website

A retiree with a scanner builds one of the world's largest historic newspaper sites while tax-funded projects stall.

One computer expert working alone has built a historic newspaper site that's orders of magnitude bigger and more popular than one created by a federal bureaucracy with millions of dollars to spend. Armed only with a few PCs and a cheap microfilm scanner, Tom Tryniski has played David to the Library of Congress’ Goliath.

Tryniski's site, which he created in his living room in upstate New York, has grown into one of the largest historic newspaper databases in the world, with 22 million newspaper pages. By contrast, the Library of Congress' historic newspaper site, Chronicling America, has 5 million newspaper pages on its site while costing taxpayers about $3 per page.[*] In January, visitors to Fultonhistory.com accessed just over 6 million pages while Chronicling America pulled fewer than 3 million views.

Fourteen years ago, Tryniski, a retired engineer, launched his website after a friend loaned him a collection of old postcards of Fulton, New York, the town where he's lived all his life. He decided to scan and share them online with his neighbors.

Fulton fell on hard times in the mid-1970s, and Tryniski is nostalgic for the thriving factory town in which he grew up. He relishes in particular the small details of life in old Fulton—wedding announcements, obituaries, school events, society gossip—the sort of information that's the bread and butter of local newspapers.A postcard of old Fulton, NY from Tom Tryniski's website. So after the postcards, he digitized the entire run of the Oswego Valley News, which is the paper of record for Fulton and its surrounding county. It took about a year to finish scanning by hand the entire run of the paper, which began publishing in 1946.

Fultonhistory.com really got going in 2003, when Tryniski, a high school graduate, bought a scanner that handles microfilm for $3500 in a fire sale. That meant he didn't need access to the original newspaper copies and he could work quickly because microfilm scanners are largely automated. He installed a keyword recognition program, set up a network of PCs to do the heavy processing, and began uploading his scans to a server that's located in a gazebo on his front deck. He never bothered to change the original name of his website.

Tryniski pays all expenses for the site himself. The only significant costs are bandwidth, for which he pays $630 per month, and hard drives, which run him about $200 per month. He gets his microfilm at no cost from small libraries and historical societies. In exchange, he gives them a copy of all the scanned images analyzed for keyword recognition. Most of the papers Tryniski has digitized are from Tryniski keeps his server in a gazebo on his front deck.New York, but he’s rapidly expanding his coverage to other states as well. He is adding new content at a rate of about a quarter-million pages per month with no plans to slow down.

The biggest digital newspaper site on the Internet is the for-profit Newspaperarchive.com, with 130 million pages. Newspapers.com, a subsidiary of genealogy-titan Ancestry.com, has 34 million newspaper pages. Both companies have approached Tryniski with partnership deals, but he turned them down in order to keep his site free.

"I think it's just fascinating that technology has made it possible for a guy in a house with a server to create a pretty cool experience," says Brian Hansen, the general manager of Ancestry's Newspapers.com.

Chronicling America, the Library of Congress site, is financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). To date, the NEH has spent just over $22 million on the site. A major reason for the sky-high price tag is that the NEH breaks up the money into tiny grants to individual libraries and historical societies, instead of simply paying the Library of Congress directly to complete the job. So far, the NEH has awarded 72 grants worth about $300,000 each. Each award recipient is responsible for digitizing about 100,000 newspaper pages. The majority of grant recipients hire a company called iArchives, Inc., a subsidiary of Ancestry.com, to do the actual scanning and analysis.

Hansen, who is also the general manager of iArchives, Inc., says if the Library of Congress hired his company to do the job in bulk he could offer a better rate.

Asked for the rationale behind this byzantine system, a spokesperson for the NEH denied that breaking up the funding into small grants drives up costs, adding that the goal is partially to teach small libraries how to digitize newspapers in accordance with the Library of Congress' "high technical" standards. That way they’ll be able to take that know-how and apply it to other projects.

But Hansen says the Library of Congress' detailed specifications for analyzing each newspaper page are of questionable value to users and a major reason his firm has to charge so much.The Brooklyn Daily Eagle: Once among the most influential newspapers in the U.S.

"Why not use the money for a lighter index to get more pages online? It would be interesting to sit down with the Library of Congress and the NEH and have a conversation about what's the best thing we can do for consumers," says Hansen.

Even so, less than one-third of the funding goes to the actual scanning and indexing by firms like iArchives. The NEH says the remaining money—more than $2 per newspaper page— goes for "identification and selection of the files to be digitized, metadata creation, cataloguing, reviewing files for quality control, and scholarship on the scope, content and significance on each digitized newspaper title, and in some cases specialized language expertise."

Another competitor of Tryniski's is the Brooklyn Public Library, which maintains a free online database of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In its heyday as the paper of record for America’s third largest city, the Daily Eagle was among the most widely read and influential newspapers in the nation. Poet Walt Whitman wrote more than 800 items for the paper and served as its editor from 1846 to 1848. During the Civil War, the Daily Eagle had the largest circulation of any evening paper in the United States.

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  • fried wylie||

    which he created in his living room in upstate New York

    Because, with the internet, that matters at all.

  • Brandon||

    Well, the fact that he has managed to survive in the hellish post-apocalyptic landscape of upstate New York and avoid being killed in a crossfire by Bloomberg's private army is commendable.

  • fried wylie||

    Fair Enough.

  • fried wylie||

    a friend loaned him a collection of old postcards of Fulton, New York, the town where he's lived all his life. He decided to scan and share them online with his neighbors.

    How many separate copyright violations is that?

  • SugarFree||

    Depends on how old they were.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    This must be a hoax. Nobody could do this but the government.

  • fried wylie||

    Not legally, at least.

  • phandaal||

    Somebody ought to inform the post office! When they're done suing Lance Armstrong, they can get the rest of their budget shortfall from this guy.

  • $park¥||

    "Why not use the money for a lighter index to get more pages online? It would be interesting to sit down with the Library of Congress and the NEH and have a conversation about what's the best thing we can do for consumers,"

    Oh, I'm sure it would be quite interesting.

  • lap83||

    you beat me to it

    him: "What would be the best thing we can do for consumers?"

    them: "What is this 'consumer' you keep mentioning? Sounds like right-wing extremist talk. You stay right there, sir, until the Homeland Security officer gets here."

  • OldMexican||

    One computer expert working alone has built a historic newspaper site that's orders of magnitude bigger and more popular than one created by a federal bureaucracy with millions of dollars to spend.


    But the government can still build ROADZ because, well, the market is not willing to do that. Everybody knows that.

  • Soda||

    Yeah! He didn't build that!

  • OldMexican||

    "Why not use the money for a lighter index to get more pages online? It would be interesting to sit down with the Library of Congress and the NEH and have a conversation about what's the best thing we can do for consumers," says Hansen.


    Psst, hey! Hansen! This is government we're talking about here. Government. There are no consumers to speak about, just saps that pay for it.

  • sarcasmic||

    I'm sure that the people who build the website are not allowed to even consider interaction with the people who actually use it.
    My guess is that there is a special government committee that meets once a month to decide what to add to the site. All work must be authorized by the committee. Any work that is not authorized must be undone. So those millions of dollars go to pay people to sit around and wait for the committee to give them something to do.

    At least that's how my "job" works anyway.

  • Cyto||

    I've experienced this in the business world. Sometimes when you have really smart people who have nobody in authority over them they can't get out of their own way. One of the owners of my last employer was just such a man. He was so smart that he kept thinking up new hypothetical problems and then new solutions for the hypothetical problem to add to our development projects.

    The net result was that the requirements kept changing right before we were ready to deploy, so nothing ever got deployed. Once he changed our scope every week for 60 consecutive weeks, then complained loudly to the board that we hadn't finished his project in over a year. So I trotted out 60 signed off work orders with changes of scope. He and the board agreed that they didn't want excuses, they expected results.

    And now you know why they pissed away a billion dollar company. And you also know where I learned my new business strategy - never work for crazy people.

  • Juice||

    Yes, but his website's layout is god awful and I mean the worst.

  • Slocum||

    The intro screen is silly, yes -- but the search results page works just fine. It's a bit ugly, but perfectly functional.

  • BrooklynBrett||

    This is literally the worst website I have ever look at or tried to use.

  • eyeroller||

    In the interest of accuracy, the site is not "orders of magnitude bigger and more popular".

    An order of magnitude is a factor of 10. Two orders of magnitude is a factor of 100.

    It looks like this site is about four times bigger and twice as popular.

  • Aresen||

    In general, orders of magnitude are measured in powers of 10.

    But powers of 2 can be used.

    So can 31.6 (Richter scale)

    So can 2.5 (stellar magnitudes)

  • chorizo||

    Gaaaahhhh!!! My eyes!!! It's missing an "Under Construction" GIF and a flying toaster or two. The fish are a nice touch.

  • Aresen||

    Yeah, cool graphics are what we want. Forget about information.

  • LemonMender||

    I wish someone he could get the funding to get a decent search function and the bandwidth to go with higher resolution images. Some nineteenth-century newspapers routinely set entire pages in 5-to-6-point type and his scans of those are too low-res to read.

    I've used this site many times in the past and search and navigation are really difficult. It's a great resource but painful to look at and hard to browse through.

    But that said, he has content that is simply inaccessible anywhere else and he's making it available free of charge. So my hat is off to him. And even if it has problems, I'm not convinced a well-funded government-run alternative would actually look or function any better.

  • mad libertarian guy||

    But that said, he has content that is simply inaccessible anywhere else and he's making it available free of charge. So my hat is off to him. And even if it has problems, I'm not convinced a well-funded government-run alternative would actually look or function any better.

    The proof is in the pudding. A very well funded government alternative isn't anywhere near as good.

    But I'd be that a reasonably funded private alternative that was designed to serve a specific purpose, rather than simply an archive of some sort, would fucking rule.

    What this site needs is an editor (think digital editions of manuscripts and the like - they are useful not because they contain pictures of said manuscripts, but because they are edited to serve a specific function).

  • MDS||

    How does Reason think up the subjects for their video? I could never have come up with the idea to do a video on this guy...

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    my neighbor's aunt makes $87 every hour on the computer. She has been without work for eight months but last month her pay was $13473 just working on the computer for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more http://www.wow92.com

  • lucasw908||

    Lauren. although Johnny`s comment is neat... last monday I got a gorgeous Lancia after having made $8137 this-past/month an would you believe $10 thousand this past-month. this is certainly the most financially rewarding I've ever done. I started this seven months/ago and practically straight away made more than $75, per hour. I use this web-site,
    http://qr.net/ka6n

  • DeanL||

    ProQuest has 2.2 billion pages in microfilm and 125 billion digital pages going back 500 years. So, the numbers in this article are chump change.
    http://www.proquest.com/

    Unfortunately, the company I work for was too stupid to leverage this and the industrial scanners made by another division. So our moron former CEO tried to split off that part of the company and failed spectacularly. They are lucky to still be in business.

  • juliabraon||

    If you think Marjorie`s story is super..., 5 weeks ago my brothers friend who's a single mum basically got $4440 workin a thirteen hour week from home and there roomate's sister-in-law`s neighbour has been doing this for nine months and earnt more than $4440 part-time On there computer. apply the steps on this web-site...

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  • rachelpool4||

    my classmate's sister makes $89 an hour on the laptop. She has been out of work for 9 months but last month her paycheck was $21878 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Here's the site to read more
    http://jump30.com

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