Digitization on a Dime: How a Small Library and a Big Team of Volunteers Digitized 15,000 Obituaries in Just Over a Year

The following chapter excerpt is from the first section of Digitization in the Real World; "Small is Beautiful: Planning and Implementing Digitization Projects with Limited Resources."  Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase online at Amazon.com.   

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Elisabeth Goldman (Kingston Frontenac Public Library)


In 2006 and 2007, Chelsea District Library, a small public library in Chelsea, Michigan, digitized a collection of 15,000 obituaries on a small budget by using a staff of nearly 50 volunteers and open source software. The author describes the research and planning that led up to the project; unique aspects of the staffing and technology for the project; and the resulting database, which contributed to the library being named “Best Small Library in America” for 2008 by Library Journal. The database continues to be updated, expanded, and improved, and the use of volunteers as the primary workforce has had long term rewards for the library. The chapter demonstrates the accessibility of digitization projects to libraries, even those without pre-existing expertise, large staffs, or big budgets. 

Introduction & Background

Especially in small towns, the public library may serve multiple roles as library, museum, archives, and community center. In many cases, libraries accept donations of rare or unique historical material from families in the area with little thought for long-term maintenance. Technological advances in the last few decades have given libraries new options for preserving local history collections and making them more accessible through digitization. While even the smallest libraries have staff educated in reference and circulation procedures, however, relevant training in archival methods and technology is rare, making the prospect of a digitization project overwhelming. At the same time, small public libraries often have little or no funding for such projects.

Chelsea District Library is a single-branch public library serving 14,000 people in southeast Michigan, about 50 miles west of Detroit. The library was established in 1932 by the local Women’s Club and, in 1999, became a district library system serving both the town of Chelsea (population 5,000) and surrounding townships. The earliest settlements in the Chelsea area date back to the 1830s and many local families can trace their roots back to the town’s founders, resulting in a rich history. From its earliest days, the library served as a repository for local historical and genealogical material, housing a local history room on the cramped third floor of the McKune House, its location from 1959-2000. In 2006, after extensive renovations and additions to the McKune House, the library moved from temporary quarters back to its historic home on Main Street in Chelsea, leading to renewed interest in the local history collection.

A collection of about 50,000 index cards known as the Family History Index made up a major component of the local history material. A retired lawyer and amateur genealogist named Harold Jones started the collection as a hobby, clipping obituaries from the local Chelsea Standard newspaper and other sources and pasting them onto 4 x 6 index cards, along with cross references that allow women to be located by maiden name. Upon his death in 1987, Jones’ family donated the collection to the library, where it received extensive use by local and visiting genealogists. Library staff and volunteers completed a project from 2000-2002 to clean up and update the collection, since then volunteers have continued adding new clippings.

As part of a planning process leading up to an election to fund an expansion of the building and the staff, the library identified local history as a priority for Chelsea area taxpayers and the Family History Index as a prime candidate for digitization work. At the time, the professional librarian staff consisted of the director, three department heads (adult services, youth services, technology services), and a part-time librarian, leaving few resources to focus on a project of this scope. In the spring of 2005, the library replaced the departing part-time librarian with a full-time librarian (the author), adding additional duties of managing the library’s website and digitizing the Family History Index.

This paper will describe how a librarian and a team of four dozen volunteers completed the digitization of 15,000 records from the Family History Index in just over a year, resulting in a highly usable database that helped Chelsea District Library earn its distinction of “Best Small Library in America” for 2008 from Library Journal and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The first section will describe preparation for the project, including research in archival standards and digitization techniques, as well as the recruitment and training of the volunteer workforce. Section two will describe the decision-making process that went into the choice of open source software in order to create a user-friendly, free database of the records on a limited budget, as well as the work of developing and testing the database itself. Section three will offer an overview of the workflow for staff and volunteers as they did data entry, scanning, and proofreading of the records. Finally, the paper will describe the resulting database, current upkeep and expansion, and how the project served as a model for additional digitization work.

Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase online at Amazon.com.


Chelsea District Library. (2009). Chelsea District Library Family History Index Online. Retrieved on Jun 30, 2010 from http://fh.chelsea.lib.mi.us/

Collaborative Digitization Program. (2008). Western States digital imaging best practices, version 2.0. Retrieved on March 31, 2010 from http://www.bcr.org/dps/cdp/best/wsdibp_v1.pdf

Michigan State University Libraries. (2005). The making of modern Michigan: Digitizing Michigan's hidden past. Retrieved March 15, 2010, from http://mmm.lib.msu.edu/.

Cornell University Library. (2010). Moving theory into practice digital imaging tutorial. Retrieved March 15, 2010, from http://www.library.cornell.edu/preservation/tutorial

National Information Standards Organization. (2007). A framework of guidance for building good digital collections. Retrieved March 15, 2010, http://framework.niso.org/