Posted 10:15 a.m. Monday, Aug. 17, 2020

David Mindel, Murphy Library digital collections librarian, left, and Jeff Janvrin, a Mississippi River Habitat Specialist in Fisheries Management with the Wisconsin DNR in La Crosse, stand among the many boxes brought to archive at the library. Mindel has scanned over 1,000 documents, histories, charts and images — more than 26,000 pages — that are now online and being used throughout the world. Read more →

Newly digitized library takes Upper Mississippi reports worldwide

For decades, Upper Mississippi River scientists have conducted stimulating research only to see it placed in a room at a laboratory in Onalaska, Wisconsin. Now with help from librarians at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Murphy Library that work is going viral.

UWL Murphy Library staff are still scanning materials brought to the library in a truckload last August. So far they’ve scanned, cataloged and put online more than 26,000 pages of material and over 400 photographs. Those numbers will continue to grow with this multi-year project. Once online, items are full-text searchable and will no doubt get hits from throughout the world.

“These materials were not easily accessible before and are now open and accessible to all who, in many cases, didn’t even know the materials existed,” says David Mindel. He’s the Murphy Library digital collections librarian who specializes in the digitization of cultural heritage materials.

Once the materials are cataloged by William Doering, a systems and metadata librarian, they are then digitized, ingested and stored on UWL servers, a process overseen by Mindel. At that point, the items are freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection. “It will become a standing, go-to research source,” Mindel predicts. “It’s intellectually valuable material pertinent to the Upper Mississippi River and beyond.”

Information dates back decades

The materials being scanned at Murphy Library date back to the mid-1940s, with the formation of the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee (UMRCC). Scientists, researchers and Fish and Wildlife staff from five Mississippi River states — Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin — began cooperatively working together to take part in fishery investigations. After success with that early cooperative work, the committee added those from law enforcement, water quality, wildlife, mussels, recreation and education.

Over the years, the UMRCC’s studies and records became a library housed at a variety of locations up and down the river, eventually settling on the lab in Onalaska. Some members utilized the library, but to others it remained unknown. Then in the late ’90s, usage dropped off with heavier reliance on the internet. 

UMRCC members quickly realized that for its library to continue documenting the history of Mississippi River management and contribute to future decisions, it needed to be digitally accessible — permanently. They considered donating the materials to several institutions, focusing on those with a connection to the Mississippi River; with an easily accessible digital collection; and in a community frequently visited by Mississippi River managers, biologists and researchers. UW-La Crosse’s Murphy Library met all criteria.

The collection is diverse, with letters, publications, notes, maps and even raw data. Some materials are more than 100 years old. And to the UMRCC, one of the most important sub-collections are the proceedings of its annual meetings, held since 1944. 

UW-La Crosse Murphy Library Digital Collections Librarian David Mindel, left and Wisconsin DNR Mississippi River Habitat Specialist Jeff Janvrin display a 1982 map showing Mississippi River Pool 18 depth near Louisa County in Iowa. Materials like this are being scanned and put online through the library’s website.

Jeff Janvrin, a Mississippi River Habitat Specialist in Fisheries Management with the Wisconsin DNR in La Crosse, says it’s appropriate for the UMRCC’s 75th annual meeting to be held in La Crosse March 19-21 as the new online library is kicked off. The UMRCC Executive Board Chair-elect says the proceedings represent more than the 75-year history of the organization. 

“They also present a story about our 75-year growth in understanding the natural resources of the Mississippi River and how this knowledge and partnership has led to management actions,” Janvrin explains.

The online UMRCC Library will benefit Mississippi River scientists and researchers seeking hard-to-find, older documents, Janvrin says. And the site provides the ability to search for individual words, a benefit because many holdings are “gray literature” —comprised of annual reports and study findings not published in peer-reviewed journals. 

“This gray literature often laid the foundation of future studies or initiatives that led to published journals and/or management decisions,” Janvrin notes.

Vast collection for more than scientists

Along with the researchers, the collection is for anyone with an interest in the Mississippi or other large rivers worldwide. “It is not just a collection of scientific publications about water quality, fish, wildlife and freshwater mussels,” explains Janvrin. “It also includes many historical documents related to management of the Mississippi River for recreation, navigation, historic preservation and the vitality of river communities.”

For instance, the collection has stories of people who spent their careers working, and at times fighting, to make the Mississippi River healthy, productive and scenic — stories often not readily available. The stories unfold detailing conflict, controversy, cooperation and comradery evolved over the past 75-plus years. Many are previously untold stories about people who worked for one of the five states or federal agencies, like the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey.

Janvrin says a recent review of some of the first documents digitized caught his eye — a letter written by Grace Gordon, whose father had worked at the Homer, Minnesota, federal fish hatchery in the early 1900s. The hatchery closed in 1952 and although her letter is dated 1973, it is full of vivid memories and observations. 

“Her letter gave life and personality to several decades of activity at the hatchery,” says Janvrin. “She described living and playing on the hatchery grounds, the hatcheries connection to the pearl button industry, and the people who worked there and neighbors. It is documents like these that provide a glimpse into the lives of people whose shoes the managers and biologists of today now fill.”

Management of the Mississippi River — “Father of Waters” — takes more than an understanding of how its watershed and floodplain interact to provide a home to thousands of different species, notes Janvrin.

“It also takes an understanding of how humans have interacted with it both through our physical alterations, but also the politics and dreams that brought on those changes,” he notes. “While the UMRCC’s library does not contain everything written about the river, it does reveal some of the science, dreams and actions that continue to be the foundation of our organization, the UMRCC.”

Scanner, software has local ties too

While the documents being scanned have deep roots to the region, the machine making the online library possible does too.

Indus International Inc., which formed in 1986 when NRC Corp. closed operations in West Salem, Wisconsin, is the only overhead book scanner manufactured in the U.S. Other scanners available are imported from Japan, France, Germany and a few other European countries.

UW-La Crosse Murphy Library Digital Collections Librarian David Mindel demonstrates how materials are scanned to be digitized for online access through the library’s website. The Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee (UMRCC) is unveiling the website at their 75th anniversary conference in La Crosse March 19-20.

Ameen Ayoob, president of Indus, met Mindel in 2013 when an older Indus scanner at UWL needed to be serviced. The connection proved important years later when Mindel learned the size and scope of the UMRCC collection. Mindel determined a large format scanner designed for production environments was needed.

Ayoob wanted Murphy Library to have its top-of-the-one BookScanner 9000, but knew Mindel had a limited budget. So, Indus donated a third of the cost, with the other two-thirds split by UMRCC and UWL.

For Ayoob, the donation was a simple decision. “The most important objective for us was the preservation and distribution of vital records that are so important for various groups of people,” he explains.

Ayoob points out that he was working with a library on one of the Caribbean Islands where archivists were hoping to digitize books and materials from the 1500s. While the archivists were working to fund an Indus scanner, Hurricane Irma hit and destroyed nearly all the buildings on the island. “This just tells you how valuable records can be destroyed if not preserved,” he notes.

A second company, The ResCarta Foundation, previously located in Onalaska, also has ties to the project. Mindel has worked closely with the foundation’s director, John Sarnowski, for several years requesting custom features to their open-source digital collections software, called ResCarta.

It allows Mindel to preserve and make accessible the UMRCC materials while keeping within the limited resources available because the software is free.

Find the collection here. Look for sub-collection “Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee”