A Revealing Interview With Advantage Preservation’s COO Jeff Kiley

I started focusing on newspaper research several years ago, after I discovered that for genealogy purposes, old newspapers could give me interesting information about my ancestors’ life stories that I had no other way to discover.

What I also found was that historic newspaper research was not a mainstay research tool for the majority of genealogy and family history researchers.  Hence the beginning of this website, The Ancestor Hunt, an attempt to provide tools and techniques, and lists of links to historic newspaper collections available online.

Jump ahead to these past 2 years.  I have focused on providing (and updating frequently) a gigantic list of links to historic newspaper collections that are free to browse and search online.

Over these past two years, I have discovered a company headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  In updating my link lists, it was apparent that the Advantage Preservation company was publishing a rapidly increasing number of collections, working with libraries, historical societies, and similar institutions who were interested in preserving their community newspapers and providing them to their patrons online.  In fact, it appears that their collections are growing in size as fast or faster than any other collection or set of collections in the U.S. This piqued my interest.

I recently contacted Jeff Kiley, the Chief Operating Officer of the Advantage Preservation company, and asked him several questions.  The results of the interview follow.

1. Hello, Jeff.  Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. Could you provide a short history of the Advantage Preservation company and its mission?

For many years, I had been working in the online historical newspaper business and was looking for a new opportunity, as was much of my staff and my executive team.

There was a company here in Cedar Rapids that I had a great deal of respect for. The Advantage Companies had been around since 2003 and had a wonderful reputation not only for records management and storage but also a very strong team of information management professionals and imaging specialists. A member of the Advantage management team, with whom I had an existing relationship, saw an opportunity. He arranged for a meeting between the owner Paul Eganhouse, a key partner, and myself. It didn’t take long at all for us to recognize the similarities between our goals, and that we actually shared a very similar mission: “To protect documents, and make them easily accessible”. By changing one word, the mission became “To preserve documents, and make them easily accessible”. My team moved into their 80,000 sq ft secure records management facility….and Advantage Preservation was born.

2. I know that preserving and providing online newspaper collections record “the first rough draft of history.” This, of course, is very important for community libraries and historical societies.  You seem to be adding online collections at quite a rapid rate.  To what do you attribute this increase in activity?

The communities, publishers, and libraries deserve 100% of the credit for this. We merely provide the means in which they can make sure their own history is preserved and accessible.  We believe that the preservation of a community’s history is a shared responsibility. By bringing together strategic community partners, we are able to accomplish our mutual goals much more effectively. We collaborate with the community publisher, libraries, historical societies, and other interested institutions to develop a plan, and then engage local community businesses to assist with funding. This is primarily done via existing partnerships with the local library foundations and support with programs like the Friends Of The Library, or other community donor networks. This approach has been met with enthusiastic participation and it has been really rewarding for all of us. 

And as an aside, I would like to thank you, Ken, for becoming an evangelist for all of the free newspaper archives available online. Whether Advantage is involved or not, I am a cheerleader for all of these projects. Each and every one of these institutions needs to be applauded, and you do a great job of giving their efforts some much-needed recognition and exposure.

3. Recently I read about a very interesting project that you are doing with the State of Iowa, where ultimately 12 million additional historical newspaper pages will be added to the more than 100 collections that you already have made available in the state. Please tell us briefly about the project.

We work with nearly 1300 libraries in 37 states and over 500 cities, and every one of those relationships is incredibly important to us. The current initiative in Iowa is no more or less important than those outside of the state, but I have to admit, it does feel a little more personal. We are an Iowa company owned and operated by Iowans. Many of us (myself included) were born and raised here, and we are raising our children here. We are extremely honored to be actively involved in preserving our OWN history. It is the same pride I hope others feel when their community comes together to preserve their history.

Over the past 7 years, we have provided our services at no cost to the State Historical Society Of Iowa, and this new chapter in our relationship provides us with access to the physical materials in their collection. This will allow us to ensure that each community’s archive is as complete as possible and that the best available source material has been preserved to microfilm. It is an extensive undertaking, to say the least.  The State has two large collections of bound newspaper volumes and a collection of microfilm stored in our facility.  This will need to be cross-referenced, and evaluated against preservation or digital projects we have done for Iowa libraries and publishers directly. Not to mention any private collections, projects performed by other vendors, at-risk materials, materials of inferior quality, materials not filmed to standards, damage or defects within current collections, and missing materials that are known to have existed but do not exist in any of the collections available. We have our work cut out for us.

The 12M pages referenced in some of the articles written about this project only represent the estimated number of pages yet to be preserved to microfilm. Once filmed, the reels will be added to the state’s collection. This collection is currently comprised of more than 24 million pages from more than 650 statewide titles on more than 44,000 rolls of microfilm. With help and permission from the rights holders, we hope to be able to aggregate the majority of this content into a consolidated collection of Iowa newspapers that can be shared by the libraries across the state, and make it available in every classroom as a resource for Iowa’s students. 

4. I am interested in the history and educational “bent” of this project. It sounds to me that just like genealogists in the past were not making use of historic newspapers, that maybe historians, educators, and students should add historic newspaper research to their research repertoire. Do you agree?

You and your followers have known for a long time how incredibly valuable old newspapers can be in your research. The birth announcements, obituaries, and almost every significant event of one’s life in between are recorded in those pages. My team has always believed that old newspapers can “connect the dots” in a way no other medium can.  

The motivation that drives genealogists is pretty cut and dry: We want to know more about where we came from. What better way to understand the generations before us, then to understand the era in which they lived? Not only can we learn about our ancestors, but we can also learn from them. We can see through their eyes the way certain events impacted and shaped their community, and how that community reacted to those events. When you read stories in the days and weeks before and after a “moment” it can place them in context. The articles, ads, and editorials from that day, can provide new perspective. This is “history as it happened” and by reading people’s accounts using their own words, terminology, phrasing, and verbiage of the time, we can better understand our past, and connect with it in a very meaningful way.

The Executive Director of the Iowa Museum Association, Cynthia Sweet spoke to this in a very eloquent way when she was asked about our IA History Project:  “The Advantage Company’s Iowa History project to microfilm, digitize, and make available Iowa’s newspapers to schools, libraries, and museums at no charge to the state, offers an opportunity to engage Iowans of all ages in the joy of research and discovery. Through research and the process of understanding past events, valuable 21st-century skills are developed such as critical thinking, independent thinking, the judgment of the accuracy and reliability of sources, analysis of conflicting evidence, awareness of multiple perspectives, interpretation, and communication. The Iowa Museum Association celebrates projects such as this, that provide historical resources to Iowans of all ages through their schools, museums, and libraries.”

5. In reviewing your collections online, it looks like you are changing the software’s user interface.  It was always easy to use and the changes seem to be maintaining that element. I know that you are in a competitive business environment and may not want the world to know just yet, but is there anything upcoming that you can tell us about? 

This isn’t an easy question to answer, because our list of future releases is literally 4 pages long as it stands today…and it continues to grow. Some will be imperceptible to the end-user. Some will be performance-based. Some will add more functionality. All of them will roll out as completed, one at a time… over the course of the next few weeks, months, and years. We purposefully don’t make large-scale changes or announce “product releases”, we just make small feature upgrades that are rolled out to our 500+ client sites as they are developed. Some of the stuff going on “behind the scenes” is much more impactful than some of the client-facing features being released, but there is always “something” being worked on. Yes, we would like to be able to spend the money on graphic artists, UX engineers, content managers, and teams of product engineers working on “what is next”, but we spread out our resources in a more holistic approach that also includes preservation and archival storage. 

We have created our Community History Archive platforms to serve as a practical means to explore and discover content, nothing more and nothing less. When we started building these online archives, we were focused on making them as simple as possible so anyone can use them. It is intended as a way to unlock content that was previously only accessible on microfilm, within the library, and not searchable in any practical way. We have tried not to concern ourselves with the “bells and whistles” or “cutting edge” features meant to attract subscribers or retain memberships. The content is the product, not the delivery method…but we do want an archive that the community is proud of, so we will continue to improve the aesthetic as time and resources allow…as long as they don’t interfere or distract us from our core values.

By focusing on small incremental changes, our platform continues to evolve at a pace which keeps our expenses at a reasonable level. This has been key to everything we do….simple, sustainable, and affordable. We know full well the painful condition and trends of budgets in our city, county, and state libraries… and we are extremely conscious of the fact that one of the hardest-hit areas has been in newspaper and historical preservation services.  Every decision we make in design and development is geared to ensuring we have a cost-effective solution to stretch what money is available.

6. Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you would like to share with us?

It is all about microfilm….

Microfilm is at the heart of everything we do. Digitization alone offers amazing access, but we believe microfilming is a necessity for the preservation process, and digitization is just a piece of a bigger puzzle. 

As technology advances, we can always go back to the film and re-digitize the images to whatever the “new cutting edge” image format is. Just take a minute to think about the advances we have seen in the last 50 years alone.  I am not just talking about storage technology becoming obsolete as floppy disks and CDs have, but even the way we consume digital content. The changes are exponential from decade to decade. The iPhone in my pocket has more computing power than the $16M Cray 2 supercomputer had in 1985. Where will digital technology be 50 years from now? We are not “chasing” the highest quality digital image that technology can provide today…because it WILL become obsolete. When it comes to our digital product, we strive to strike the perfect balance between value, volume, and quality. None of these factors can become more important than the other when considering digitization.  We will always be improving our online platform but will be doing so in the most pragmatic cost-effective manner possible.

That being said, we will make no such “compromises” when it comes to the preservation of the newspaper content. Their value and volume are clearly secondary and tertiary concerns behind the quality and care of the microfilm. Without well-preserved content on archival quality film, what source material will we have to digitize from in the future? 500 years from now, a simple candle and a magnifying glass will be all the technology one needs to view this content if properly preserved. 

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Thanks to Jeff Kiley, for his time and for letting us know a bit more about the Advantage Preservation Company. For readers who are interested in the free online collections that Advantage Preservation provides, check out my recently updated list of links – Search 45 Million Historic U.S. Newspaper Pages from Advantage Preservation for Free!

And for links to other U.S. online historical newspapers available to search for free online, check out the Newspaper Research Links page.

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