A wealth of history at your fingers

Published 9:18 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2017

In the short rows header

The Smithfield Times’ front page on Dec. 6, 1950 carried the announcement that the new Chevrolets would be on display that week.

Alongside that was a plea from the ministers of Smithfield that all organizations, both school and civic, reserve Thursday nights for church meetings. The brief story noted that recently, a number of organizations had been infringing upon the “church night.” It called on all organizations to cooperate with the churches in the future “since all three of them schedule their special meetings on this night.” (Apparently, the newspaper in 1950 only recognized three churches in town, though there were clearly more.)

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If you’re old enough, you know neither story was a joke.

The annual arrival of the new Fords, Chevrolets and Plymouths was eagerly awaited here each year and teenage boys went to great lengths to get a peek before the “official” unveiling.

And Thursday night was indeed “church night” or, later, “choir night,” and was not to be secularized.

But this column’s not about the new Chevrolets or church traditions in 1950. It’s about the source of the information — the Virginia Chronicle. A year and a half ago, we were faced with the dilemma that the Smithfield Library’s microfilm reader had died and that, as a result, local access to old Smithfield Times copies was interrupted.

You could still read the microfilm here at the paper or go to the Library of Virginia where a copy was available, but that was about it.

And the microfilm was not searchable. You had to know what you were looking for and have a reasonably good idea of when it was published in order to begin your search.

While debating what to do to bring old copies of the paper back into circulation, we learned of the Library of Virginia’s digitization project, in which the library was digitizing community newspapers from the microfilm that had been made years ago.

Microfilm for this newspaper records copies from as early as 1928, and Anne and I quickly bought into the project, seeing it as a step forward in connecting people with the history those copies provided.

The Smithfield Foods Foundation thought the project worthwhile and made a donation that, along with one from us, provided more than half the money needed to digitize the old papers. The Library of Virginia used grant funds to come up with the rest, and late last year, the whole batch of Smithfield Times papers, from 1928 through 2013, were added to the digital collection.

The digitization project has spectacularly increased access to Virginia history, as recorded in its local newspapers. Approximately 200 newspapers, some longstanding and some short-lived, are included from every region of Virginia, and The Smithfield Times stands proudly among them.

We included in the project everything that was on microfilm from 1928 through 2013. The papers since then are available in PDF form to our subscribers. In addition, we continue to microfilm all of our papers each year and continue to provide microfilm copies to the libraries, thus ensuring that, no matter what happens technologically in the future, the ongoing record of local history is safe and publicly available.

If you haven’t gone online and checked out the Virginia Chronicle site, you should spend some time doing so. You’ll be amazed what you can find. If you’re from Isle of Wight County, you can find your high school glass graduation reports, honor rolls, Boy Scout achievements and much, much more. Or, if you a serious student of local history, you can learn a great deal about the changes in the community through the decades.

We encourage you to take a look. You’ll find it at https://virginiachronicle.com/