14 Decades of an Episcopal ‘Family Album’

Tomorrow: A review of Vol. 1, No. 1 — November 2, 1878

By Kirk Petersen

The Living Church has been published continuously since 1878. The February 19, 2023 issue, in which this article first appeared, is the 7,017th. Decades before anybody alive today was born, the proprietors of TLC started collecting the issues into bound volumes. In the past few years, we’ve been working toward making those historical issues available to the public (and for that matter, to our geographically distributed editorial team).

“It is really like a time travel opportunity,” said Mitzi Budde, head librarian at Virginia Theological Seminary, which in some early decades did a better job of maintaining TLC collections than did the magazine. The collections allow “people to just step into the life of the church at that time and place and to see what The Living Church was describing and saying about what church life was like, what the theological questions were, what churchmanship was like.”

“I’m passionate about getting these old issues online because I think of The Living Church as the Episcopal Church’s family album,” said Editor Mark Michael, who began working on the digitization project two years ago. “Our issues document the big ideas and crucial stories, but there’s an awful lot of everyday church life in them — churches dedicating stained-glass windows or launching new chapters of the Brotherhood of St. Andrew; creative mission projects; obituaries of leaders long forgotten by the world, but remembered by God.”

In the 14 decades of TLC’s existence, editors have shown varying levels of commitment to maintaining archives. TLC has thousands of copies, but hundreds of the early issues were missing. Michael launched the project with a systematic search to track down copies of the missing issues. He found more than 900 issues at VTS, and a few dozen more at Nashotah House in Wisconsin. Both seminaries agreed to loan us what they had, to be scanned by a vendor specializing in preserving old manuscripts.

The early stage of the project was supported by a grant from the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church, which enabled the magazine to hire William Hargrave as a summer intern. Hargrave helped organize the collection and began scanning. In the past two years, he and various staff members have hand-scanned 2,419 of the issues we own.

“I think the Historical Society understood, when we voted to fund this, this was going to be something of interest to historians generally, the church at large, and that it was valuable in and of itself,” said Dr. J. Michael Utzinger, president of HSEC and a professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.

Utzinger specializes in religious movements of the late 1950s and 1960s, and has reviewed TLC issues from 1956 to 1964. “The one thing I’ll say about Episcopalians that The Living Church shows in spades,” he said, “is that we air everything out in the news, right? We’re just not afraid to put our dirty laundry out where everyone can see it.”

As an example, in 1958, schools in parts of Virginia closed rather than obeying federal orders to desegregate. Episcopal churches in Norfolk and Charlottesville grappled with whether they were willing to use their facilities to provide classroom space. Different churches came to different conclusions, and the arguments were reflected in the pages of TLC. For a historian, “all of those things are important pieces to the puzzle,” Utzinger said.

A $90,000 scanner

Optical character recognition (OCR) technology has advanced to the point that it’s not just possible, but also economically feasible, to create a searchable digital document from an image of words printed on a page. This can be done at high speed for new and recent books, by machines that turn the pages automatically and capture image after image without human supervision.

You know how when you photocopy a page from a book, sometimes you have to push down really hard so the book lies flat enough to capture the entire page?

You don’t want to do that with a century-old manuscript of yellowed paper. If it’s an old, bound document, you don’t even want to lay it face down, to avoid stress on the deteriorating glue in the spine.

Using a high-speed machine with fragile originals can turn an irreplaceable artifact into “historical confetti,” said Alfredo Ignacio, director of digital services at Progressive Technology Federal Systems (PTFS).

“The industry has really made huge advancements over digitization of fragile rare copies of materials,” said David Buresh, a digitization professional. Buresh is working with Budde on the TLC project as part of his studies toward a master’s degree in library science at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

TLC has selected Maryland-based PTFS, which has been a vendor for the federal government since the 1990s, to scan the issues on loan from VTS and Nashotah. Among many other services, PTFS specializes in digitizing old documents without damaging the originals.

“Having worked for so long with these kinds of materials, we basically developed a very nuanced skill set with them,” Ignacio said.

The primary tool PTFS uses to digitize old manuscripts is an i2s CopiBook V-Shape Scanner, model V-A1 XD — a $90,000-plus device with two high-resolution cameras pointing down at a V-shaped cradle. For each pair of facing pages, a clear, V-shaped cover is carefully lowered by hand to flatten the manuscript, and digital images are captured through the glass. The device can also be used for individual pieces of paper.

For each image, the camera also records metadata, including the name of the publication, volume number, issue number, date, and a variety of technical specifications.

“Once indexing is completed, we then go through the process of creating the Adobe PDF file and adding the OCR layer of hidden text, to make it full-text searchable,” Ignacio said. “We then do a quality assurance, and then make sure that the file and the outputs are in the correct file structure, the right naming convention.” The quality assurance involves adjusting factors like lighting, contrast, and resolution.

In other words, there’s a lot of complicated stuff, and trained operators are required. Still, the cost is more modest than you might expect: about 50 cents per page. But that starts to add up if you’re scanning tens of thousands of pages.

Technological change has affected how the magazine has been printed, stored, and — in recent decades — digitized. To save storage space, some magazines were transferred to microfilm — an older technology that archivists will contend with for decades to come.

Many of the back issues are available at livingchurch.org — look for “Archive” on the bottom left of the homepage. But the collection there is frustratingly incomplete, and the issues are a patchwork of PDFs and links to Google Books.

Google Books is an ambitious digitization project that the tech giant launched in 2004, with the goal of scanning every book in the world. Copyright litigation followed. The project is largely moribund now, but over a decade ago, Richard Mammana Jr., who was then on the Living Church Foundation’s board, filed individual copyright waivers for thousands of issues.

The reproduction quality of the Google Books volumes is poor compared to the PDFs, and the interface for reading them is awful. Multiple issues are lumped together into PDFs that are hundreds of pages long. The only way to navigate is by scrolling, and they’re housed on Google servers, with no guarantee they will remain. But they are searchable, and generally legible. The online archive search tool on the TLC site will perform a universal search of all the available issues in either format, but it tends to miss references in the Google Books issues.

In parallel with the PTFS scanning effort, Michael has been scanning issues donated by the Diocese of Maryland that span some of the years of the Google Books volumes. He’s filling the gaps by methodically downloading the Google Books volumes and breaking them into PDFs for individual issues, which we then will house on our servers. That will make it easier to browse individual issues, but the poor reproduction quality for the Google Books issues will remain the same.

Some of the earliest issues at VTS are available only on microfilm. Because the microfilm issues are high quality, they can be scanned directly on PTFS’s Eclipse 400 NextStar Plus work station, at about a third of the cost per page.

Charges from PTFS for the next phase of scanning total about $15,000, which is a tidy sum for a small nonprofit like TLC. We’re looking for additional grants to cover the cost.

When this phase is complete, we’ll still be missing four issues — one each from 1896 and 1898, and two from 1905. If you have a box full of your great-grandparents’ old issues in the attic, we’d love to hear from you.


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