Decades of the Light now available online

St. Louis Jewish Light Digital Archives

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The past is meeting the future at the St. Louis Jewish Light, where, for the time in its history, the paper’s full archives will be available online, with fully searchable pages and stories.

“Anything that appeared in the paper is there and it appears just as it did in the paper,” said Gary Kodner, a past Light board president who co-chaired the Jewish Light Archives project with Michael Newmark, also a past Light president.

The archives, which includes not just articles but also lifecycle announcements and even advertisements, is being offered through Newspapers.com, which boasts well over 300 million pages of material from more than 5,500 publications dating back as far as the 1700s. The Jewish Light’s history stretches back seven decades to its forerunner paper the St. Louis Light, which premiered in February 1947. Starting out as a house organ of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, it became an independent entity in 1963.

Kodner said the idea for digitizing the paper’s back issues began four years ago when the newspaper celebrated the  50th anniversary of the paper’s as an independent news organization. But progress was slow due to logistical and financial hurdles.

“We were really bogged down on it,” Kodner recalled. “It was really frustrating on how we were going to do the technology and how we were going to afford it.”

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The newspaper secured initial funding from several generous donors to help move the project forward, and Kodner turned to a resource he had previously used for genealogical and baseball-related research: Newspapers.com.

“These guys used more contemporary automated techniques and got the project done,” he noted. 

Tom Wombacher, director of operations for the Jewish Light, said the paper made use of microfilm as well as physical copies from its records to supply the website.

“Fortunately, they were able to take the bound archives that we have, unbind them, scan them and then rebind them to send them back to us,” he said.

The Light also had indexed electronic website files dating back to around 2006. However, making the rest of the paper’s archive searchable required help from Newspapers.com, which scanned decades of newspaper pages—currently more than 65,500 pages are avalable online—and used special optical character recognition technology to allow users to search the text of those scanned pages.

Kodner said that people might discover more than they thought by using the search function.

“It is somewhat contagious when you sit down and first look,” he said. “I’ve even had a couple people say  ‘Oh, I’ve only been in the Jewish Light a couple times.’ You’d be surprised. Do a search.”

Articles in the archive can now be located with keyword searches and the website allows users to digitally “clip” a part of a page and save it or even share it on social media platforms.

“The Light’s new digital archives are easy to use, relatively inexpensive and provide a treasure trove of useful information,” said Light Board of Trustees President Steve Gallant. “The archives will allow people to investigate and preserve their Jewish history for generations to come.”

Light Editor Ellen Futterman said the archives help to further the paper’s mission to connect and engage the community. 

“It’s exciting to think that children can learn so much about their grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents from the archives, and families can have a better understanding of their past.”

Access to the Newspaper.com archive entails a charge. Various plans are available with the most basic arrangement starting at $7.95 a month. Wombacher said some of that revenue is shared with the Jewish Light

While Kodner said that the archive would be a boon for genealogists or history buffs in the area, the most important thing is simply that the paper’s irreplaceable work has been preserved so that it cannot be destroyed by a disaster or accident.

“A couple of years ago, we had a flood in the Jewish Light offices,” he said. “Fortunately, none of our old archives got destroyed but what if they had been before they were digitized and saved in the cloud?”

Wombacher agrees, saying that it increases the services the paper provides.

“It augments what the Jewish Light offers,” he said. “News is always new. What we are offering now is history. This becomes an encyclopedia for everything Jewish in St. Louis. That’s very significant.”

The Jewish Light Archives can be accessed at stljewishlight.com/archives.