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History buff Alexi Giannoulias sees McLean County Museum of History's digitization efforts first-hand

 Two men in business attire lean over a table to look intently at a stack of photographs. A third onlooker smiles at the group.
Lauren Warnecke
Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, right, visited the McLean County Museum of History on Tuesday afternoon. Board member Mike Matejka, left, and librarian Bill Kemp, center, welcomed Giannoulias and showed artifacts from The Pantagraph Negatives Collection now housed on the Illinois Digital Archives' website. The Secretary of State office selected the museum for a grant of nearly $100,000 to go toward the project.

Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias visited the McLean County Museum of History on Tuesday afternoon to witness the results of an Illinois State Library grant in action.

Executive Director Julie Emig, archivist George Perkins, Director of Development Norris Porter and board member Mike Matejka led Giannoulias on a tour of the facility to showcase the museum’s collaboration with Illinois State Library by housing portions of its archive on the library’s website.

The Secretary of State has jurisdiction over the Illinois State Library and awards technology grants to projects promoting open access to information. McLean County Museum of History received nearly $100,000 to support its digitizing efforts.

“Coming here is really inspirational,” said Giannoulias. “I could not be more impressed with the museum; this place is really extraordinary.”

The McLean County Museum of History allocated the technology grant to The Pantagraph Negatives Collection. More than three million negatives dating as early as 1930 are housed at the museum, with the oldest kept in freezer storage to slow degradation.

“Our library staff and staff writ large have done an incredible amount of high-quality work to see that these negatives are preserved,” said Emig. “And frankly, the Pantagraph negatives—they’re beautiful aesthetically.”

In a conversation with Giannoulias, Kemp described a basketball game between Illinois State Normal University and UCLA on Dec. 21, 1940. The Redbirds defeated UCLA, for which Jackie Robinson played.

“Robinson doesn’t have a very good game—only four points,” Kemp said. “They didn’t publish any photographs of the game, but the Pantagraph sent a photographer.”

“No way,” said Giannoulias as Kemp presented photographs of Robinson guarding an Illinois State player. “I have goosebumps.”

These previously unpublished photos are just the tip of the iceberg. Freely available digital copies of approximately 130,000 images from 1930-1956 are now accessible through the Illinois Digital Archives. High-resolution images can be downloaded without a watermark for educators, journalists and researchers to use.

“The collection is a microcosm of the rest of the country,” said Emig. “It’s a window into life that provides a picture of how world and national events affect local citizens and the stories residents tell about their experiences.”

While the images are free to the public, the project is expensive to carry out.

“Every step is expensive,” said Emig, adding that the project has “screeched to a halt, because our funding streams have run out.”

Porter estimated the total cost of the Pantagraph Negatives Project to be over $3 million. The museum has spent $350,000 thus far.

Thus, a visit from the Secretary of State is partly a pitch as the museum seeks additional funding to fuel the next phase of the project.

“We’re victims of our own success, in a way. We’re one of 3% of museums nationally that are accredited. That means a high standard of everything we do,” said Emig. “Any help we can get to continue to provide quality programming and access to these documents using technology—we’re going to need some financial assistance.”

Giannoulias said McLean County Museum of History was “very deserving” of one of the larger technology grants awarded.

“We get a lot of requests, so it’s not an easy decision to make,” he said. “We do have limited resources, but this place is so remarkably unique that we wanted to make sure—we wanted to be additive and bring value.”

Crypto legal action

Tuesday morning, the Secretary of State’s Office also announced that Illinois is one of 10 states pursuing legal action against the crypto exchange platform known as Coinbase for allegedly violating securities laws.

The suit claims Coinbase skirted regulations requiring it to register stakings with state Securities Departments. Those filings are intended to help consumers evaluate risks.

Giannoulias declined to share specifics, but said the suit is "groundbreaking."

“My job as Secretary of State is to protect all investors, and all we’re saying is we want to make sure the disclosure statements for staking in crypto companies is the same for other investment companies.”

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong has previously stated that crypto should not follow the same rules for traditional currency. In a statement released on Twitter, Armstrong said Coinbase has attempted to register with the Securities Exchange Commission on multiple occasions.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.