Guest Columnist

Iowa history reaches a milestone

Timothy Walch is a member of the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board and was twice elected to the board of trustees of the State Historical Society of Iowa.
Timothy Walch is a member of the Iowa Historical Records Advisory Board and was twice elected to the board of trustees of the State Historical Society of Iowa.

‘The Written Word Endures” — that’s the motto of the National Archives in Washington DC. Those words came to mind recently when I learned that articles from the digital edition of The Annals of Iowa have been downloaded by researchers over a million times over the past five years. That’s quite an achievement for a publication intended for historians and other scholars.

Unfamiliar with The Annals? It’s a journal of scholarship published by the State Historical Society of Iowa. Since 1863, the SHSI staff has edited and published the best scholarship about the history of our state. SHSI continues to publish a printed edition of The Annals and distributes the journal quarterly by US mail to subscribers.

What changed, however, was the introduction of a digital edition of The Annals. Thanks to the generosity of the State Historical Society and the technical expertise of the University of Iowa, issues of the journal, with the exception of the current subscription year, have been made available online and searchable. This meant that researchers from all over the world could reach and read The Annals via the internet at any time of the day or night and without charge!

The response has been exceptional. The decision to go digital has meant that a scholar in London could quickly consult The Annals for an article on Herbert Hoover and at the same time a different researcher in Texas could read about the Iowa farm crisis of the 1920s. Imagine keyboards clicking all over the country and around the world learning about the history of Iowa.

If you’re curious, you too can access the digital edition of The Annals at ir.uiowa.edu/annals-of-iowa. A word of caution, however, Iowa historical research can be addictive!

In providing better access to a worldwide audience, SHSI learned about the relative importance of individual articles. The statistics indicate that there is a continuing interest in Iowa weather, crime, politics, broadcasting, the Ku Klux Klan, the Mormon trek, and even old houses among other topics.

And what article was the millionth download? “I can narrow it down to one of 311 articles,” notes Wendy Robertson of the University of Iowa. “One of those articles was downloaded 11 times between 5 p.m. Central time and the midnight cutoff for usage statistics!” A reasonable choice for the honor is a 1967 article on “Iowa Desperadoes Captured and Lynched in 1883.” So much for “Iowa Nice.”

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Congratulations and credit are due to Marvin Bergman, the longtime editor of The Annals and to all of the previous editors who worked so hard to produce this continuing stream of scholarship. And thanks to new technologies that allow The Annals to be shared with the rest of the world in perpetuity and without charge.

You can, of course, still subscribe to the print version of The Annals. That way, the most recent copy of the journal will be delivered to your home four times per year, and you’ll be supporting the important work that the journal represents.

A million downloads reaffirms the importance of Iowa history in general and The Annals in particular. The written word as reflected in these pages more than endures — it flourishes.

Timothy Walch is the director emeritus of the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch and a volunteer at the Iowa City Center of the State Historical Society of Iowa. His most recent book is “Irish Iowa.”

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