Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 19
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
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Eagle Scout’s Service Project Preserves a Ten-Year Piece of Town Topics’ Past

Ellen Gilbert

Princeton High School senior Steven Fuchs didn’t clear a hiking trail, recycle old glasses, or build a birdhouse for his Eagle Scout service project. In a striking example of “the road not taken” (and with all due respect to those three worthy projects), he chose to digitize every issue of Town Topics published in its first ten years of existence.

This act of historic preservation was worthy in and of itself, as it put to rest the specter of relying on crumbling yellowed pages of newsprint for details about an interval in Princeton’s past. The project garnered considerable “value-added” substance, however, with the help of Steven’s father, Ira, who is vice president for Research in Information Technology at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; a founder of JSTOR, an online scholarly resource; and a member of the Princeton Public Library’s Board of Trustees. The result is a searchable database, with the ability to locate every Town Topics article written about Princeton’s most beloved resident, Albert Einstein, from 1946 until his death in 1955, as well as coverage about a young Princeton University athlete named Don Rumsfeld.

Steven notes that this “leadership service” project was a test of organizational skills, rather than a “hands-on” challenge. In carrying it out, scouts are required to enlist the aid of volunteers, teach them any required skills, coordinate all aspects of the endeavor, and oversee it to its successful completion. In Steven’s case, this meant the reproduction of some 8,000 pages of newspaper text that were scanned, assembly-line style, by parents, friends, teachers, and young volunteers.

As co-editor-in-chief of The Tower, Princeton High School’s newspaper, Steven, who will attend Princeton University in the fall, said that he was intrigued as he watched Town Topics evolve from an eight-page newsletter to a 32-page “real newspaper” in 1956. “Watching how much more creative it became — how they began to take chances — was exciting for me,” he said. Changes in the Princeton landscape became especially evident from this retrospective look at the town, he said, citing the many family-owned stores on Nassau Street documented by advertisements during the years covered by the project.

In a letter thanking Steven, Princeton Public Library Director Leslie Burger described his work as “a significant and long-lasting contribution to our community.” Noting the expense and other drawbacks associated with microfilm and microfiche, the traditional technologies used to preserve newspapers, she wrote that Steven’s digitization “will ultimately result in significant savings to the library.”

From start to finish, Steven says, the project took six months; he brought it in just before its due date, his 18th birthday last January. Still in test mode, the Town Topics newspaper database will eventually be made available through a server in the library. It is unclear whether subsequent years will also be digitized; Steven reported that his mother, Karen, has expressed interest in following up. As for Steven, he describes the project as “hard work,” but “definitely worth it.”

“Information is the currency of our economy both now and for the foreseeable future,” observed Ms. Burger in her letter. “Steven’s project will ensure that generations to come will have ready access to unique local information that provides the world with a window to our wonderful community.”

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