Why devote national resources to something that was not originally intended to be kept longer than the time it took to print the next issue?
In his 1999 response to an award granted by the Heritage Lottery Fund for the purpose of digitizing U.K. newspapers, Chris Smith, the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, had this to say:
“Newspapers have been called history’s first draft. The conservation of our stock of local newspapers, much of it suffering from acidity and thus difficult to handle, is incredibly important because it forms a considerable part of our nation’s archives.”¹
As one of the first mass produced means of communication, historical newspapers offer a wealth of information and insight into past events valuable to researchers across fields. Local papers, especially those of small communities, are records of political, social, cultural, and economic development and decline. Following are just a few examples of the types of information found in newspapers:
- Advertisements of goods and services offered by local businesses
- Political commentary of legislation, political figures, and elections
- Detailed accounts of events, e.g. disasters, social gatherings and celebrations
- Letters to the editor: what concerns were people having at that time
- Public notices, e.g. unclaimed mail, emergency notification and instruction, and delinquent taxes
- Obituaries: often the only source of detailed information on a person’s life in those times
*A note on what historical newspapers do not do: provide a full record of the human experience by largely ignoring or selectively representing minority populations, often in an unfavorable light.
The concept behind Chronicling America is access. To have this wealth of information preserved is only one aspect of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). The webpage Chronicling America (chroniclingamerica.lov.gov), run by the Library of Congress, ensures that the public will be able to access the fruit of the NDNP’s digital labor 24/7. Currently there are over 12 million pages of U.S. historical newspapers digitized on Chronicling America ready to be used for everything from searching consumer and fashion trends, to tracking weather history and climate change, to inspiring projects like Freedom on the Move.² By implementing optical character recognition (OCR), these digitized pages are text-searchable, making it an extremely useful resource for researchers and educators.
While newspapers may be considered the first draft, they are still an important source of unique historical information, a chorus of voices reflecting the concerns and opinions of communities, many of which have otherwise not survived the sands of time. Their preservation is in part the preservation of not only local, but national heritage and through this they can serve as tools of education and instruction for future generations.
¹ J. Secker, “Newspapers and historical research: a study of historians and custodians in Wales” (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Wales, 1999), 17. http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/17693
² Freedom on the Move is a joint project between Cornell University, the University of New Orleans, and the University of Alabama focused on creating a database comprised of all runaway slave ads printed in historical newspapers throughout the South for the purpose of making this information accessible for analysis and education. For more on this project visit http://freedomonthemove.org/
For Part I of this post visit What is the National Digital Newspaper Program (Part I)