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Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers

The National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP) is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Library of Congress (LC), and state projects to provide enhanced access to UnitedLouisa Trott States newspapers published between 1836 and 1922. NEH awards support state projects to select and digitize historically significant titles that are aggregated and permanently maintained by the Library of Congress, and made available via Chronicling America.

To illustrate the need to digitize the nation’s newspaper archives, on September 10, 2015, Scott Abbott (MS/C&I ’78) spoke to students at the College of Communication and Information.  Abbott is known as the co-creator of the famous game Trivial Pursuit.  He described in detail the extensive process of collecting the thousands of trivia questions for the inaugural game. Think about it. No internet. No smartphones.  They had to use a number of sources to confirm facts, dates and events. They even had to make several direct phone calls to many people to get the final trivia questions collected.

In the past, these types of reNatasha Hollenbachsearch projects required considerable effort.  Often researchers had to go to multiple physical locations, especially libraries, and spend days looking through archived materials, such as microfilm of newspapers. Enter School of Information Sciences trained professionals. SIS alumni Louisa Trott (MS/IS ’16) at UT’s Hodges Library and Natasha Hollenbach (MS/IS ’11) at the Montana Historical Society, are both working on state level projects as a part of Chronicling America. The two had not met nor had a chance to compare notes until the two participated in a conference call on August 26, 2015.

Louisa is working with the Tennessee newspapers and Natasha is working through the Montana Historical Society to digitize newspapers from Montana and Idaho. NDNP currently encompasses work being done in 40 states for newspapers published between 1836 and 1922.  Why stop at 1922? All newspapers published prior to 1923 are in the public domain.

As Louisa and Natasha compared notes, they were quick to point out that the process and organizations involved vary by state.  In some cases, it is a historical society, while in others it is a state archive or library. For some states, many of the newspapers have already been archived to microfilm, however, the microfilm is sometimes owned by entities who may charge to license the microfilms, making it cost-prohibitive for some potential users. 

Tennessee is fortunate to own a large collection of microfilm as the state library began microfilming historical and current newspapers in the 1950s. The digitization process starts with the creation of a data spreadsheet listing all of the material on the microfilm. Even this first step is critical for accurately capturing high-quality metadata in order to ensure the material is discoverable, usable and valuable for users with broad interests.

There are several quality review steps built into the process. The digital images and metadata are reviewed at the state level and by the Library of Congress for the best possible researcher experience.

Each state is required to submit brief histories for each selected paper in order to provide historical context. At Tennessee, these essays are written by two journalism and electronic media professors.

Natasha actually worked on a project to digitize assets for ORNL while she was an SIS student, and did similar work at her hometown public library in Oak Ridge. Natasha creates blog posts about some of the more interesting stories she comes across in the process of digitizing the papers. Both Natasha and Louisa noted the number of people using the archives for genealogy research. The TV show “Who Do You Think You Are” and other popular culture icons are inspiring laypeople to search their local libraries and historical societies for archived material that will fill in the genealogical blanks beyond the census material.

Louisa and the Tennessee team has a Pinterest page where they post “a gallimaufry of curiosities snipped from historic Tennessee newspapers”.  Both are keeping their own personal folders of fun facts, oddities, issues and newspaper coverage of major significant events.

Political cartoons, headlines and photos contribute to the rich archive of information in the papers that provide a timeline of historical events for each state. However, the newspaper perspective can hardly be perceived as unbiased.  Newspapers have historically been characterized as being favorable to one political view or the other.  In the case of an event such as the Civil War, a newspaper in Memphis may have a very different account of an event as opposed to a newspaper in Knoxville. This juxtaposition of views in itself provides a rich field for researchers.

One issue that is emerging to the forefront as a result of the grant is the need for standardization of work processes.  Library of Congress has provided technical guidelines for the project that are rather detailed but are helping to establish best practices for the continuation of the newspaper digitization beyond the grant funding and for future projects with similar challenges.

Another research challenge that the project is addressing is the modern day perspective on historical events that in hindsight might have a very different view than what is captured at the moment in the newspaper articles.  An example is the single paragraph covering an event as major as the economic panic of 1893. It was only called “The Economic Panic of 1893” later. Having accurate metadata to fuel effective searches becomes a challenge and a necessity.

The project is a study in the cultural changes that have evolved over time. Both projects have been capturing the time period around World War I.  During that war, many papers would print letters soldiers sent home from Europe containing glowing reports of the war. They resembled travel journals rather than capturing the horrors of war.  In the present day of terrorism and espionage, soldiers would not think of disclosing details, fictitious or factual, about the location and particulars of their military activities.

The constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of the press is an undercurrent running parallel to the project.  The content available nationally through the Library of Congress offers the public free access to the material produced freely by the press. Natasha and Louisa are keenly aware that they are working on something with extremely important implications for the future.

Both agreed their NDNP experience relied on their SIS knowledge. In Louisa’s case, her NDNP knowledge contributed to her classes as real-time examples of the many theories and principles her classes covered.

Nearly 2,000 miles separate Natasha and Louisa; however, the distance has narrowed as the two SISers compared notes and shared similar experiences while independently working on different parts of the whole. They are the embodiment of the future of library and information sciences.  The work they are doing is helping to move information and information expertise beyond the containment of the library and archive walls and to make it more accessible and usable by the broader public.


Post script: Two College of Communication and Information professors (SIS’s college) wrote Inventing Custer: The Making of an American Legend. They found some of their research material for the book among the NDNP material already processed in Montana. They incorporated the assistance of a graduate student for some of the background research, a doctoral student with a focus on Information Sciences, of course!  For more information about the book, see