Features


All the news that’s fit to save

It’s only day one of the Senate hearings on whether the federal government should intervene to help resuscitate the flailing newspaper industry and even we’re sick of it already. Of course we love newspapers. We are absolutely despondent to think of their demise and desperate for their survival. But frankly, the doom and gloom? It’s exhausting.

The crisis hinges on a question of how to save papers from an imminent—and now rapidly unfolding—death. But then there’s the task of saving the ones that are already gone, an effort that is about to get a boost locally.

The National Digital Newspaper Program represents a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, which have undertaken the task of preserving a history of newspapers at a rich and complex time both in the industry and in American history. The idea is to create a freely accessible and searchable digital database of historically significant newspapers published in all states and U.S. territories between 1836 and 1922 (but no later than that, due to copyright issues). The program, which expands on a microfilming preservation project started in 1982, was launched five years ago. It’s expected to take 20 years to complete and cost tens of millions of dollars.

“We leave it up to the particular state to identify the papers that it wants to select for digitization,” said NEH Deputy Director of the Division of Preservation and Access Ralph Canevali. “Obviously we have to be sure that the quality of the microfilm that they’re using is adequate, but once that hurdle is passed, it’s a question of what papers the state decides it wants to feature and highlight.”

When Bruce Cole, then-chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, announced the project to the National Press Club in 2004, he recalled some of the largely forgotten gems in newspaper publishing history. “These papers have wonderful names,” said Cole. “The Cain County Razooper from Kansas, the Daily Unterrified Democrat from Colorado, the Georgia Temperance Crusader, and from my own home state, the Castigator of Ripley, Ohio.”

So far, the Library of Congress has posted archives from papers that were printed in Florida, California, Washington D.C., Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Texas, Utah and Virginia. There are already about one million pages available online and Canevali, a Hilo native, estimates there will be 20 million pages online by around 2025.

Last year, University of Hawaii at Manoa became one of nine state institutions awarded a two-year $200,000 grant to digitize 25,000 pages of historic local papers as part of the program’s initial expansion (UH has already applied for $161,760 in additional funding to expand the project). So far, the university is working to digitize a series of historic Oahu publications including the Daily Herald, the Saturday Press, the Hawaiian Gazette and two papers both called, amusingly enough, the Independent.

“This is a really exciting project and we hope it makes the historical record of Hawaiian more accessible,” said Joan Hori, curator of the Hawaiian Collection at UH. “There’s a lot in these papers about the kingdom and the king. In the 1870s there was coverage of the Hawaiian League and the Honolulu Rifles and various political goings on.”

UH is also working to get access to original microfilm of papers considered to be the precursors to the Honolulu Advertiser and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, as well as papers from neighbor islands.

“One title that I would really like to do is the Hilo Tribune Herald, but nobody knows where the master is,” said Martha Chantiny, who heads up the Library Information Technology Division at UH. “The UH-Hilo people have tried to find it many times over the past decades. It’s supposed to be in the newspaper’s office in Hilo but nobody there has ever found it or admitted to having it. I mean, it’s not a conspiracy, I don’t think it’s there. The Library of Congress has a paper copy of it but they don’t have the microfilm.”

Unfortunately, it’s not a problem limited to Hawaii. There is no known copy in the United States of the country’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, which was printed for one day in 1690 before the governor of Massachusetts (then a colony) forced its closure. The only known version is in the Public Records Office in London, where it was originally sent as evidence of the rabble-rousing in colonial America. Another major limitation of the program as it exists now is that it only includes English language publications.

“The only reason that’s the case as of present is the technology involved in optical character recognition, meaning the pages will be word searchable,” said Canevali. “Consequently, some of the foreign language press poses some particular language challenges for OCR technology.”

And while there has been a comprehensive local effort to digitize Hawaiian language newspapers, they won’t yet be housed in the Library of Congress as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program. Canevali said he estimates in the “very near future,” that technology will allow the participation of non-English language papers in the program. Until then, the project still provides anyone with access to the Internet unfiltered access to some of the greatest resources in American history. Curious to see exactly what Americans read on this day a century ago?

One article from the May 6, 1909, edition of The Sun of New York tells of a “man and a woman in evening clothes,” who were attacked by a large black cat near what had just five years before been given the name Times Square. There’s also a story of a 13-year-old boy reported to have disrupted a suffragette meeting, a woman who sued Western Union for alleged libel via telegraph and a maid arrested at the Waldorf-Astoria for allegedly stealing a pair of diamond and ruby cuff links.

“Our former Chair Bruce Cole referred to newspapers as the ‘first draft of history,’ and it’s true,” said Canevali. “The amount of information that can be found in newspapers that runs the gamut from local to state, national and international news. Some of the ads and illustrations from newspapers at the turn of the century really provide another look beyond the actual hard news—into life in America at that time period. This is obviously a tremendous resource for scholars, teachers, students, genealogists and just people who have an interest in journalism or American history. I think it will be frankly one of the biggest accomplishments for the National Endowment for the Humanities and, I suspect, for the Library of Congress, once this program reaches its completion.”

As for the history of this paper, we’re working on our own digital archiving process at [honoluluweekly.com]. Until that’s complete, there are full records available at Hamilton Library and—for now, anyway—you can still pick it up every Wednesday in red Honolulu Weekly boxes and on newsstands across the island. Happy reading.

Deborah Thomas of the Library of Congress will give two lectures about the National Digital Newspaper Program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Library, Thu 5/7, 6pm & Fri 5/8 12pm, Hamilton Library Room 301, free, http://[www.hawaii.edu], 956-8688