National Digital Newspaper Program

(Dick Eastman’s Daily Newsletter October 26, 2015)

I have written before about the National Digital Newspaper Program, but not for some time. The program continues to grow and expand, so perhaps it is time to go back and look at it again.

The National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress have partnered to enhance access to historic newspapers for many years with the National Digital Newspaper Program. This long-term effort has developed an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages. Best of all, the information on the National Digital Newspaper Program is available free of charge. Millions of newspaper pages are available.

The National Digital Newspaper Program is the replacement for the earlier, successful United States Newspaper Program that ran from 1982 to 2009. That was a project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities which, with technical support from the Library of Congress, organized the inventory, cataloging, and selective preservation on microfilm of at-risk newspaper materials. While useful to many historians, students, genealogists, and others, the earlier program captured only a limited number of newspapers. The microfilms are not easily available to everyone, especially in rural locations. In addition, microfilm readers are now becoming harder and harder to find.

The National Digital Newspaper Program has now digitized all the earlier microfilms and also has embarked on an ambitious program to scan and preserve many more newspapers. As a result, many more people now have easy access from home to this valuable information. The new Program also provides an opportunity for institutions to select and contribute digitized newspaper content, published between 1836 and 1922, to a freely accessible, national newspaper resource.

Since 2005 the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded grants to state libraries, historical societies, and universities representing states in the national program. These awards are projected to generate more than 5.6 million newspaper pages to be deposited at the Library by the end of 2013, with many more states and territories to be included in the coming years. Over 4 million of these pages are already available through the Chronicling America website.

To access this wealth of information, go to the Chronicling America Website. Once there, you will find a simple search method along with an Advanced Search and a third search method, simply labeled as “All Digitized newspapers 1836-1922.” I suspect most people will immediately use the simple search shown on the home page to search for names or locations of interest.

Simple search works well for the following:
•Information on persons, places, or events;
•Specific topics or news of the day;
•Concepts or ideas;
•Unique passages of text, such as the source of a frequently-quoted phrase.

Indeed, you may be lucky enough to find what you want by using the simple search. However, the real power of the Chronicling America website becomes apparent only when using the Advanced Search. Advanced Search is more flexible and is better for the following:
•To limit your search to particular geographic area by selecting one or more States.
•To limit your search to a particular newspaper or several newspapers by picking from the list of titles currently available in Chronicling America.
•In addition or alternatively, you can search the entire date range available (default), or select a specific date that will limit your search to a specific year, month, or even day, using the begin date and end date lists provided. (Note: Selecting the same beginning month/day/year and ending month/day/year will provide links to every page available for that specific date.)
•In addition or alternatively, enter a specific search term or terms in the Keyword boxes provided. The operators provided will influence the results of your search significantly and can be used in separate searches or in conjunction within a single search.

To use Advanced Search, you can start by first specifying a state (also available in simple search) and then perhaps a specific newspaper. Another option is to search all newspapers at once although that may be too broad a sweep for most searches, especially for common names. The Advanced Search then provides many other options:
•Years (any year(s) from 1836 through 1922)
•Search only front page(s) or entire newspapers
•Language (The National Digital Newspaper Program contains many foreign-language newspapers published within the United States.)
•Several Boolean search options (search only specific words, search for ALL words, search for specific phrase, or search for words within close proximity). For any options that do not apply to your search, you simply leave the search boxes blank.

A third search option is called “All Digitized newspapers 1836-1922.” While that sounds like a duplicate of simple search, it does add one important difference: the ability to search by ethnicity. Many newspapers were written for specific ethnic groups, including African-American, American Indian, Irish, Jewish, Latin American, Mexican, Pacific Islander, and Spanish. Those ethnic groups are best searched by using the “All Digitized newspapers 1836-1922” search option.

Newspaper pages may be viewed online as well as downloaded and stored or printed locally. The images may be stored in either PDF or JPEG200 format.

When a newspaper page is displayed, you will see the image of the original page. You can also click on “View Text” to display machine-generated text that is produced by Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. OCR is a fully automated process that converts the visual image of numbers and letters into computer-readable numbers and letters. Computer software can then search the OCR-generated text for words, phrases, numbers, or other characters. However, OCR is not 100 percent accurate, and, particularly if the original item has extraneous markings on the page, unusual text styles, or very small fonts, the searchable text OCR that generates will contain errors that cannot be corrected by automated means. Digitization of microfilmed newspapers inherently includes a wide range of image quality in the content (quality derived from the original newspaper, the original newspaper when it was microfilmed and associated deterioration, or the film itself.)

The person viewing the newspapers also needs to be aware that spellings and abbreviations have changed over the years. The newspapers always used whatever was common in their areas at the time of publication, not what is used today. For instance, newspapers in Massachusetts often abbreviated that state as “Ms” in the 1800s and well into the 1900s. Newspapers in Mississippi also used the same letters, “Ms,” as their commonly-used abbreviation for that state. The current abbreviations of MA for Massachusetts and MS for Mississippi became standardized only when the Post Office introduced ZIP codes in 1963. Even then, the abbreviation for Nebraska was changed again in in 1969, from NB to NE. (“NB” is now the commonly-accepted abbreviation for the Canadian province of New Brunswick.)

Another thing to remember is that newspapers of many years ago did not follow today’s “politically correct” words and euphemisms. Do not be surprised if you see words and phrases published that would raise eyebrows today. Even common words and phrases changed over the years. Today we might say “gas station” but older newspapers would refer to them as “filling stations.” Today we probably would say “voting rights” but older newspapers always referred to the same thing as “suffrage.”

All the newspapers in the National Digital Newspaper Program are recorded with the abbreviations, words, and phrases as originally published. When searching, try to always use the historic terms, not today’s lingo.

The National Digital Newspaper Program does not cover all newspapers from all states. However, new additions are being made frequently; if you don’t find what you want today, you might return again in a few months to perform the same search(es) again.

The National Digital Newspaper Program is a great research tool for genealogists, as well as historians, students, and many others. If you have not yet used it, I suggest you go see for yourself at Chronicling America Newspapers. You certainly cannot beat the price tag: FREE!

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