The following is a guest post by Kerry Huller, a Digital Conversion Specialist in the Serial and Government Publications Division. The following interview is with Eben English from the Boston Public Library in Boston, MA.
Since the website was established in 2007, the Chronicling America collection of digitized historic newspapers has continuously grown through the contributions of state partners participating in the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). The collection now contains over 20 million pages from more than 3,900 newspaper titles. And we are excited to say that all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are participating.
The Boston Public Library (BPL) in Massachusetts joined the NDNP in 2021 and is one of our newest partners. The following interview provides details about their decision process in selecting newspapers spanning nearly 200 years of American history – beginning with the birth of the United States as a nation in the 1770s – and what they’ve learned along the way. Read further to discover some search strategies.
Can you tell me about the significance of the newspaper titles that Massachusetts has chosen to include in Chronicling America?
This is Boston Public Library’s first project for the National Digital Newspaper Program, and also the first time a Massachusetts institution has contributed content to Chronicling America. Given that we’re one of the last states to join the program, we felt a real sense of urgency and that it was important to select a wide range of titles, both in terms of geographic coverage, date coverage, and viewpoints represented. Massachusetts has an incredible history of newspaper publishing dating back to the 1690s, so the challenge was in narrowing our selection to just a handful of significant titles for this initial contribution.
In terms of geographic coverage, we’ve chosen titles representing some of the major urban centers, including Boston, Worcester, and Springfield. We selected the Massachusetts Spy (first published in Boston and later in Worcester) because it played a major role in shaping public opinion about American independence from England in the early 1770s, and eventually openly advocated for revolution. In the mid-1770s issues sometimes appeared with blatant exhortations like “Liberty or Death!” and “Join or Die!” in large type along with the masthead. This paper fills a need for more contemporaneous coverage of the colonial and post-Revolutionary era; it’s now the earliest published title on Chronicling America.
We also wanted to highlight the vital impact of Massachusetts newspapers in the abolition movement in the 19th century, including the Liberator and the Springfield Republican. The Liberator was a radical anti-slavery newspaper published from 1831-1865 and was probably the most influential abolitionist publication leading up to the Civil War. BPL is fortunate to hold publisher William Lloyd Garrison’s personal copies of this weekly newspaper, which were used as the source for digitization. The Springfield Republican was crucial to the founding of the Republican Party in the 1850s as an anti-slavery movement. In 1828, the Lancaster Gazette was the first newspaper to publish poetry by a southern enslaved African American, George Moses Horton, which helped to change public attitudes toward slavery.
For 20th century coverage, we’ve selected the Guardian, which was an African American-operated newspaper published in Boston from 1901-1957. This paper provides a much-needed viewpoint on the Black experience during the early 1900s, a perspective that’s significantly underrepresented in existing online newspaper collections.
What have you learned about these newspapers through the process of digitization?
Since this is our first experience with NDNP, we’re learning a lot, not just about these titles but about newspaper digitization in general. Aside from the Liberator, all of these titles are being digitized from BPL’s microfilm holdings, which is comprised of reels created decades ago by a patchwork of different imaging companies. The information about these titles in our catalog and other documentation only provides a certain amount of detail about dates of coverage, and can sometimes be incomplete. The digitization process really illuminates things at the issue level, so it’s helped us to better understand our holdings and where the gaps are, as well as the condition of the content in a much more obvious way.
We’re also learning about the evolution of titles over time – for example, the Massachusetts Spy went through over a dozen title changes over a 128-year period, ending up as the Worcester Spy in 1898. Keeping track of those changes as we pull the microfilm from our vaults and organize the digitized issues requires a lot of attention to detail.
How do you anticipate people will use these newly-digitized newspapers?
While we’re new to the NDNP project, we’ve been digitizing historical collections and making them accessible online since 2008. In that time, we’ve learned that you can’t predict what materials will be popular with users, or how people will re-use online materials, especially as text- and image-based artificial intelligence and machine learning tools become more widely available. But we’re very hopeful this content fills in some gaps in the online historical record (particularly in regard to what’s freely available) and provides more context for today’s ongoing political and social debates. These newspapers are an invaluable resource for scholars, historians, students, and the perpetually curious.
Is there anything else you would like to share about these newspapers or the Massachusetts newspaper project? Where can readers find you online?
In many ways Boston Public Library is just getting started with newspaper digitization, and we’re working hard to ramp up our efforts. BPL holds about 20 million pages of microfilm, so we’ve got our work cut out for us! Our current goal is to digitize 1 million pages per year, but even that ambitious goal isn’t adequate for the enormity of the corpus of Massachusetts newspapers.
Our main gateway to digital collections is Digital Commonwealth, which provides access to over 1 million photographs, newspapers, maps, manuscripts, films, postcards, letters, artwork, books, audio recordings, artifacts, and other historical materials from libraries, museums, archives, and historical societies across Massachusetts. Feel free to follow our progress on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.
To find all the newspapers published in Massachusetts on Chronicling America, go to the “All Digitized Newspapers 1770-1963” tab, select “Massachusetts” in the “State” dropdown menu, and click on “GO.” A new window will open up, displaying all of the newspaper titles currently available on Chronicling America from the state. At the time of this blog post there are 17 titles, but more will be added, so check back often.
You can then click on a specific title from the list of Massachusetts newspapers and you will be directed to the title record for that newspaper, which will provide details on publication location (or locations), the publisher, dates of publication, the frequency of publication, and additional information about the title. The state partners also write essays about each of their digitized titles, which provide additional background about the newspaper, its editor(s), the community it served, and any major events or themes that were covered. In the coming months, Boston Public Library will be contributing essays about more of their digitized titles as they continue working on their first NDNP project, so check back as more essays are added.
If you would like to search in a specific newspaper title or titles that you spotted on the Massachusetts list, then click on the “Advanced Search” tab and select those titles. Multiple newspapers can be selected by clicking on each additional title while pressing the “Ctrl” key (on Windows) or the “Cmd” key (on Mac). Or you can complete a keyword search across all of the newspapers in Massachusetts by selecting the state from the list of states in the Advanced Search.
When searching for events or keywords in the Advanced Search of Chronicling America, it’s helpful to look for historic names or terms that were used during the era in which the newspaper was published. This language may not be used today because historic place names may have changed, or certain wording has fallen out of fashion or is considered racist or insensitive. We suggest browsing the newspapers you are interested in first to discover the type of language being used.
Historic newspapers generally printed pre-1825 often used special characters in the typeface. One common example of this is called the “long s.” This character looks like a printed “f,” but is actually an “s,” making the word “congress” look like “congrefs” and “Massachusetts” appear to be “Maffachufetts.” So keep in mind that the optical character recognition (OCR) software run on the page’s text may have a difficult time picking up all of the long s occurrences, which may affect your keyword searching.
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC
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