Nebraska Digital Newspaper Project

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By Katherine Walter

In an age when news is increasingly being sought online, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress have stepped up to the plate to fund and develop a major online resource of historical newspapers. Eventually, the National Digital Newspaper Program will include papers from each state in the U.S., and the state projects are beginning to round the bases. Through the program, the Nebraska Digital Newspaper Project hit its first home run last summer. As of July 2009, 100,000 pages of selected full-text historical Nebraska newspapers dating from 1880 through 1922 are available on the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America site. Nebraska is one of about 16 states currently involved, and with new grant funding, it is beginning its second 100,000 pages of digitization—now spanning from 1860 through 1922. As many of you know, anything published earlier than Jan. 1, 1923, is considered to be in the public domain under U.S. copyright law. The project participants are the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Libraries, the UNL Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, the UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Nebraska State Historical Society.

This team effort is bringing back to life such titles as the Conservative, a Nebraska City newspaper edited by J. Sterling Morton, who become U.S. secretary of agriculture under Grover Cleveland and is the founder of Arbor Day, and the Omaha Daily Bee, edited by Edward Rosewater, an influential editor who was both anti-slavery and anti-suffrage for women. Following criteria from the National Endowment for the Humanities, newspapers selected for inclusion in Chronicling America must be historically significant and present a range of political, economic and social viewpoints. For the time being, newspapers must be English-language papers, however, as the Library of Congress explores more options for multilanguage searching, this will likely change. And, newspapers cannot have been previously digitized except under unusual circumstances, such as extremely poor quality of work. I am indebted to a great board of historians, journalists, educators and librarians for helping select Nebraska’s newspapers.

As the director of the Nebraska Digital Newspaper Project and earlier efforts to preserve and provide access to Nebraska newspapers, I am often asked why newspapers are so important. There are probably many answers to this question, so I’ll propose a few. Newspapers are a record of communities, lives and history. They report the most mundane aspects of life and the most important historical events. My grandparents lived in a small town, and the social column of their weekly newspaper told which out-of-town relatives were visiting the neighbors, who dined with whom, what they ate, who was on a trip back East and the price of eggs. In the same paper might be articles about bank failures, fights in Congress and reports of action in World War II. The advertisements, the public notices and the market news all provide us today with clues to life in the past.

Since my interest in newspapers is in their significance to research, I want to describe some of the research possibilities available thanks to the digital medium. With newspapers online, it is now possible for researchers to search for subjects across newspapers, to see how events were perceived in different parts of the world and to search deeply within specific newspapers. Some examples: Genealogists can locate notices of birth, baptism, marriage and death; literary researchers might find articles by such well-known journalists as Willa Cather, Walt Whitman and Samuel Clemens; a legal researcher might be able to trace water rights issues or notices concerning estates. A historical researcher might find articles about William Jennings Bryan’s campaigns for president from newspapers across the U.S. and present many different viewpoints of the campaign. Baseball fans may find articles about Nebraska natives and Hall of Famers Wahoo Sam Crawford or Grover Cleveland Alexander. These are but a few examples, and you will no doubt think of more.

The next question I often receive is how do you digitize papers? Suffice it to say that there are detailed technical specifications for doing it well, and that these can be found on the National Digital Newspaper Project Web site at the Library of Congress. Briefly, newspapers are digitized from 35 mm microfilm found at the Nebraska State Historical Society that meets standards for density and resolution, and each TIFF image created during the process has two derivatives—a JPEG 2000 and PDF with hidden text derivatives. The digital files are run through optical character recognition software, and each file is named uniquely, described minutely as to what it is, how it was created and where each word is found on the newspaper page, using a brilliant metadata standard called “METS/ALTO.” The Library of Congress requires many quality control measures before the derivatives are sent to Washington, D.C.

Since the titles digitized will change as the work continues, I hope that you will go to Chronicling America and look on the left side of the screen to see “See All Available Newspapers.” Nebraska newspaper titles and dates can be found there, and in other sections of the site, you can search and find page-level images. In the next few months, “new” Nebraska titles will appear, and we will continue digitizing more issues of the Omaha Daily Bee, our selected regional paper. So far, full-text papers come from Nebraska City, Norfolk, McCook, Broken Bow, Valentine, Omaha and Falls City.

This is a great opportunity to mention that the Nebraska team will soon be making these newspapers and some that fall outside the scope of the national project, along with interesting historical essays about the various newspapers or their editors, available on a Web site called Nebraska Newspapers. We think it will be another home run!

 

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