Preserving Barometers of History
For 20 years, the NEH has teamed up with historical societies and universities to prevent the disintegration of US newspapers
AUSTIN, TEXAS — `EXTRA! Extra! Read all about it!" cry the boys hawking banner-headlined newspapers in the gangster movies of the 1930s. Tempted passersby would part with a nickle to catch up on the D.A.'s investigation into corruption at city hall.
Back issues from that era can still fascinate, but their readers are likely to be genealogists skimming the obituary page or historians noting the context in which women and minorities are mentioned.
"The history of the country is really contained foremost in its newspapers," says Jerry Martin, the assistant chairman for programs and policy at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
"If you think of the original reports of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or job lists that appeared in newspapers in the Great Depression - that's really the record of the life of the people," he says. Newspapers on microfilm
Thanks in part to the NEH, millions of pages of yellowed newsprint are being microfilmed before they crumble from the acid in their wood-pulp paper. The NEH is a 27-year-old independent federal agency whose mission includes historical preservation.
"Newsprint is so fragile that if it's not preserved, it's lost forever," Mr. Martin says. That makes the job not only important, he adds, but urgent.
Most major newspapers have long been microfilmed. For example, all issues of this newspaper since its founding in 1908 are available on microfilm, says the Monitor's head librarian, Polly McGee.
Also on film are journals whose rarity and historical significance are already recognized, such as "Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick," the first newspaper in the Americas, which Colonial authorities in Boston shut down after just one issue.
But thousands of others - county newspapers of record, military-base gazettes, or ethnic journals from the last century - have never been preserved for lack of money and are disintegrating into obscurity.
That danger prompted the NEH to launch the United States Newspaper Program (USNP) to catalog and preserve these irreplaceable historical records. Now halfway through its 20-year life, the USNP has reached 43 states and two US territories at a cost of $22 million.
Universities or historical societies apply to carry out the program within their own states. NEH grants pay a third of the cost, and the organization's funds and private donations cover the remainder.
Projects under the USNP have cataloged more than 200,000 newspaper titles. (All the issues of the Monitor represent one title.) Even the Virgin Islands had 57 newspapers at one time or another.
The job is complete in many states and under way in others. No organizations in Tennessee, Oregon, Vermont, or Washington, D.C. have applied for the grants yet.
Once the entire country has been covered, the number of titles cataloged is expected to reach 250,000. Thousands turned up so far were previously unknown to historians.
The newspaper titles are entered into an international database accessed through the Online Computer Library Center network found at large public and college libraries. The microfilmed copies are available by interlibrary loan.
For organizations carrying out the US Newspaper Program, the first step is to identify repositories of newspapers in their state. Second is to visit them to catalog their collections. Third is to microfilm the most important titles, including newspapers for which earlier microfilm is of poor quality.
Libraries, historical societies, and publishers' offices are the logical starting point in the hunt for old newspapers. Researchers also publicize the program so that private individuals will volunteer collections stored in their basements, garages, and barns.
In central Pennsylvania, individual collections held 40 percent of the newspaper titles found by researchers, says Jeffery Field, administrator of the program for the NEH.
In Texas, newspapers from the town of Halletsville were stored above a 19th-century grocery store owned by the publisher. One stop on the Colorado team's 15,000 miles of travel was an abandoned missile silo where the Fort Collins library rents storage space.
"There aren't any bathrooms out there, but there are lots of rattlesnakes," recalls Katherine Kane, director of collection services for the Colorado Historical Society. Unearthing unknown titles
The NEH is delighted when field visits unearth a newspaper that few people knew had been published. A rarely visited room in the Indiana State Library in Indianapolis held more than 1,000 titles that had never been cataloged, for instance.
The Oklahoma Historical Society, founded in 1893 to collect newspapers, had been microfilming its collection since 1957.
Already preserved, for instance, was the state's first newspaper, the Cherokee Advocate. Dating from 1844, the newspaper was bilingual in English and "the talking leaves," a syllabary developed for the Cherokee language by the renowned Indian leader Sequoyah.
Nonetheless, the Oklahoma program turned up 228 previously unknown titles, as well as missing issues from known newspapers. A retired building inspector in Tulsa had saved 50,000 newspaper issues that he found in the attics of condemned buildings. His collection held 17 titles available nowhere else.
Researchers found many newspapers that amuse and amaze. Some journals were born nameless, such as the "??" published at Camp Mabry in Texas and the What's My Name? published by Colorado's 10th Mountain Division during World War II. One Colorado newspaper, The Frying Pan of Basalt, was named for the town's summer weather. Another there was named after the town's main product - the Rocky Fort Watermelon.
The Civil War spawned many makeshift newspapers. The project turned up some copies that were printed on wrapping paper or wallpaper for lack of newsprint.
In Texas, others were hand-written and either posted or read aloud, such as Western Pioneer at the Union fort at Fort Lancaster, or Old Flag at the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Tyler.
Copies of the Marble Hill Era are all that remain of that one-time southern Indiana town. The Era's motto was "Not for love, honor or fame, but for Cash." A record of minorities
The NEH is particularly interested in salvaging issues of newspapers that were owned and edited by minorities or women, such as the Women's Cryer, an 1890s publication in Colorado. "There was a time when the dominant institutions were not very interested in things like newspapers put out in black neighborhoods," Martin says.
"For historians, these newspapers are just a gold mine. We are doing so much new research in areas like women's history, black history, native American history. These are among the few firsthand materials that we have.
"What did the newly freed blacks say to each other in their own communities after the civil war? What kind of issues were they debating? For the most part we haven't even known that kind of thing," Martin says.
The Center for American History, located at the University of Texas, is filming Freie Presse fur Texas, a German-language newspaper published in San Antonio from 1865-1945. "Right now we're processing the World War I years. It's interesting to see how they handled that," says Stephen Stappenbeck, manager of the project.
Because of the USNP, many titles will be available in one location for the first time. For one Civil War-era newspaper, Houston's News Bulletin, the Texas project staff turned to seven sources, including the Library of Congress and the American Antiquarian Society in Massachusetts, to assemble a complete set.
Other Texas newspapers may have been overlooked because they exist only outside the state. Mr. Stappenbeck notes that Yale University holds a large collection of Texas-based publications.
"It makes us quite jealous," he says.
The organizations receiving NEH grants undertake to preserve all current newspapers in their state so that the USNP won't need to be repeated someday. The Colorado Historical Society subscribes to all 175 newspapers there, including a Chinese-language newspaper in mimeograph form.