Friday, March 1, 2013

The Digital Morgues: Historic Newspapers – The Freebies

It has long been true that one of a historian’s or genealogist’s most productive sources has been back issues of newspapers. Until very recently if you wanted to troll through old issues of The Tombstone Epitaph you either had to go to Tombstone, Arizona in person, or a find a library that a)  had the Epitaph on microfilm, and b)  would loan their film through Inter-Library Loan (ILL). Otherwise out of luck you were.

Free Digitized Newspapers

Times have changed. Thanks to a partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, hundreds of American newspapers have been digitized and are available free through LOC’s Chronicling America website. In the case of the Tombstone Epitaph, six different series of the paper, from 1880 to 1922, totaling 2100 issues, are available online. And if that isn’t enough to sate you, four other Tombstone papers are available from the LOC.

Unfortunately, the LOC site lists papers from only 30 states (and four of those only have one title each). Missing from Chronicling America are such states as Connecticut, New Jersey, North Carolina, Nevada, and Maine. 

But wait! Even though 20 states are not digitally represented on the LOC, there are dozens of other websites where you might find a veritable trove of the missing. Some places are going it largely along, although nearly all states have made use of grants from NEH’s U.S. Newspaper Program.

For example: Colorado. 

While this state does not participate in the Chronicling America program, it has a substantial online newspaper archive of its own that includes 163 titles covering the period 1859 to 1923. This Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection (CHNC) is funded directly by the state through the Colorado State Library and the Colorado Historical Society. NEH also provided $345,000.

While CHNC is a valuable resource, the site is a bit clunky and can be difficult to navigate. In Search, if you want to specify a Date Range you cannot just type it into the blank boxes. You must click the calendar icons, which open calendar windows, and select the beginning and end dates by scrolling through the months and years, and then only when you click on the start day will it enter the whole megillah. Hits appear on your screen, and simply double-click to read the one you’re interested in. Happy reading.

Printing articles from CHNC is a royal pain, and the easiest method is to save the story as a PDF. Once the article opens go to the upper left and look for View. Click that and choose View Item In PDF. This will bring up the entire issue, but opens on the article you want to print.

To print the PDF find the Adobe menu bar (sometimes hidden toward the bottom—a swipe of the cursor will highlight it, or sometimes it’s a continuous bar across the top. Using the + or – icons change the size of the displayed article to suit your needs. Anything smaller than 66.7% magnification will be hard to read on the printed page.

Now, click the Maximize button on the upper right, and using the cursor, change the width and height of the window, and the move the scroll bar, to encompass only what you want to print. See the PDF printer icon (top or bottom bars)? Click on that. Do not use your browser’s print function—it will emphatically not work. 

That opens the Print window. Over there on the left, under the Pages box, you’ll see More Options. Click on that, then click on Current View. This lets you print only the what you see on the screen. You may need to fool about with magnifications and borders to get just what you need. The example here has been narrowed from three columns to one for better readability. 

TIP: Do not make the PDF window so narrow that the Print icon disappears from its bar (do that and you cannot access the print menu).

To print the whole piece simply reposition the article and print again until you have full coverage. I know it’s cumbersome, but it gives you a lot more precise control over what you print in any PDF. And I’ve found this to be the best way to print stories from whole newspaper pages, especially 7 or 8 column broadsheets.


Despite its chronic financial woes, this state is well along with its newspaper digitizing (getting nearly $7 million from NEH was certainly a boon). Whereas Chronicling America has just 18 California newspapers, the California Digital Newspaper Collection (CDNC) has 37 titles, including the fabulously useful and interesting Daily Alta California (1894-1891). All together there are just shy of 60,000 issues online. 

The user interface and the navigation is much better than the “C” state mentioned above. In Search you can easily type in the subject, click the date range, and click the paper or papers you want the computer to look through. If too many Advertisement items pop up to suit you, over on the left you can click on Articles and after a quick rearrangement, the pages will show just those.

To navigate around the page just hold in the left mouse button and drag as required.
Printing from the CDNC site is easier than from the CHNC. If the article you need to print is a short one, right-click on the story and up comes a little window with some options. Click on Clip This Article, and that brings up a new page with just your story. You can then print that out through your browser.

TIP: If the story you want to print using Clip This Article is longer than a few column inches then revert to the PDF method outlined above. Right-click on the article, but this time choose PDF of This Page.

Finding Minutia

One of the great things about digital newspapers is the ability to search accurately for just about anything. If the original paper is not in good condition, or the scan is poorly made, search results will suffer. But on the whole, it all works very well indeed. 

Using the CDNC I was able to track the movements of Philip Arnold, the main organizer of the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872. Knowing that many West Coast papers printed notices about passengers who were arriving on the Overland Trains from the east or on ships from other West Coast ports, I entered “philp arnold” AND passengers into the search window.
Translation of search terms: By putting quotes around “philp arnold” the engine would look for those two words adjacent to each other. By using the Boolean search operator AND, the engine now knows to look for “philip arnold” and “passengers” on the same page. Click enter and . . .

Shoot, no results. Let’s modify the search terms. Because newspaper articles in the late 19th century often used first name initials rather than spelling names out, I searched again for “p arnold” AND passengers. Wham! Two hits.

TIP:  To increase your chances of getting useful search hits, be sure to try variations of names, places, events, and things. For example, one of “my” people, John Burchem Slack, can be found as: “JB Slack,” “J Slack,” “Burcham,” and “Stack.”

In the first article Arnold, and as it turns out, another key person the Diamond Hoax story, J B Cooper, were traveling together outbound from San Diego to San Francisco arriving aboard the good ship Orizaba on the 28th of November 1870. This filled in an important gap in tracking Arnold’s movements. 

The second notice, about passengers who had Ogden left on the westbound Overland Train in late April 1871, shows a “P Arnold, San Francisco.” Is this my Mr. Arnold? Maybe, but additional research is necessary to corroborate that it was.

This technique can be used to track people on trains, ships, in hotels, and at events.

Where Are More Freebies?

To search for state newspaper collections the best browser search term is: [state] digital newspaper archive

The Google Newspaper Archive is another source. This project, begun in the mid-2000’s, was unfortunately abandoned in 2011 for reasons that remain unclear (but, they say, didn’t have anything to do with copyright issues). Google did manage to scan millions of pages from over 2,000 papers. There are a great many Canadian and French-Canadian publications in their collection.

Wikipedia has a page dedicated to digital papers links, including many publications from all around the world, many of them free. 

In the next post we’ll get into paid digitized Historic Newspapers—the Feebies; more indispensable sources for writers and genealogists.

If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog. 

Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the date of the post. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.

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