Historians and the Preservation of Newspaper Content, Part 4 of 4

Part 1 --- Part 2 --- Part 3 --- Part 4 One more point about saving newspapers: Newspapers as source material and the weirdness of what matters and what doesn’t. (This, by the way, isn’t directly  connected to the three previous parts of this series, but it’s as good a place as any to make my point.)

As I mentioned in part one, historians today enjoy access to digital archives of many newspapers. It’s possible to read and search the first issue ever published of, say, the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Makes sense, right? We all know that those are important daily newspapers with huge readerships. They’re both regarded as significant records of American life.

Here’s the kicker: Those newspapers were archived because they’re the survivors. But in the nineenth century, neither newspaper was particularly important. Indeed, for decades, the New York Times was a no-account also-ran to three other newspapers: The New York Herald, the New York Tribune, and the New York World. (Throw in the NY Sun, and you’ve got the nation’s Big Four of the nineteenth century). (Several of these papers folded into each other. At one point, for example, the Herald and Tribune merged.) Ditto the Boston Globe, an also-ran to a number of that's city's newspapers.

If you’re a historian and you want to research nineteenth century America, you want to read the most important sources, right? You want to read the NY Tribune or the NY Herald. Lotso luck. All of the afore-mentioned are available on microfilm, but not digitally. There’s a not very useful printed index for the Tribune (or is it the Herald?), but no way otherwise to search these important sources.

Why? Because when various libraries began filming newspapers in the twentieth century, they focused on what were THEN the important papers, in this case the Times and the Globe, rather than the newspapers that had been, in the 19th century, larger and more widely read.

So historians have access to amazing digital newspaper archives -- but those are not necessarily the archives that matter most for historical research. The same is true, by the way, for the two main archives for small-town newspapers: newspaperarchive.com and geneaologybank.com. (Although I have to say that if you can only subscribe to one, go with geneaologybank.com. Newspaperarchive.com is badly designed, riddled with bugs, and hard to use.)

Don’t get me wrong: these are amazing resources for historians. Using these two archives, I’ve been able to piece together the story of major changes in nineteenth century American meat processing and distribution, a story that has never been fully told because of lack of sources.

But those databases also contain newspapers that various Powers That Be decreed as important. In this case, there’s a definitely skew toward New England newspapers, especially ones published in Massachusetts.  (Big relief! By sheer coincidence, the meat-related changes I’m researching unfolded Massachusetts.)

Put another way, these databases are based on decisions made decades ago by various historical societies that decided X was important, not Y. What’s the conclusion? As always, nothing with any wow-factor. Digital newspaper archives are extraordinary tools for research, but no one should assume that they’re perect, or that they’re accurate representations of American society in the past.