First Drafts of History at Your Fingertips

Did you know that Miss Elizabeth Murray, the popular young president of the suffragist Political Equality Club of Oakland resigned her office to marry Charles James Newman, a successful San Francisco attorney? Or that Professor H. Morse Stephens, director of university extension and instructor in modern history at the University of California at Berkeley attended the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Philadelphia (where he also attended a meeting of the editorial board of the American Historical Review)? You would know these facts if you are able to read the San Francisco Call of December 21, 1902, just as you would learn from reading the Washington Herald of December 30, 1906, that the AHA, the American Political Science Association, and the American Sociological Association all met conjointly in Providence, Rhode Island for three days of multidisciplinary excitement.

But you don’t have to rush from library to library and spool through hazy microfilm or turn dusty folios to retrieve such nuggets of news. Thanks to “Chronicling America,” a digital project of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, you can now read these and other newspapers from six states and the District of Columbia from your desktop. Currently limited to providing access to 226,000 pages of public-domain newspapers from California, Florida, Kentucky, New York, Utah, Virginia and the District of Columbia published between 1900 and 1910, the project of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP) is expected to add more newspapers for more years.

The site also provides information about newspapers from 1690 to the present, with a national newspaper directory with bibliographic and holdings information and directs users to newspaper titles in all formats (the information in the directory was created through an earlier NEH initiative). Supported by NEH’s “We the People” program and Digital Humanities Initiative, Chronicling America will be permanently maintained at the Library of Congress.

Over a period of approximately 20 years, NDNP expects to create a national, digital resource of historically significant newspapers published between 1836 and 1922 from all U.S. states and territories. The Library of Congress will also digitize and contribute to the NDNP database a significant number of newspaper pages drawn from its own collections during the course of this partnership. For the initial launch the Library of Congress contributed more than 90,000 pages from 14 different newspaper titles published in the District of Columbia between 1900 and 1910.

“The Library congratulates all the partners in this extraordinary program to make historic newspapers available through our Web site,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “The National Digital Newspaper Program provides access to one of our best sources of information about what was considered important to Americans at a given point in time.”

“‘Chronicling America’ will allow students, teachers, historians—in fact, all Americans—access to some of our most important historical documents. It is one thing to read about historical events from the perspective of historians, narrated with the value of hindsight. It is entirely different to read the story as it was happening,” said Bruce Cole chair of the NEH. “‘Chronicling America’ will be available to the American public for free, forever; and I hope Americans will visit the site and try to imagine the emotions and actions of their forebears as those stories went to print.”

The following six institutions received the first NDNP grants to digitize papers in their respective states from the first decade of the 20th century (which allowed the creation of the site): University of California, Riverside, $400,000; University of Florida Libraries, Gainesville, $320, 959; University of Kentucky Research Foundation, Lexington, $310,000; New York Public Library, New York City, $351,500; University of Utah, Salt Lake City, $352,693; and Library of Virginia, Richmond, $201,226. New NDNP awardees will be announced later this summer.

—Based on the Library of Congress Press Release

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  1. Katelyn Baskin

    Democratizing information is the way of the future, and it is so great, and telling, that a field focused on the past understands the way of the future so well. Creating agency leads us toward a more democratic society. Thank you for undertaking such a giant endeavor!

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