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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture

Remmel Nunn

Vice President of New Product Development, Readex

In 1800, the population of the U.S. was five million, but it was about to explode. By 1820 it had doubled. The population was not only growing, but moving: in 1820, eight million Americans lived east of the Appalachians; by 1860 the population was more than thirty million, but half of them lived in the West.

Newspapers themselves grew dramatically during this period—from fewer than 200 in 1800 to more than 3,000 by 1860. Like no other primary documents can, American newspapers published during the first half of the 19th century vividly capture this dramatic expansion of the nation and movement of its peoples.

During the early 19th century, the first "penny papers" were published, ushering in a democratization of the industry that would open new windows onto all levels of society. Widely regarded as the greatest of these penny-paper dailies, the "New York Herald" had the largest newspaper circulation in the world for many years in the 19th century.

Science and technology played a large role, too, in the ability of newspapers to capture 19th-century life in ever more detail and frequency. Steam ships now brought European newspapers to the East Coast every day; railroads took them west overnight.

Then, in 1846, the telegraph made possible the instantaneous delivery of information. This, alongside the formation of the Associated Press, transformed the news industry as never before. It was also during this period that newspapers themselves began to change, in the process opening up significant new avenues for research into gender, race and society in general.

The Civil War was the first major conflict to be reported by war correspondents and covered in graphic detail by newspapers. Big city dailies led the way, publishing aerial maps of battle scenes, personal accounts of soldiers and so much detail that Abraham Lincoln is said to have consulted them daily. Northern and southern newspapers took dramatically different approaches to the war.

In 1861, the largest city in the South was New Orleans. But Richmond was the hub of the confederate news enterprise, and the Richmond "Examiner" was one of its most influential titles. Other major confederate newspapers, including the "Chattanooga Daily Rebel" and the "New Orleans Times-Picayune," also played important roles. Coverage in the North came from such influential newspapers as "The Baltimore Sun" and the "Wisconsin State Journal," while in the west the "San Francisco Evening Bulletin," the Portland "Argus," the Honolulu "Friend" and many other newspapers provided their own regional perspectives.

During the last two decades of the 19th century, newspapers continued to grow, reaching more than 12,000 in 1900. Early American Newspapers, Series III, 1829-1922 shows how each region of the U.S. interpreted the great events of this period, including the assassination of President Garfield, the death of Ulysses Grant, the Indian Wars and Custer's last stand, the Johnstown Flood, the Charleston earthquake and labor disturbances across the nation.

This tumultuous period was reflected in the nation's newspapers in ever more detail as they grew in size from the traditional four-page layout to eight and even 16 pages per issue. They also expanded their coverage of sports and often featured special sections on fiction, fashion and humor.

These changes only accelerated during the first two decades of the 20th century, as both the telephone and typewriter became reporting tools, as literacy rates increased and as the widespread rise in public transportation prompted another growth period for American newspapers, especially the large city dailies. The greatest story of this period, of course, was World War I, which was covered by correspondents from newspapers across America. The invention of halftone photoengraving made it possible for many of these newspapers to richly illustrate their coverage of the war.

The importance of these factors on 19th- and early 20th-century American history and culture argued for the creation of a newspaper database that would focus on this explosive period and fully utilize the newspapers that covered it. Librarian and faculty advisors suggested that Readex complement Early American Newspapers, Series I, 1690-1876—the recently completed historical newspaper collection in the digital Archive of Americana—by creating additional series with title lists that were considerably expanded both chronologically and geographically. In doing so, all series continue to be based on the most authoritative newspaper bibliographies: Clarence Brigham's "History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690 to 1820" and Winifred Gregory's "American Newspapers, 1821-1936."

Including more than 225 individual newspapers, the first of these new series, Early American Newspapers, Series II, 1758-1900, contains newspapers from all 50 present states, from small-town weeklies such as the "Tombstone Epitaph" to big city dailies. To provide researchers with a powerful tool for exploring America's greatest period of exploration and expansion, Series II emphasizes coverage of the years 1800 to 1860. It contains short but historically significant runs, such as Alaska's "Aurora Borealis," as well as influential long-run titles, such as the "Hartford Courant," the oldest continuously published newspaper in America.

Featuring over 125 more individual newspapers, the second of these new series, Early American Newspapers, Series III, 1829-1922, also contains newspapers from all 50 present states, including such important regional titles as the "Bismarck Tribune," Santa Fe "New Mexican," "Sioux-City Journal" and "Idaho Avalanche." Complete 1900-1922 runs of more than 20 large American dailies representing all regions and political persuasions augment these, including the "Philadelphia Inquirer," "Miami Herald," "Kansas City Star," "San Jose Mercury-News," "Charlotte Observor" and the "Ft. Worth Star-Telegram."

Within a single America's Historical Newspapers interface, Early American Newspapers, Series I, II and III will provide scholars with unprecedented access to America's newspapers over a 232-year period. Additional series will follow, as Readex continues to work with not only such key institutional partners as the American Antiquarian Society, the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Library of Congress, but also many other libraries and historical societies that can ensure Readex achieves its goal: to make available fully searchable digital facsimiles of every historically significant newspaper published in America.

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