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Four Million Pages and Counting

Photo of front page of The Washington Herald

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Annual awardees’ meeting of the National Digital Newspaper Program
1100 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W.
Washington, DC 20506
United States

August 29, 2011

Comments Summarized in Delivery

Good afternoon. Welcome to the annual awardees’ meeting of the National Digital Newspaper Program. To the representatives of our newest state partners — Indiana, North Dakota, and West Virginia — I’d like to extend special greetings. I am sure I speak for all at NEH and the extraordinarily dedicated staff at the Library of Congress when I note how impressed we are at the rapid progress that has been made in digitizing the treasures of information packed in our nation’s newspapers.

Just in time for a sesquicentennial look back at a still young country’s most divided moment, there now exists within the 4 million pages accumulated in Chronicling America a body of easily accessible newspaper accounts of the Civil War.

The challenges and hardships associated with the Civil War spurred innovations in the newspaper industry. In response to the intense interest in the war and its ramifications, newspapers began to experiment more extensively with photography and several of our larger papers came to have correspondents in other cities, even abroad. They gathered news from wider sources and distributed their product on a wider basis. Using overnight rail service, New York papers, for instance, came to be marketed daily in Washington, D.C.

As you know, we are now in a position to help digitize historic American newspapers that have been printed in Spanish, Italian, and French. More language options will be offered in the future. The addition of newspapers reflective of the challenges of new immigrants will give depth and dimension to an understanding of our multicultural heritage. How new Americans influenced and were affected by assorted political, economic, and social events in the diverse communities of each state is an important part of the American story.

For instance, in the 19th Century in my home area of Iowa, two small Czech language papers were published in Iowa City and a very substantial German paper prospered in Davenport. The Czechs advanced communitarian values, starting agricultural cooperatives and maintaining Old World social customs, dance and cuisine. Purse-wise, the Germans who settled in Iowa were conservative, but on issues of freedom and opportunity they reflected a progressive individualism.

Many had fled Northern Europe because of the quasi-feudal land and inheritance structure that characterized a yet-to-be united Germany. They didn’t identify with Eastern Whigs and even less with the slavery-centered Democratic Party. German-Americans in the Midwest were “small-d” democrats who supported Lincoln and rallied to his young Republican Party and the union cause. Before the war, Davenport’s German-language paper reported on the greatest single issue in American history — abolition — and after the war chronicled another single issue movement — what came to be called prohibition.

The Iowa Republican Party had fallen under the sway of a crusader, Carrie Nation, and her anti-alcohol campaign.

For German-Americans, bread and beer were linked even more tightly than love and marriage. In editorials and letters to the editor, Davenport Germans at first wondered if they would have to abandon the party of Lincoln with its absolutist stand against alcohol. After much discourse a consensus emerged. They couldn’t shake their distrust of the alternative — the Democratic Party — which they perceived as longing for a return to antebellum Southern values. Accordingly, they determined to stay Republican but ignore the platform, which is advice I have given more than a few friends over the years.

Chronicling America facilitates the practice of considering how the nation has changed — or remained the same — by citing a newspaper a century back. Hence, let me report on the August 29, 1911, issue of the Washington Herald, which was a popular daily newspaper published in the District of Columbia between 1906 and 1939.

Some things in Washington don’t seem to change very much. Crime and the weather dominated the news. That day in 1911 was sunny with an expected high of 91 degrees. One of the reasons the Capital came to a standstill from June to August in the first century and a half of constitutional governance was the heat and humidity. Air conditioning didn’t become institutionalized in the workplace until a generation later, and then for decades it still remained out of the reach of most American homes.

There was also an account of a hurricane that devastated Charleston, South Carolina, a century ago and of a murder trial in Richmond, Virginia. A man named Henry Clay Beattie was found guilty of killing his wife, a crime for which he was executed.

The political winds seemed deceptively calm. It was two years before the Armory show in New York brought controversial modern art to our shores, presaging the cultural wars later in the century, and three years before the outbreak of World War I, a conflict that was so horrific that it came falsely to be labeled “the war to end all wars.” Congress was not in session. The Herald noted that the president — William Howard Taft — was preparing for a leisurely trip across the country by train. The president would visit some twenty states, returning to Washington at the end of October. Yet, as we now know, Taft’s political position was more precarious than the image his hefty bearing displayed.

Divisions within the Republican Party would lead to the formation of the Progressive Party, led by Teddy Roosevelt. This rupture doomed President Taft’s reelection efforts the following year, leading to the victory of Woodrow Wilson. A reading of the recent press and Internet tea leaves raises the question of whether a movement toward multiple parties might again be on the horizon. Technology becomes a factor with one group planning to hold a novel Internet convention next year. The intriguing question is whether the undertaking will cause the creation of a long-lasting political movement as occurred in the 1850s or prove to be an aberrational, personality-driven rump effort as in 1912 with Teddy Roosevelt, 1948 with Henry Wallace, and 1992 with Ross Perot.

A century ago, the Washington Herald published a particularly upbeat report on the nation’s economy, noting that with factories and farms at full production “the business outlook in the United States is bright.” Given the high unemployment and stagnant growth bedeviling the U.S. and Western Europe, the mood today is more pessimistic, except on the farm where record corn prices and strong prices for soybeans, wheat, and livestock signal a strong year in agriculture. The big change in the farm/industrial mix from a century ago is demographic. Today less than two percent of the American people live on the farm and closer to one percent are responsible for more than ninety percent of American food production.

Internationally, a lot has changed. The two world wars that made the 20th Century the bloodiest on record had yet to be visualized in 1911, especially on our shores where we still maintained a political aversion to becoming involved in the squabbles on the Continent. The 20th Century was about challenges posed by national aggression and ideological “isms” of hate, fascism and communism. The last decade has produced two new strategic challenges: the globalization of terror and the resurfacing of religion as the driving divider in human relations. A century ago the only hint of a foreboding cataclysm was a brief, below-the-fold report about a German army officer, Lieutenant Philip Schultz, who had been arraigned for espionage in Britain. Not new are the duplicity and undertow of violence in human affairs that too frequently become magnified in international relations.

The description of newspapers as a “first rough draft of history” is fast becoming a cliché with sage-like connotations. But, as important as first drafts are, newspapers are far more than grist for historians. In providing news of the moment and advertising for various goods and services, they give readers insights into what is happening in communities from political and cultural events to sales at stores. They supply information about things we want and introduce topics we perhaps didn’t know we wanted to understand. Patterns of repetition, hints of change, and evidence of problems on the horizon are revealed on a daily basis.

Newspapers are about the present but they encapsulate the past and point to the future. It will be a tragedy if their demise is upon us. But if they are replaced, this must be recorded too, and we can only hope, whatever replacements may be coming, that they will prove to be as helpful and interesting to humankind as the American newspaper has been over the brief course of our extraordinary history.

Thank you for your interest and dedication.