Archiving and Newspaper Articles: Pain and Persistence

-Beth Kanell, Archives Month Committee Member, Waterford Historical Society

It happened again earlier this year: A donor contributed a folder of material relevant to our small Connecticut River town, with dozens of newspaper clippings on marriages, retirement parties, and more. The material was interesting and detailed, and there were photos of people long gone but still appreciated.

But the person who’d clipped out and saved out those wonderful articles hadn’t included the dates on them. Many of them came from halfway down the newspaper page, where the date of publication doesn’t show. I cringed. I recalled all too well my previous marathon session with a similar collection, struggling to add the dates that would weave those articles into the flow of town history.

Dairy farmer Leonard Goss’ 1979 obituary from a scrapbook.

People who haven’t wrestled with dating newspaper articles are often optimistic about how it will happen. “They’re all online,” they’ll suggest. “You just have to look them up.”

Alas, that’s not the case. Take our regional newspaper, the Caledonian-Record, as an example. The Library of Congress offers scans of its pages for the issues (under three different names) from 1833 to 1867 and from 1920 to 1922 (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov). Access is free! These are searchable pdf files, but even a well-planned search with an unusual keyword may turn up hundreds of “hits.” March through them one by one, and that’s your morning gone.

A librarian at the Vermont Historical Society kindly dipped into the subscribed resources she has, to find me three articles on Waterford gold mining in the 1800s that I couldn’t access on my own. Obviously, that won’t work every day! So by spending $59.90 every six months, I gained a personal subscription to Newspapers.com, where both the search function and the image quality are much better than in the Library of Congress version. (Sometimes, you do get what you pay for!)  At this site, the images of the Caledonian-Record run from 1837 to 1956—and that later “end date” helps a lot with relatively recent stashes of newspaper clippings from our residents. Since I’m on the site several times each week, often for an hour or longer, the price feels very reasonable. So far, one of us core Waterford Historical Society researchers buying access has been enough to get what we need.

But even identifying the years of these clippings takes us only halfway to what we want to see. The point of gathering our archives is not to fill boxes, bins, and cabinets (although we are good at that!). It’s to share information: to help fill the gaps in local history, to complement family histories in process, to reach out and show others how exciting the detection work can become, and how rewarding.

So what should we do with our newspaper clippings? There are three basic ways to preserve and share them, besides the slowly but surely aging paper versions in the (hopefully archivally stable) storage: photograph them, scan them, and find online links to them.

Here’s an article that has a role in the histories of Lyndonville, Vermont; if communications tycoon and philanthropist T. N. (Theodore Newton) Vail; and of Lyndon State College (now NVU-Lyndon). The mailing stamp at the top indicates, fortunately, that it came from the files of Lyndon State College collector Robert “Bob” Michaud. The “Wall Street Journal” heading is a deceptive tease—this is actually a reprint in the Caledonian-Record, February 2, 1964, which the paper clipping can demonstrate, on its flip side. A quick photo of the page is better than nothing, but clearly a flatbed scan image is better. Alas, there will be no link online for this, for a while. The Caledonian-Record website at present offers access (for subscribers) to only 1837-1926 (free search but a fee to download) or from 1997 forward, but it’s patchy, and the Vail article doesn’t show up. Well, two out of three is a promising start.

Vail article, captured in a cellphone photo.

Just as I was starting to feel I’d put together enough resources to track down what I needed for newspaper articles, I saw a 1979 obituary pulled from where it had been taped in a family scrapbook—and I needed the information in it for some work on local dairy farmers. The owner said “Oh, you can get that online,” but I already knew I couldn’t. Not for 1979! I snapped a photo with my cellphone and considered I’d been lucky to see the piece at all. I may yet re-type it, just to make sure I can share the information with those who don’t want to squint at the photos!

I do have one more option for this 1979 article: The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum maintains a microfiche collection of the Caledonian-Record. Director Bob Joly confirmed: “We have from 1837 to 2015 on film. There is no index and [they] have to be searched page by page.” From painful past experience, I know the photocopies that the machine there will print are probably less clear than the torn scrapbook article I photographed. Still, it’s a backup that I’m glad to keep in mind.

Vail article, captured on a flatbed scanner. Note the improved readability.

Most importantly for my own aim—interesting community members in sharing their memories and their scrapbooks—I’ll soon post my pair of photos of the scrapbooked article on social media. In my experience, that’s often the start of community contributions, as well as research projects ahead. And isn’t that what an archive of local history is really meant to do?

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