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WVU Libraries Receives Grant to Digitize Newspapers

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
August 18th, 2011

The WVU Libraries have received a $266,000 grant from National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize 100,000 pages of newspapers published in West Virginia from 1836 to 1922.

“I was thrilled to hear that we received this grant because it represents an opportunity for us to take our unique holdings in this area and transform them into a resource that’s easy to use,” said John Cuthbert, Curator of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection.

The WVU Libraries’ effort will be part of the National Digital Newspaper Program. The NEH and the Library of Congress are partnering with libraries and institutions from around the country to provide enhanced access to historical United States newspapers.

The Libraries are collaborating with the Library of Virginia, the historical research library in Richmond, Va. It is a unique partnership because newspaper publishing in Virginia and West Virginia is intertwined. As West Virginia did not achieve statehood until 1863, the project includes newspapers that were published when West Virginia was still part of Virginia.

A previous NEH grant enabled the Libraries to identify, catalog, and microfilm historic newspapers from all over the state. Harold Forbes, Associate Curator of the WVRHC, directed that effort and assisted in preparing the current grant application.

The Library of Congress hopes to one day unveil a website consisting of cataloged papers from every state. The WVU Libraries and all other partner institutions will each maintain a database of the papers they contributed. All sites will be freely accessible to the public.

Cuthbert expects the searchable databases to be a boon to researchers who will be able to dig more easily into these rich resources.

“Newspapers are one of the most important means of studying history,” Cuthbert said. “They give the perspectives of the people of the time, and they’re packed with content that’s of historical interest.”

One of NEH’s focuses is Civil War coverage from both Northern and Southern perspectives. The NEH also wants to spotlight rapidly growing industrial towns, labor-management struggles in the coal fields, and towns affected economically and culturally during and after World War I. Other areas of emphasis include foreign language newspapers for newly arrived immigrants and black-owned newspapers.

West Virginia papers address all of those areas. The state played center stage both in the Civil War and in coal field clashes. For coverage of the oil industry in the 1870s, there was the Volcano Lubricator. During the early 20th century, socialists spread their message through the Labor Argus in Charleston and the Socialist and Labor Star in Huntington.

The press also gave minorities a voice. The McDowell Times was a black-owned paper in southern West Virginia. Wheeling had at least three newspapers written in German. Thomas had the Italian-written La Sentinella del West Virginia.

 This tremendous wealth of content, however, has gone relatively untapped because the newspapers lack an index.

Cuthbert possesses a first-hand understanding of the difficulty of searching through hundreds of yards of microfilm. While studying American music history in graduate school, he spent a year searching through newspaper microfilm looking for music references. He later repeated the process in a search for art references.

“Over several years I looked at just about every newspaper published in West Virginia during the 19th century,” Cuthbert said. “The only way to do this is to put microfilm on a reel and go page by page. One can spend a year doing that with a small quantity of newspapers.”

Once the newspapers become searchable online, one could accomplish in an hour what it took him months to do.

“That will be an incredible step forward. It will be tremendously valuable to every type of researcher we have here,” Cuthbert said.

For example, a common request in the WVRHC is for help in locating obituaries. Often, someone knows only a time frame, not a date.  Currently, such a search could take months if one is fortunate enough to find it at all. Being able to search by name could reduce the hunt to minutes.

Digitization will enhance the experience and results for historians, researchers, genealogist, and students.

“Professors often expect their students to go to original sources and draw their own conclusions rather than rehash what somebody else has written and adopt someone else’s conclusion,” Cuthbert said. “I anticipate students will get a great deal of use out of the results of this project.”

Cuthbert estimates the finished website will launch in 2013.

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