By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Hours after a monumental earthquake hit San Francisco in 1906, the Evening World, a New York newspaper, blared its account: "Earthquake's Dead May Number 3,000; Fire Is Now Raging."
Even in the smallest towns the news of the catastrophe quickly spread, with the Palestine Daily Herald in Texas simply stating in its headline: "San Francisco Wrecked."
Through an extensive database launched two years ago, decades of the country's newspapers can be searched online for major events and history-making names, as well as family connections and local celebrations. The Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities have worked together for 20 years to preserve old newspapers, first through microfilm and now digitization.
Yesterday, officials from both federally funded agencies gathered at the Newseum to announce that the Chronicling America project (http://Chroniclingamerica.loc.gov) has now posted its millionth page. Carole M. Watson, the acting NEH chairman, said the amassed journalistic reports "help to illuminate the history of our nation."
Eventually the organizers hope to post 20 million pages of newspapers from 1880 to 1922. "The newspapers provide firsthand and sometimes the only account of local news," said Deanna B. Marcum, an associate librarian at the Library of Congress. The library estimates that 140,000 newspapers have been published in the United States since 1690.
Researchers now can scour papers from 15 states -- and seven more state organizations came on board yesterday. They select their regional papers and digitize them for the project. The University of Kentucky Libraries, for example, have processed 37 of that state's papers. The NEH has distributed $11.6 million to state organizations for the project.
In looking for San Francisco's coverage of the earthquake, a researcher would discover that local papers couldn't publish that day but had to move across the bay and use another plant to print a unique joint edition named the Call-Chronicle-Examiner. Its headline the following day read: "Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins."
The passions around people and topics, such as World War I, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and the suffragist movement, are intensely chronicled, of course. The Salt Lake City paper, the Salt Lake Herald, dutifully reprinted all the debates around polygamy, which was outlawed in 1890. Many papers were straightforward about achievements now seen as landmarks of invention. Two days after Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first successful flight, the Washington Times used a tiny headline to report on their "airship." The piece emphasized weather conditions, noting that the flight was made "in the face of a wind blowing at the rate of twenty-one miles an hour."
The collection includes major papers and small-town weeklies, as well as the ethnic press. The Washington Bee followed not only the events of black residents but also the larger issues of the day. A search for "lynching" in all the Washington papers between 1880 and 1922 yields 6,382 results.
On Oct. 31, 1908, the Bee reported on lynchings of the previous two years. The story gave the reasons: "Thus it is seen that out of the 122 Negroes lynched there were 79 black victims of race hatred hurried to their Maker without hearing or tial [trial], for alleged crimes . . . [that] some of the white South holds must be punished by death administered by a frenzied, half-civilized, and more than half-brute mob of beings who boast of civilization."