History at Our Fingertips

Guest Post by Eden Robins, ADNP project manager

There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.

-Ursula K. LeGuin

NDNP Awardee Conference 2013, Washington, DC

IMG_20130913_160335_194Welcome to DC. I’m taking it all in. The Capitol Hill dome jutting up above the trees and into the sky forms the backdrop of my view as I traverse the city in cabs, by foot or on the Metro. I learned during my tour of Washington monuments that Abraham Lincoln ordered the dome to be built onto the existing building. And he also insisted that it be made of iron so that it would be strong, durable and sustaining. There is something so majestic and comforting about Capitol Hill and its history that I couldn’t help but be inspired as I started my first day of workshops at the annual National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP) Awardee Conference.

 The first day was hosted by our project funder, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and took place at the Old Post Office building. The large stone columns and vaulted, multifaceted glass ceiling was enough to make me understand that there is history in this place. Despite the main pavilioIMG_20130911_143158_412(2)n becoming a food court, the story of this building is still being told loud and clear.

NEH brought in Ed Ayers, President, University of Richmond, to speak about Digital Scholarship. He discussed the importance of NDNP and brought up the discussion of how we utilize the over 6.6 million pages of digital newspaper content that’s now been uploaded to the Chronicling America site. He asked my colleagues and I a thought provoking question. What is being done with all of that digital content? What’s its purpose? How is it being used as a resource for the benefit and education of our society and our citizens?

 Mr. Ayers pointed out that these newspapers are not only a record of American history but also THE social media of their day and can be utilized and presented to show trends, attitudes, and perspectives of the past. As such, this documentation is integral to understanding our nation’s history and the development of everything from social perspective on military, cultural and political movements to trends in industrial revolution, transportation innovation and technological development.

 Newspaper are the eyes, ears and voice of their times. As such, preserving them, studying them and learning from them is imperative.

IMG_20130913_160625_107The subsequent days of this conference were held at the Library of Congress and mostly dedicated to several states sharing their project experiences, successes, failures and future goals. Some states have partnered up with others in the newspaper digitization project to bring history to the fingertips of all who want to access this valuable resource. Some states are even engaging in international partnerships, spreading this effort to a global level.

This really made me reconsider our “little digital newspaper project” in Arizona. I thought about our neighbor to the South and how entwined we are with Mexico’s people and its history. This would be a natural partnership for Arizona.

My colleagues’ presentations and ensuing discussions helped me realize that this digital movement is not limited, and the possibilities for creating an online accessible primary resource that holds the documentation of time, people, perspectives and progress has no physical boundaries.

I’m thankful to all those at the conference willing to share their stories and am grateful that I was able to do the same. The last day of the conference I had the opportunity to speak about outreach for our Arizona Digital Newspaper Program. This is one subject that I felt an urgent and unwavering need to discuss. I shared my team and my attempts and successes with outreach and awareness building for this project. I explained our work at creating a permanent, interactive exhibit at the Capitol Museum. And I discussed our plans for taking these efforts forward into the future in more concrete ways.

I also discussed my fears.

There is still much work to be done, but my project timeline is limited. I only have a little IMG_20130913_102607_509bit more than a year left to completely digitize our state’s history through newspapers. I fear that despite how much will be accomplished, despite the fact that 300,000 pages of our historical newspapers will be digitized and available as a documentation of our state and our people’s evolution, it is not enough.

 There are so many stories still to tell. There are so many more accounts of the struggles and accomplishments of Arizona as well as records of the individuals and families living in both the big cities and the small towns that could be lost forever. This saddens me, yet also makes me determined to try to find another way; a way to perpetuate and sustain this project until the history, thoughts and progress of our state and its people are fairly, accurately and comprehensively represented in the global environment we’re now a part of. Anything less would be a huge loss that I fear we’ll all mourn, and a relentless ghost that will haunt our state well into the future.

 History is at our fingertips. We just have to take hold and make it our own. Guaranteeing the preservation of that history through digitization of our newspapers for local and global education and study for present and future generations should be an essential and continued effort by those who live in, represent and care about Arizona.

 Like that symbolic dome standing tall on Capitol Hill, I can envision Arizona’s digital newspaper history as a majestic backdrop for our state; strong, durable, proudly visible to all who visit us, and distinctly representative of who Arizona was, is and might one day become.

 Please feel free to contact Eden at erobins@azlibrary.gov