Old newspaper pages from across Tennessee to go online in digital project

By Randall Dickerson, AP
Monday, August 9, 2010

Tennessee historic newspaper accounts online

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A couple of years from now, scholars of Tennessee history and the mildly curious will be able to go online and read what some call “first drafts of history” - newspaper accounts written at the time events occurred.

Tennessee will join 15 other states - Kentucky and Virginia among them - in putting archival pages from dozens of newspapers online.

Secretary of State Tre Hargett, under whose department the State Library and Archives is organized, says the project will give Tennesseans broad access to stories written at the time events unfolded.

“Going digital will enable us to put these wonderful historic sources directly onto computer screens in Tennessee homes and schools,” Hargett said. “Tennesseans will gain an even greater sense of our history when they read these firsthand newspaper accounts.”

Chuck Sherrill, state librarian and archivist, said the project should be exciting to researchers from elementary school to graduate students and beyond.

“I think the newspapers are a long-buried resource,” Sherrill said.

He said the treasure trove will also aid historians and families doing genealogical research.

Some newspapers in the archive have ceased publication, many of them more a century ago.

The Wartrace Advocate was published from about 1887 to 1891 and the Dandridge Watchman was in print for a similarly short span a decade earlier, ending about 1880.

Several of the larger former publications once enjoyed wide readership - among them the Memphis Press-Scimitar, the Nashville Banner and The Knoxville Journal.

The state library has some 20,000 rolls of microfilm negatives that chronicle newspaper publishing statewide. The collection includes editions of The Knoxville Gazette, which was Tennessee’s first newspaper, begun in 1791.

The digitizing of about 2,500 rolls is the focus of the current project, making available online newspapers from 1836 through 1922.

The University of Tennessee will manage the project and some 100,000 pages of Tennessee newspapers will be available for viewing as part of The National Endowment for the Humanities “Chronicling America” Internet project. They will later also be available through a UT website.

In June, UT-Knoxville received a $326,165 NEH grant to fund the digitalization work.

At the time the grant was announced, JoAnne Deeken, head of University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Libraries’ Technical Services and Digital Access, said in a news release the value of the project was that online readers now will be about to see everyday events though the eyes of people who lived when the dispatches were written.

“We essentially live them as the people of the time lived them,” Deeken said.

Among events reported fresh in the pages are accounts of Civil War battles, Tennessee becoming the key state to ratify the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote and reporting of the 1925 “Monkey Trial,” at which Tennessee school teacher John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution.

While the big stories are interesting, Sherrill finds the magic is in the minutia.

“I think that’s really where the best information will be,” he said. “Almost every paper had a local news column - a weekly report on who was sick, who made the best cherry pie, how the crops were doing. There are ads for casket makers, buggy whip manufacturers and there are a lot of illustrations.”

Asked if anything surprises him in reviewing old newspapers, Sherrill said balanced reporting appeared uncommon.

“I guess objective journalism was unheard of in those days,” Sherrill said of 19th Century accounts. “You read things that are very slanderous and the newspapers were often very sensational and give a lot of gruesome details.”

Sherrill said an eventual goal of the library is to make all the newspaper archive available online.

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