Digitization project preserving century of Catholic newspapers, newsfeeds

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Only pack
rats would save copies of old newspapers. Or so you would think.

But a consortium of librarians
and archivists are preserving the Catholic news from the last century.

As newspapers age, their pages
get more brittle and fragile. And outdated technologies such as microfilm and
microfiche keep those newspapers from being readily accessible unless you live
near a big downtown library or a university that still has the machines needed to
read that data.

Many Catholic newspapers, unlike
their secular daily brethren, were not kept, maintained and preserved with the
same level of passion, save for some diocesan archives.

To correct this situation, the
Catholic Research Resources Alliance has undertaken a project to digitize
nearly a dozen of the United States’ top Catholic newspapers of regional and
national importance — the print runs of which, for some of them, go back for
more than a century.

“Creating a Catholic news
archive and digital aggregation for Catholic newspapers is something that
scholars are very interested in,” said Jennifer Younger, executive
director of the alliance, known as CRRA.

“We mark the beginning (of
the project) in 2011, when we brought together a newspaper committee: ‘If
we’re going to digitize something, what would be most useful?’ Newspapers rose
right to the top. Which newspapers? We had to figure out which newspapers
existed, which ones were being held (by libraries), which ones weren’t being
held,” she told Catholic News Service.

The committee came up with a
list of more than 800 Catholic publications from the United States alone, and
another 200-plus in Canada.

Eleven newspapers the
digitization project has begun with represent some of the largest dioceses in
the nation: Catholic New York of the Archdiocese of New York; the Catholic
Standard and Times of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; Catholic San Francisco;
the Clarion Herald of the Archdiocese of New Orleans; the Florida Catholic of
the Archdiocese of Miami; the St. Louis Review; the Pittsburgh Catholic; and
the Catholic Transcript of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut.

A 12th newspaper recently added to
the list is the Catholic Worker, which since its founding in the 1930s is still
a penny a copy, as the front-page banner says.

For a national perspective, the
National Catholic Reporter and 65 years’ worth of newsfeeds starting in 1920
from what is now called Catholic News Service will be digitized. CNS’
predecessor was NCWC, for National Catholic Welfare Council. In addition, an NCWC/CNS
feature called “Catholic World in Pictures” will be digitized too.

The digitized material will be made
freely available through the CRRA-developed Catholic News Archive, https://thecatholicnewsarchive.org.

Digitization is the new normal,
according to Tim Meagher, an associate professor of history at The Catholic University
of America, Washington, and an archivist who runs the Center for American
Catholic History.

“Everything is, as much as
possible, going into digital format,” Meagher said. “In some ways,
even if the paper exists in print, its use will be less if it is not

Some of the largest U.S.
dailies, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune,
have been digitized, he said. “It’s a tremendous asset,” Meagher
added. “Suddenly you’re on the radar screen, easy to access, easy to get

Of Catholic papers, he said,
“We would love to be able to digitize every one. We may not be able to
digitize all of them, we may not be able to digitize all years. But to begin is
an important thing.”

“We have set very high
standards. When we do our digitization, we never have to do it again,”
said Patricia Lawton, CRRA’s director of digital initiatives. “We’re
getting the best imaging we possibly can. Microfilm or print, you want a good
image. That is the basis of everything that you’re going to do,” allowing
the user to employ more robust search capabilities. “We based all our
research on the Library of Congress (standards) and even upped the standards a
bit,” Lawton noted.

Archivists also are working with
those libraries and diocesan archives holding newspaper collections to preserve
them, and to provide multiple backups for the digital information being

Amy Cooper Cary, head of special
collections and university archives at Marquette University in Milwaukee,
described the “heavy lifting” needed to digitize a newspaper.

In digitizing a century’s worth
of Marquette’s student newspaper, Marquette opted to do the work itself rather
than contract it out — which could be cheaper but take longer to do, without
the kind of quality control one may want. Marquette also chose overhead
scanning to gain a better image, and has utilized students to compare the
original newspaper with the digitized image to make sure there are no glitches.

A grant from the U.S. Conference
of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign has allowed CRRA to
digitize the NCWC/CNS archives from 1920 to 1952, but Cary estimated the cost
of digitization at more than a dollar per page. Doing roughly a century’s worth
of 10 weekly newspapers and one monthly comes to a lot of pages. A GoFundMe
project was established in December to raise $25,000 to digitize the NCWC/CNS “Catholic
World in Pictures” print run: www.gofundme.com/hb-catholic-world-in-pictures.

For CRRA’s Catholic newspapers
project, the top priorities are the years prior to 1923, when material is in
the public domain, and the years before, during and following the Second Vatican Council, to
track the difference in how the church engaged with the world — and with
itself — that may have manifested itself in the pages of the newspaper.

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