The April 16, 1912 front page of the New York Tribune (all images courtesy Library of Congress via Chronicling America unless noted otherwise)

The days of microfiche — or even those who can remember what that is — may be well behind us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to access the history of newsprint. In fact, with the Chronicling America initiative from the Library of Congress expanding to include media from all 50 United States, Washington, DC, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, it’s easier than ever to engage with a massive, searchable database of archived newspapers from around the country. The program currently offers free online access to a staggering 19.9 million pages of newspapers published in the US between 1777 and 1963.

A June 1921 headline from the Tulsa Daily World

The most recent development of the project, which has been ongoing since 2005, is a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant awarded to a National Digital Newspaper Program partner for the state of New Hampshire, which completes the participation of all 50 states. One of 12 grants totaling $3 million extended by the NEH, the funding will address the digitization of significant newspapers from New Hampshire through Dartmouth College, which will serve as the program’s state hub. Dartmouth will partner with the state library, university, and historical society to decide which historical newspapers should be prioritized for the records. Work has already begun on digitizing the New Hampshire Gazette, the first newspaper known to be printed by an enslaved person; the Dartmouth, the nation’s oldest school newspaper (founded in 1799 as the Dartmouth Gazette); and Among the Clouds, a newspaper printed on top of Mount Washington between 1889 and 1917.

The New Hampshire Gazette was the first newspaper known to be printed by an enslaved person. (via Wikimedia Commons)
Newsboys under the Brooklyn Bridge, captured by muckraker photographer Lewis Wickes Hine (ca. 1900–1937) (photo via NYPL Digital Collections)

“Building on 40 years of collaboration between NEH and the Library of Congress, Chronicling America is a uniquely rich national resource that documents the histories of the events, ideas, and individuals that make up the American story,” said NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe in a statement. “The addition of the 50th state partner to the National Digital Newspaper Program is a milestone achievement that will expand coverage of this unparalleled resource to encompass all US states, giving the public access to the ‘first draft of history’ from the perspective of communities across the country.”

The April 19 front page of the Call-Chronicle-Examiner covering the 1906 San Francisco earthquake that left the city in ruins

Searchable by topic, subject category, and date range, the database is a fascinating resource, full of slice-of-life perspective, current events of the time, odd artifacts of advertising, and a “this day in history” feature that posts newspaper pages from 100 years ago on the front page of the archive on any given day. It is also, in many cases, a painful testament to the media’s role in propagating racism and other dehumanizing ideologies.

The Morning Tulsa daily world, December 1922

“The Chronicling America collection is a treasure-trove of newspapers of record, community voices and local history unlike any other openly available primary source material,” said Deborah Thomas, chief of the Serial and Government Publications Division at the Library of Congress, and the Library’s program manager for the National Digital Newspaper Program.

For those wishing to explore specific moments in history or simply to get a man-on-the-street perspective from almost anywhere in the US, Chronicling America is a fascinating and continually growing resource. Look far enough back in time, and you might even find someone who still knows how to use microfiche.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....