Why we should digitize historical newspapers – theses on their importance for minority heritage

In the following I am discussing some theses on historical newspaper digitization which appeared during my projects on periodicals from German-language minorities at the Institute for East and Southeast European Studies:

I. Newspapers contain very diverse information, hence being an excellent source for various scientific disciplines and historical education. Being originally addressed to the public they offer information which was deemed relevant for a considerable part of a community or an entire society. Newspapers therefore provide a cross section through the knowledge which circulated in a certain time period and region. Because these do not demand an overly substantial historical knowledge and are chronologically structured, newspapers are excellent materials for student research projects. Beside documenting the history of knowledge and information delivery, reading newspapers is also an efficient training for information competence. However the scans need to be processed with performant OCR in order to enable an easier access to the huge amount of text.

II. Newspapers are an easily readable material for the broader public – but only these issues are interesting which are connected to well-known historical events, providing the reader with a historical experience. Today’s readers are more than ever before acquainted to consuming the short texts of articles because of our contemporary reading habits: hypertexting makes all of us more capable than earlier generations for dealing with various topics and a multitude of information in succint pieces of text (and of course less capable of concentrating on major works like entire books). In addition especially newspapers from the first half of the 20th century often provide selected visual materials which due to their quality and importance in some cases can be considered as “iconic” for their time and very illustrative for our present understanding of the respective time period. Therefore newspapers can and should be more frequently used in cultural projects linked to the teaching of history.

III. The OCR-processed text of newspapers is highly usable for text mining the vocabulary of a community given their collective and collaborative character which makes them very representative for the written language used in the respective time period. This and the fact that the types of texts are quite diverse – ranging from poetry to strictly administrative texts in the same issue – make newspapers so important for linguistic projects. However until now there are unfortunately no bigger projects on this issue (or at least not known to me).

IV. Historical newspapers are providing a huge and indispensable amount of biographical data. E.g. the Erik-Amburger database on foreigners in the Russian Empire was compiled mainly based on information taken from the St. Petersburger Zeitung, the most important German-language newspaper. Beside common information especially obituaries are an important source for documenting the biographies. Few articles contain even portait photographies – in some cases maybe the last surviving photograph of the respective persons. Newspapers can hence comprise historical information which is usually stored in archives or otherwise already completely lost.

V. The historical press needs to be digitized because of the low quality of its paper and at times acidic ink which gradually destroys the material. It is no exaggeration that handwritten medieval documents will be longer preserved than 19th century printed newspapers due to their material quality. A restauration is for several reasons (huge number of pages, damageable paper) no viable solution. Newspaper digitization can thus be seen as a contribution to cultural preservation and not only as a service for researchers and the historically interested public.

VI. Newspapers are especially important as documents for the history and culture of ethnical minorities. While the press serves for the majorities mainly as an information service, it fulfills for minorities a much more important role: newspapers served for them as information and discussion platforms where basic questions were debated and reached out to the not rarely geographically dispersed members of the minority. Digitizing them means therefore to keep a record about the communication infrastructure of a minority. For succeeding in this regard it is crucial to choose the right titles: the selected newspapers have to cover many areas – and should hence be daily, supra-regional newspapers – and feature only few gaps but provide as many years as possible in a row in order to show the uninterrupted development of the respective community. Otherwise decisive is the selection of newspapers which reflect the political diversity among a minority, i.e. especially opposing newspapers are suitable for demonstrating the historical options which were eligible for a community.

As a conclusion it is to be stated that newspaper digitization should play a more important role in the cultural preservation of minority heritage: the technical requirements are met by many digital libraries (unlike a few years ago) and researchers are more and more eager to use them. Digitization also enables for the first time to merge the often dispersed stocks and to present some titles for the first time as complete newspapers. With improved possibilities to process the data of the texts, it is to be expected that in the coming years newspaper digitization will maybe even trigger a hype – and projects on minorities should not stay behind this trend.

On the role of popular calendars which may serve as complementary materials to a newspaper digitization project see my other article.


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