J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 06, 2010

Poking Through Google’s Old Newspapers

It all started with a tweet from a friendly genealogist containing a link to this page from Google, listing all its digital newspaper archives. I searched on that page for the character string “, 17” to find series that begin in the 1700s.

That produced a couple of false hits—newspapers that reprinted much older papers during the Bicentennial. Later I spotted the image above, preserving the hand of whoever was scanning that volume for Google. With that evidence I suspect that Google has digitized volumes of historic newspapers as part of its run through university libraries, and is now using its optical-character-reading software to organize those images. This service went online in March, and has probably been growing since.

As with Google Books, the result is sprawling, frustratingly incomplete, not always accurate in its metadata—and magnificently, munificently free to all. It doesn’t approach Readex’s Early American Newspapers archive in quantity, but that requires a subscription and a sign-in. Furthermore, the Google archive offers some newspapers from outside of the U.S. of A.

The software has missed some points when one issue ends and another begins, so the grids we see can understate the number of issues available. For example, here’s the Virginia Gazette and Norfolk Intelligencer for 4 May 1775. The bottom of page 3 brings word of the British army’s march through Lexington, Massachusetts—the dispatch sent by Joseph Palmer and initially carried by Isaac Bissell, here rendered as “Trail Bissell.”

Flip ahead to “page 6,” and you’ll find the same newspaper for 25 May, which includes Gen. Thomas Gage’s version of the Concord march.

The next page reports on an Edenton, North Carolina, celebration of “king Taminy the tutelar Saint of America,” on 1 May, at which “all the American gentlemen were habited in the garb of the Indian king.” Google Books, Google Scholar, and just plain Google don’t unearth one quotation of that article. Seize on it, cultural historians!

Then comes Gen. John Burgoyne’s speech in Parliament on being ordered to North America, followed by the 15 June issue with a speech against the American war by William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham.

Here’s the list of intriguing newspaper archives from the Revolutionary era that I found last weekend:

The archive suggests that searchable transcriptions are coming, but they don’t seem to be available for most of these very old newspapers (yet).

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