Less than a year ago, we celebrated the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection (CHNC) reaching 3 million pages. Thanks to the support of local partners throughout Colorado and the hard work of CHNC’s small but mighty team, more than ANOTHER MILLION pages have officially been added to this immense database, which is free for all to use.
Not that it needs to be said, but 4 million pages is a mind-blowing number – actually, CHNC passed the 4.1 million page mark during the writing of this post! Currently, 744 individual newspaper titles published in Colorado from 1859 (before Colorado was even a state) to 2023 make up this enormous number. Think of all that history, all those stories waiting to be rediscovered. There is so much to discover, and you might be the only person to unearth something in many decades.
Historic newspapers represent a boon to genealogists, historians, writers, teachers, students, hobbyist researchers, or anyone looking for that specific something – an event, a place, a person, a business, a movement, information on a particular group, a historical nugget…or, putting it bluntly, they are a goldmine for anyone interested in uncovering the truth (more on that below). Regardless of your interests, you are almost certain to find something intriguing in CHNC.
Thank you to our partners!
CHNC is growing at such a fast rate thanks to the amazing partnerships we have with cultural heritage organizations all across Colorado. One of these is Palisade Historical Society, whose new additions put us over the 4 million mark. When we asked Priscilla Walker, Founding Chair of Palisade Historical Society, her thoughts about working with CHNC, she gave us this quote:
Working with the CHNC has made digitizing The Palisade Tribune so much easier than we ever thought. Regan and Leigh have been so helpful especially with coordinating the delivery and pick up of the archival issues. Virtually every day, we use the papers to research answers to questions for historical projects we’re working on. We also frequently hear from teachers, reporters, writers, professors, students, genealogists, and others about how much they appreciate having easy access to the paper. Because it was a weekly, it has succinctly written local, regional, state, national and international news.
Thank you to Palisade Historical Society and all the other partners who make this work possible!
What was that about the truth?
Today’s news is highly biased towards whatever brings in the most clicks, which in turn generates revenue. But local journalism never really worked like that – it was created by local journalists concerned with local interests, back when a click was something you did with your heels. In CHNC there are almost 750 publications (and many more extant Colorado newspapers have not been digitized by CHNC). Most of these were small papers that had the freedom to print what was most relevant to their audience, and the publication lived or failed on that basis. Now that traditional local journalism is dying, the value of archival projects like CHNC cannot be overstated, not just for the research possibilities, but to show what this practice of intentional and tailored journalism looked like, and how much our media consumption has since changed.
Yet, we should not trust everything we find when looking at historic newspapers. They help to build a picture that may not be the absolute truth, but multiple articles taken together get us closer to the truth, as it seemed at the time. A good deal of detached skepticism is part and parcel of doing good research, something that gradually becomes obvious to seasoned newspaper researchers used to finding reports that conflict in big and small ways.
The thrill of the chase
So, how to go about discovering all the hidden gems waiting to be unearthed? That is the subject of this post. I want to show you how to “pan for gold,” but more than this, I want to show you how fascinating (and downright fun) panning can be, and how rewarding, even if you sometimes wind up with pure gravel! Dipping your toes in will reveal to you that the past was many things, including weird, funny, and idiosyncratic, but it always fascinates.
I am interested in [Insert Topic Here] – where should I begin?
If you are already interested in a certain topic, then you have a basis to start your research in CHNC with a simple keyword search using the main search bar. Searching by keyword is a good start for finding specifics, like people, places, and events. Stick with me here through another metaphor: a good keyword search gives you a more manageable haystack, and CHNC’s refining tools (more on them below) act as little metal detectors guiding you to your needle.
Understanding the mechanics of the site helps you get better results. Keyword searches scour any newspaper text that has been gleaned by the system, either through automatic Optical Character Recognition when the pages are ingested (also known as OCR – this technology is reliable when the image and type is crisp enough to be easily read by the software) or because the text has been manually corrected by a volunteer (learn more about correcting text and check out Important Tips and Tricks for Correcting CHNC Text). Searching by keyword does not search every one of the 4,000,000+ newspaper pages directly, because not all of the text has been perfectly gleaned from all of the pages (and more pages are being added all the time!). Here’s a simple example of OCR text in action – you can see that the software has done a good job recognizing the standard print in the selected section, but not the larger graphic letters (arguably part of an image, but also technically text).
“RING IN THE NEW!” may not seem like particularly important information to make searchable, but every little bit helps when it comes to text correction, which happens in the “Article” panel on the left hand side. A laborious (yet rewarding) task, volunteer text correctors provide an invaluable service to the research community as they make the collection more accessible both to CHNC users and to the broader public via Google. As always, we are deeply grateful to all the volunteers who spend so much time improving the site’s accessibility.
There are many more pages than text correctors, and OCR can only take us so far, so we shouldn’t expect that all newspapers can be effectively searched by keyword. Yet, keyword searching remains a useful jumping off point for finding specific information – after all, with a keyword search you are effectively using a datapoint (a word) to find matches in a data set (all the words the system has gleaned from newspapers). Here are some things to remember when approaching the collection with search terms:
- If you get a lot of results after searching a broad term like “mining,” try being more specific by including other relevant keywords when possible.
- Similarly, if you get few or no results after searching something very specific, try a broader search term. Trial and error is your friend.
- Be aware that older newspapers contain archaic vocabulary, so searching something like “obituary” will probably leave out some papers, as this term was not always standard.
- If you know exactly what words you are looking for in a certain sequence, put them in quotes when searching (i.e., “YOUR TERM HERE”). This will only give you results with exact matches which can cut out a lot of noise in the results.
- When browsing your search results, use the various filtering options above and on the left hand side to narrow down results from specific date ranges, titles, counties, and much more.
- You can also utilize the advanced search function, which includes lots more searching tips on the right hand side and enables you to search specific parameters. Read all about advanced search.
- Also, visit the forum for tips on effective searching, whether you’re looking for obituaries, events, place, or more general tips.
Other methods of approaching the (rather large and always growing) haystack
We are seeing that the huge volume of pages available can be a double-edged sword when it comes to finding specifics, and the limitations of keyword searching is a reminder not to rely solely on this method of research. It should also remind you to persevere in your search. If a keyword search isn’t doing the job, we shouldn’t conclude that something of relevance cannot be found, we just need to have patience and approach it using all the tools at our disposal.
- Access all the titles through an interactive map of Colorado. This also shows the current status of titles in the pipeline or that need funding.
- You can also visit the Browse by County page for another map that allows you to specify results from multiple counties.
- If you are interested in a certain date or date range, you can view the collection by date. This is a really handy tool if you want to see all the titles issued on a particular day/week/month.
- View the full list of publications included in the database. Note that they can be refined by broad categories using the dropdown menu. For example, you can quickly browse all the foreign language newspapers in one place.
- Sometimes you might get no results because you are searching within a specific time frame and a specific county, city or title for which we have no issues for that time period. With that in mind, it can be important to learn what time period each title covers by visiting a title’s landing page, for example The Creed Candle landing page. From a title landing page, you can also easily search and get results from that particular newspaper.
- The Topics page includes many articles written by CHNC staff (containing links to newspaper articles and images) on some of the most popular or salient Colorado histories.
If you’re not looking for something specific
A lot of researchers come to CHNC to find something specific like an article to use as a source for their research paper, whereas others are curious and perhaps more open to discovery. They may be in need of that certain nostalgic joy that comes from browsing issues of a local paper from a certain time, or they might want to peek through the many windows into Colorado history, with nothing specific in mind but to immerse themselves in the past. To these researchers, CHNC is a huge rabbit hole that can lead them to unexpected delights. For this person, the Browse page is the best jumping off point.
Let’s find some bits of gold!
Picture your author in a vast archive of newspapers, large bound folios piled high on the tall stacks, most of them unopened for decades. Every shelf is exhaustively labeled with the title and the issues contained and the stacks continue in all directions with no end in sight. He has the time to luxuriate, with no goal in mind. There is the combined smell of dust, paper, and ink, but when he plucks one folio off the shelf and opens it, the smell is pleasant, the paper well preserved and as legible as the day it was printed, though yellowed by time. The type is fresh looking, despite being 100 years old. He begins browsing the broad sheets and can almost hear the uncanny accents of the random articles chattering in unison. The newspaper seems grateful for his attention, and he is glad to listen. Before long, he is smiling. He is there.
Minutes, then hours pass, and he is lulled into another dimension of time and space. The Rockies stand to the west, not yet preserved for skiing, short-term rentals, or second and third homes; Denver bears the hallmarks of a bustling and growing frontier city, where early motorcars struggle against deep snow. The columns fill the pages, one after another, through years, elections, wars, cultural movements, delineated with delicate lines giving the impression of structure. He looks for reason, explanation behind the layout. But the articles resist order. Journalists do not always sign their words. A serious article on foreign policy is juxtaposed with a playful ditty about feet.
Your feet are 2 of the most usefill things you have, and yet you mite live all your life without your best frend seeing them, and you ony see them yourself a cupple of times a day. You are bounded on the south by your feet and on the north by your hair.
The article goes on in this vein and ends abruptly:
Your feet are genrelly the ferst things out of bed in the morning and the last things in at nite.
He pictures other methods of getting in and out of bed – and indeed there are alternatives – but the story checks out. Another article nearby elicits interest.
He reads a direct quote from a woman from Louisville, Nebraska, who is eager to share her long story of conceiving, stoic as she was in her portrait. At the line “I have taken 36 bottles of the medicine and am never without it in the house,” he begins to wonder if this might be clickbait. Then he notices he has landed on THE NEWS PAGE FOR WOMEN. How many women read pages only specifically designed for them and their purported interests?
The lady smiling at your author is none other than “Miss Willa Ferris, socially popular in Denver.” He loves this description and the fact that it was printed. What’s her story? Presumably, this is the W.F. who wrote the accompanying poem.
Your author feels like he’s onto something interesting, but hasn’t yet stuck gold. Then, there’s a house for sale on 17th street, (if we’re talking about the same place, which your author can’t say for sure, it would be somewhere in today’s business district of downtown Denver).
Charming! But what is that in today’s money? Well, at something like $94,548.86, it would be a steal in this market… He is, as always, overly drawn to the advertisements.
The “New Safe Treatment” that bleaches away stains was called Bleachodent Combination. We can’t say for sure what it contained (except for “mild ingredients”) but he would wager a 1924 house price that it did the trick of removing stains, at the bare minimum – just look at that pictorial evidence. Lots of concern about safety, he thinks, his eyes flitting across the page and happening upon another interesting item, about a long defunct club…