CHNC and the Online Historic Newspaper Landscape

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." - Franklin D. Roosevelt

With over 1.7 million digitized pages representing nearly 400 newspaper titles stretching back to Colorado’s beginnings as a territory, the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection (CHNC) is undoubtedly one of the best ways to research Colorado history, as well as broader history with a distinctly Coloradan flavor. There are other historical newspaper resources available online whose scope goes beyond Colorado newspapers, such as Elephind – whose mission is to be the “Google” of all the world’s historic newspapers by providing access to over 4,000 international newspaper titles in one place – and the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America, which lets you search America’s historic newspaper pages from 1789-1963 and includes a directory of US newspapers from 1690-present. But, if it’s Colorado history you’re looking for, CHNC is the place to be. Other states have their own programs like CHNC – you can find out more about other resources available by clicking here. The great thing about CHNC and other vast archival projects like it? They are completely free.

There are, however, websites out there (such as newspapers.com, newspaperarchive.com, ancestry.com, and genealogybank.com) that profit from historical newspapers by requiring a subscription (payment) for users to view content. Although such websites may have the permissions to publish the newspaper titles and they may be legally allowed to profit from those permissions, it is important to realize that there are many ways of finding historical newspaper content, and it’s always worth checking the freely available outlets before resorting to payment. But the budding history buff searching for content might not be aware of all that’s out there.

For-profit websites do not advertise the fact that other open access/free resources are available, leading consumers to get the impression that since this site is asking for payment, all other sites would probably be asking for payment too. A pay wall also gives the impression that this site is the sole publisher of the content, which may not actually be the case. Note that for newspapers in the public domain – currently those newspapers issued before 1925 – no one entity or person can “own” them; rather, like the National Parks, all Americans own them. This doesn’t stop pay sites from charging you to view newspapers considered to be in the public domain. There is often no mention of payment until you actually try to view the content you’re looking for – only then will you be confronted with a pay wall. At this point, if you are not willing to pay or cannot pay, you may be understandably deterred from your research or frustrated that you’ve come up against this barrier.

Also of note: it is in the pay sites’ interest to boost their exposure on Google using search engine optimization (SEO) tactics. This essentially means that websites can actively work to be higher in Google’s search results. Often this is to the detriment of free services like CHNC that are not able to use up resources to gain better Google rankings. Pay sites bank on the researcher’s preference for convenience above all.

So, that’s a rough sketch of how the land lies currently. What can institutions and individuals do to support nonprofit projects like CHNC? As is almost always the case: knowledge is power.

Pay sites are routinely looking for new content to add to their databases, and institutions might be approached by a pay site, perhaps with the offer of digitizing a collection for free. Such “free” offers likely come with agreements to give up the rights of the content to the website. Tempting as it may be to enter into such an agreement, it may have real ramifications years down the road. Newspapers represent a collective history – our history – and so limiting access to that history should never be done lightly. If an institution has a physical collection available for digitization, it is likely in the institution’s own interest (and certainly in the interest of people in general) to explore working with not-for-profit services.

Click here to read more about how you can support CHNC in particular. Another way you can help CHNC is by becoming a volunteer and helping to correct the textual translations of newspaper articles – learn more about how you can do that here. Beyond that, it is up to us as individuals to spread awareness about what’s freely available to everyone. Nothing can beat word of mouth. And, as even the most cursory glance into CHNC’s archives will show you: there’s so much to share.

Michael Peever