Monday, April 24, 2017

The Long Lingering Death of the Google Newspaper Archive


Once there was a happy land where historians could go online and explore by date and keyword through most of the historic newspapers of their town. In this favored place, researchers could quickly hunt down the names of specific people, or keywords like "Indians" or "temperance" of "I.W.W." and perform what used to be months of painstaking research in moments. Gone were the painful days of rolling microfilm through a projector and squinting at columns of cramped text, hoping against hope that you would find something on your topic. The Google News Archive, which contained most of our historic newspapers, promised a revolution in local history research. And the people did rejoice.

"Bringing history online, one newspaper at a time," Google crowed in 2008, promising to make "billions of pages of newsprint from around the world searchable, discoverable, and accessible online." Spokane was among the first cities to get the Google News Archive treatment, as the company scanned the microfilm copies of the Spokesman-Review, the Spokane Chronicle, and other newspapers and added them to the database.

This stuff used to work.
It was exciting--but Google's support for the ambitious effort faded quickly. Google mostly abandoned the project in 2011, without ever providing a reason for doing so. Soon after that, the company merged the archived news into the same category as current news, in the process breaking many of the search features. With some clever manipulation of Google search parameters and patience you could still tease a lot of information out of search, but it was a crippled feature.

Then, one day last fall, search suddenly stopped working at all. Oh a search like "Spokane Indian tribe" will come up with a few interesting hits from the historic newspapers, but compared to be able to narrow that search by newspaper, year, etc. it is pretty thin gruel. You can still (for now?) browse individual issues of Spokane newspapers at the Google News Archive (scroll down) but without search, they are far less useful.

Users of the archives got another shock last fall when, without warning, Google yanked all of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel from public view. This is because that newspaper, which is still in business, worked out a deal with the commercial electronic publisher Newsbank to add its back issues to their pay-walled database. Google even deleted those issues that are in the public domain. Will this happen in other cities? (Hint: yes.)

Attempts to contact Google have proven fruitless, and it appears that the News Archive joins the long list of abandoned Google projects. It would be nice if we could get the newspapers that Google has imaged into the Chronicling America site, but I have not been able to get anyone at either institution to speak about the possibility. The most likely future for the Google News Archive is that it simply disappears one day.

There is a larger lesson here, a story about the perils of relying on private corporations to provide what could be a public utility. The huge scanning projects of Google Books and Google News Archive could be replicated with a public effort--a few hundred million would do it. We could have nice things.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Preliminary Notes for the Case Against Ken Burns

As Americans we must acknowledge that our sins are many. Slavery, conquest, the pillage of the environment, inequality--the list hardly bears repeating. But what in our whole storied past have we done to deserve Ken Burns?


Image result for ken burns
Telling us stories we like to hear.
Burns has ruined the historical documentary film for at least a generation. His bloated, tear-jerker, The Civil War, was a monster hit that changed the rules of the game. Where before the American Experience documentaries were tight, disciplined 50-minute films, now they became hours-long, multi-part spectacles. Nothing was left on the cutting room floor anymore. “Interview with an old woman who pet LBJ’s beagle in 1960?! Ratings gold! We have 9 hours to fill after all! Go back and see if you can get her to cry.”

Worse than the length and endless digressions of the Burn’s method is the sentimentality. Burns is forever delving into the feelings (or imagined feelings) of the characters rather their motivations and importance. Historians are replaced by poets and political hacks and novelists (and, always, Dayton Duncan), brought in to narrate a history that they barely grasp. The cringe factor is off the charts.

The greatest sin, however, is that Burns is at heart a consensus historian from the 1950s. The Civil War is wrapped up in a “it was all a tragic misunderstanding” narrative that minimizes the ways it was a fight over slavery and white supremacy. The omnipresence of Shelby Foote, with his endless love of the Confederate heroes, drives this home. Lewis and Clark is similarly cursed with serial plagiarist Stephen Ambrose, who knows everything about Meriwether Lewis (except the fact that he was obviously freakin’ gay) and nothing at all about the Indians or even American expansionism. Real scholars of the period like Jim Rhonda and John Allen Logan were barely present, making room for Ambrose, William Least-Heat Moon and Erica Funkhouser--none of whom know much about Lewis and Clark.

Burn’s huge popularity and influence have made his sins viral. Now every damn thing on PBS is a big budget multi-part week-long extravaganza. Some of these are actually not bad. But their very length assures that they will have less cultural relevance. A five-hour series on the French and Indian War airs once, maybe twice, and disappears forever. It is too long for classroom use, and copyright and encryption on the DVDs ensures it will not be edited or remixed into something useful. The old American Experience was devoted to 50-minutes stories that were shown again and again--I can’t tell you how many times I have shared Demon Rum or The Orphan Trains with a college class. The new documentaries do not have a shelf life.

Honestly, someone needs to write a book with the title of this blog post--The Case Against Ken Burns. It will not be me, as such an effort would involve hundreds of hours watching and rewatching his films. So Dear Reader, I give the idea to you. Run with it, I promise to buy the book. In the meantime, I offer a list of some trenchant critiques to get you started:


Ken Burns’ The Civil War


Ken Burns’ Lewis and Clark


Ken Burns’ Jazz


Ken Burns’ The West as America


Ken Burns’ The National Parks

Ken Burns’ The War


Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts: An Intimate Portrait


Overall Critiques and Parodies:



Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Den Danske Kronike, a Danish Newspaper in Spokane, Now Online

Advertisement for Spokane College, which was built in 1907 by the Norwegian Lutheran Community and stood near the corner of Grand and 29th. The college closed in 1929.  Source:  Den Danske Kronike, September 23, 1917 p. 3.

Spokane has from the beginning had its strong immigrant communities--some of which published newspapers in their own languages. According to the Library of Congress' U.S. Newspaper Directory, Spokane has hosted newspapers in Swedish, Norwegian, Swedish, German, and Italian. Today I ran into Den Danske Kronike, a Danish-language newspaper that is available online here, courtesy of the Washington State Library. The newspaper published for only little more than a year in 1916 and 1917. Its masthead proclaimed (in English) that it was "A weekly newspaper published in the interest of 10,000 danish- and norwegian- born Americans in the Pacific Northwest." As if to emphasize that its readers were loyal Americans it also bore the motto "Aerica First!"

If I could read Danish this would be a better post--but even without knowing the language these ethnic newspapers can tell us something about their communities. Den Danske Kronike served to inform readers both about events back home and also serve as a guide to local events and businesses. The front page (of the four-page sheet) featured news from Denmark. And ad for the Scandinavian-American bank offered readers to join its "Prosperity Club" whose model was "Save to keep and not save to spend."


Inside, the paper focused on local news of interest to the community. The advertisements point to a community that is prosperous, geographically scattered throughout the city, and often (from the frequency of English words) bilingual. Advertisers include doctors lawyers and other professional, often with Danish-sounding names; photographers; confectionary shops, colleges and business schools, and quite a few clothing stores.

"The time has come to get ready for the Great Danish Banquet to be held at Odin Hall by the Danish Brotherhood October 10," advised one advertiser. "Every good Danish citizen will be there with bells on--so to speak." The clothing store, named The Palace, goes on to describe the "exquisite inexpensive evening gowns" and fabrics for sale. The advertisement, all in English but very much tailored to the Danish readers of the paper, gives us a snapshot of a community that has its own fraternal organization, an annual festival, and the spending money to dress up for the occasion.

I thought at first that it was the very assimilation of its target audience that accounts for the short run of Den Danske Kronike, which published fewer than 70 weekly issues in its 16-month existence. But I see from the Washington State Library's description that the First World War was the immediate cause:

A weekly Danish-language newspaper, published in Spokane, WA by Ingvard Eskeberg and N. Berletsen Nelson. It was published in the interest of 10,000 Danish and Norwegian born Americans in the Pacific Northwest. It was published every Saturday from the offices located at Riverside Ave., Spokane, WA with the subscription cost of $1 a year. In Dec. 1917, the newspaper ceased when Ingvard Eskerberg felt it was his duty to enlist in the aviation corp of the U.S. Navy during World War I.

The original copies of Den Danske Kronike were donated to the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture by the Eskerberg family, and it is from those copies that the State Library digitized the newspaper.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Exploring the Death of Chief Joseph in Chronicling America

The Spokane Press judged Joseph a "Great Indian Chief" at his death, 
but other opinions would differ. Image courtesy of Chronicling 

On September 21, 1904, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce died. He was among the best-known native leaders in North America, famous for his oratory and for his leadership during the long retreat of his band during the 1877 Nez Perce War. (Short biography here.) He passed away on the Colville Indian Reservation in north-central Washington, far from his ancestral home in the Wallowa Valley of eastern Oregon. Newspapers around the country took notice of the passing of the old chief.

The death of Joseph is a useful event to use to explore Chronicling America, a digital repository for newspapers from the Library of Congress. Chronicling America launched in 2005. At first it was a digital home for the library's huge and still-useful index of every known newspaper published in the United States. In recent years, the Library added digitized newspapers to the collection, and today there are over 2000 newspapers totaling 11 million pages. And unlike the abandoned Google News Archive project, the newspapers are keyword searchable with sophisticated Advanced Search features. Due to copyright and technical concerns, the collection stops in 1922, and is strongest for the early 20th century.

Joseph in 1877 at the Ellensburg Rodeo,
wearing regalia lent him by Chief Moses.
Photograph courtesy of Steven Heiser.
I have been thinking about how to use Chronicling America in my classes, as it seems a great way to immerse students in a huge data set of primary sources. My thought is to have students explore one incident from their textbook that occurred sometime between 1890 and 1922. So let's go looking for newspaper coverage of the death of Chief Joseph, and see how this works.

Here is the search I used--the phrase "Chief Joseph," search all states, limited to the years 1904 and 1905. I got 473 results--too many, really. The very first page of results shows the richness of the tool, with relevant results from big city papers like the Los Angeles Times but also from tiny, long vanished regional newspapers like the Heppner Gazette and the Athena Press (of Athena County, Oregon, of course).

I was surprised to find that even a quarter-century after the events of 1877, opinions concerning Joseph were sharply divided. Many newspapers, particularly those in the East or in larger cities, lauded the man. "Chief Joseph Was a Great Indian" declared the Indian Advocate, in a long article that reviewed his history and mistreatment at the hands of the government. The Seattle Star ran a sympathetic (and also demeaning and maudlin) piece about how "the great Indian general" was mourned by his widow. The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, published in Honolulu, referred to Joseph as the "Great Chief of the Nez Perce."

Some newspapers, however, particularly those in the rural west, took a dim view of Joseph and of those who would honor him. These often-hostile accounts from communities that might have been settled by white people who took and active part in fighting the Nez Perce in 1877, sometimes include additional information that might not be in any other historical source. The Havre Herald refers to Joseph's band as "murderous savages" and then goes on to provide a detailed account of the fight at Cow Creek, including the names of local volunteers who participated in the battle. In an article titled "Don't Want to Honor Chief Joseph," the Heppner Gazette shares the war reminiscences of Lew P. Wilmont, who claimed to have been a "volunteer scout" for the troops who had pursued the Nez Perce. Wilmont called Joseph "nothing more than a murderer" who "hated the whites with that bitter intensity that is born in the Indian." Wilmont continues with many specific and sensationalized instances of what he what he sees as the chiefs cowardice and cruelty. "Chief Joseph Was No Hero" agreed the Fergus County Argus, which quoted E. K. Connell of Tekoa to say that Joseph was a
"treacherous, cowardly brute."
Joseph with anthropologist Alice Fletcher in 1889.
Photograph courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Western newspapers were not unanimous in condemning Joseph, however. The Idaho Recorder wrote that "Joseph was a born strategist, but was also brave and honest," and gave a very sympathetic version of the 1877 war. The Athena Press of Pendleton, Oregon called the chief "perhaps the greatest Indian ever born on the Pacific coast."

The death of Joseph provides a sharp focus on American attitudes towards Indians at a certain point in time. It also  shows the power and limitations of doing historical research in Chronicling America. Many of the articles in the search results were only the briefest mention that Joseph had died, but finding this out involved drilling down to each newspaper page, zooming in twice to make it legible, and then clicking back up (or toggling to the original browser tab) to return to the search results. IT is light years more efficient than the old days of scrolling microfilm in a library carrel, but is still a slog.

I assigned a brief research paper based on Chronicling America in my undergraduate survey class last year, and saw some pretty good results, I will continue to refine the assignment.