Connecticut State Library with state seal

New Work Keeps Old News Alive

Library Hunting Down, Preserving Newspapers of Past

Reprinted with permission of
The Hartford Courant
Copyright (c) 1998, The Hartford Courant Company
Date: Sunday, March 15, 1998

Source: Steve Grant; Courant Staff Writer

Taking up much of the seventh-floor attic in the Connecticut State Library are thousands of yellowed newspapers that were published in Connecticut between 1850 and 1975, papers such as the Cheshire Herald, the Bridgeport Telegram, the Clinton Recorder and the Greenwich News and Graphic.

Jane F. Cullinane amid volumes of old newspapers.
Jane F. Cullinane, amid volumes of old newspapers at the state library, is microfilming coordinator of a project intended to find and preserve copies of every newspaper ever published in Connecticut.

Published in their day to be read and disposed of, these old newspapers are now a sought-after resource with enormous value for historians and for people conducting genealogical research.

But the papers, resting on massive shelves in the state library attic, are disintegrating. Beneath a stack of Stonington Mirrors and Mystic Journals from 1921, for example, is a pile of yellowed, brittle flakes, pieces of the paper that broke off and have fallen to the floor.

"Who knows what has crumbled away onto the floor, what pieces of text, whose obituary?'' asked Jane F. Cullinane, microfilming coordinator of the library's Connecticut Newspaper Project. "What pieces of news about what was going on in town have crumbled away?''

Her project is an attempt to preserve these newspapers before they collapse into confetti.

"This is a vital thing in the preservation of our memory as a state and as a people,'' said James O. Robertson, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Connecticut.

Bonnie Linck, newspaper librarian at the state library's history and genealogy department, said 6,000 to 8,000 people a year visit the department, and most use old newspapers in their research.

"They are very popular,'' she said.

Robertson, co-author with his wife, Janet C. Robertson, of "All Our Yesterdays'' and author of other historical works, has used newspapers throughout his career. "They give you a chronicle of what is happening day to day in whatever community the newspaper serves,'' he said. "Those things are totally lost if the newspaper is lost.''

In researching "All Our Yesterdays,'' which traced the history of a family in Hampton, the Robertsons came upon a stumbling block.

"We did not know when one of the major characters had died or in what circumstances, and we had no idea how he was publicly viewed -- until we found a wonderful obit,'' he said.

Obituaries and social news items are often used to fill out a genealogist's knowledge of a family's history. A historian might use anything from advertisements to general news columns.

"You won't find what was the debate before the new school was built in 1875 in the town records,'' Cullinane said. "The town records will show the money was allocated and a school was built. But the great debate that raged about whether we should use this land or that land . . . those things are in the newspaper.''

The preservation project began with a five- year effort to identify all the newspapers that have been published in Connecticut and determine which institutions or individuals had copies of any of them.

That work identified 2,071 different newspapers published in the state since 1755. Not a single copy can be found of 220 of them. Of the 1,851 newspapers that were found, in most cases there are many issues missing, and most existing copies have not been microfilmed, the process thought best for long-term preservation.

Once the identification effort was finished, Cullinane's group, with the assistance of an advisory committee of historians, genealogists and newspaper representatives, began selecting newspapers to microfilm. The project offices at the state library include a room where papers are prepared for microfilming, a labor-intensive process that can include ironing the old newspapers.

Using an iron to remove folds in old newspapers.
An iron helps remove folds and bends in old newspapers so they can be microfilmed, part of the state library's Connecticut Newspaper Project.

The first phase -- the job of microfilming 352,500 pages -- should be completed next month. That phase included microfilming the Deep River New Era, the Farmington Valley Herald, the Norwich Bulletin, the Woodbury Reporter, the Stafford Press and the Connecticut Western News. Work on the New Britain Herald has just begun, starting with its first issue in 1880, when it began as a weekly.

Cullinane is awaiting word on a $688,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities before beginning a second phase. The state would spend $305,000 to microfilm another 918,000 newspaper pages by 2001.

Cullinane said the next batch would probably include some ethnic newspapers. There are 87 titles on a list that includes newspapers published for African American communities.

One African American paper, The Hartford Chronicle, was published in the 1940s. Some copies are known to exist and can be microfilmed, but there are many missing editions. Of an earlier African American newspaper, the Hartford Herald, no copies are known to exist. In fact, the project knows of the paper only because it was mentioned in another newspaper, the Hartford Evening Post, which reported that it was first published on April 27, 1918.

Among the ethnic papers were La Verita, an Italian-language paper published in Waterbury for several decades in the early 20th century, and The Hartforder Herold, a German language paper published in Hartford in the late 19th and early 20th century. Only one copy of the Herold is known to exist. There also were papers published in Spanish, Swedish, Hungarian, Polish, French and Russian.

Cullinane said she hopes that people with private collections will come forward and allow their copies to be microfilmed.

"The ethnic and special-group newspapers, like the Hartford Herald, have been especially frustrating to find,'' she said.

The Connecticut project is part of the U.S. Newspaper Program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. So far, the endowment has spent $38 million in 50 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia to microfilm 57 million pages of newsprint.

"All of the newspapers are going to be entered into a database,'' said Jim Turner, a spokesman for the endowment. "They are little time capsules, these newspapers.''

Like their counterparts elsewhere, Connecticut newspapers have varied widely, not only in content but in page size. Cullinane says some of the papers were so large they must have been hard to hold. Another paper, the Eagle, published in Norwich, possibly by a schoolboy, was the smallest yet encountered; 4 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches. Its issue of January 1890 included this news: Miss Ruth Ross celebrated her 11th birthday by giving a party to twenty of her friends Dec. 14th."

The Eagle of Norwich.
The Eagle of Norwich, which measured just 4 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches, is one of the old newspapers the state library is trying to identify and preserve.

Some of the papers are quirky in name, content or both. Cullinane says Rodemeyer's Yellow Spasm, published in Bethel in the 19th century, featured news of eligible bachelors, a forerunner of today's "personals'' ads.

"It would tell you whether they had just a small beard or a big whirly mustache. It was describing them as in a "lonely hearts column,'' Cullinane said.

During the identification phase, the project learned that a newspaper called the Danbury Daily Prune was published in the 1920s, but no copies have been found. It is on a list of 200 missing Connecticut newspapers.

Cullinane said that even if the project receives its next grant, it will not be able to microfilm all of the known Connecticut newspapers that should be preserved.

"It is going to take a grass-roots effort to make sure these newspapers get preserved,'' she said.

There are complete or near-complete microfilm records of some papers, including The Courant. Cullinane said project organizers hope their work will encourage Connecticut publishers to continue microfilming current papers to preserve history for future researchers.

Anyone who believes they may have copies of old Connecticut newspapers not available elsewhere may contact the Connecticut Newspaper Project at (860) 757-6527.

Prepared by the Connecticut Newspaper Project, Connecticut State Library.