hits one million mark
By Laura King
The University of North Texas Libraries celebrated a major milestone in February — free access to one million pages of digitized historical Texas newspapers via The Portal to Texas History.
It’s a big deal — not only to UNT and the small team of librarians that make the Texas Digital Newspaper Program a national leader in newspaper digitization, but also to Texas newspapers, such as the Cherokeean Herald.
On April 16, 1955, a riot broke out at Rusk State Hospital. Several attendants were taken hostage. Emmett H. Whitehead, editor and publisher of The Rusk Cherokeean (now the Cherokeean Herald), got the scoop.
Terrie Gonzalez, Whitehead’s daughter and editor of the family-owned newspaper, shared her late father’s story at the reception for UNT’s Million Page Milestone in Denton on Feb. 27. The event coincided with the 163rd birthday of the Herald.
“It was the story of the day,” she started. “The Dallas Morning News came over to Rusk to cover the story and the Houston Chronicle — they were all in our office to set up satellite offices and use our telephones — and the rioting patients at the hospital only wanted to talk to one person. And that one person was my dad.
“He was 29 years old, and he walked behind that fence — they had the superintendent held hostage — and he listened and found out what was on their minds and what it would take to end the standoff and the hostage situation. He published a special edition that night and put it out on the streets and that brought a conclusion to the riot. It was an amazing story.
“As I was staring at this framed story of the newspaper in my office, I was thinking … remember Jurassic Park and the dinosaur DNA that was embedded in the amber? These newspaper stories are trapped in microfilm and they can’t get out.”
Gonzalez is the self-proclaimed president of the portal’s unofficial fan club. The Herald received nearly $100,000 in library grants through the Tocker Foundation to fund the digitization process, still in progress. The private foundation, which supports library projects in rural Texas communities, has provided $355,000 in funding for newspaper digitization.
The Texas Digital Newspaper Program receives the majority of its support (roughly $1 million over the years) through the National Digital Newspaper Program, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress.
“UNT in 2007 was designated as one of only eight U.S. universities and the only university in Texas selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize their state’s newspapers,” said the president of UNT, V. Lane Rawlins.
“Today there are 32 institutions across the country that are so designated, but UNT is still the only Texas institution, and that’s significant because, as I have learned, Texans take their history seriously.”
The portal now contains more than 500 newspapers from 102 counties in Texas. The oldest newspaper in the collection is an 1829 issue of the Texas Gazette from San Felipe de Austin.
Newspaper digitization is achieved largely through the scanning of microfilm, a costly and time-consuming process that often involves locating and retrieving collections of printed newspapers (sometimes from a barn or an attic), shipping them to a microfilm vendor, and scanning them upon their return.
The Digital Newspaper Unit at UNT is trying to raise $125,000 for a large-scale scanner (the Zeutschel Omniscan 14000 AO) that would help them move into the modern era of digitizing content.
“This would allow us to digitize every size newspaper,” explained Mark Phillips, assistant dean for Digital Libraries. “We can work with faded newspapers. We can work with newspapers that are damaged, because there’s less handling. We don’t have to ship them, and we can capture them in color, which is the next big thing for us to be able to do.”
The digital newspaper collection also includes recent issues of Texas newspapers. PDFs can be added to the portal at no cost to newspapers. Publishers can set the terms of the arrangement so they can preserve the legacy of their papers and still make the history of their communities accessible to the world. The Cherokeean Herald, for example, has placed an embargo on issues published within the last three years.
“Newspapers are the town crier,” Gonzalez said. “We were Facebook before there was Facebook. We’ve been putting that information out there, and all this stuff is important. Now that it is digitized forevermore, it’s not something I ever have to worry about.”
Last fall, UNT Libraries established an endowment for the portal to help ensure long-term sustainability of the project, which comprises nearly 300,000 historical materials.
“The funds are used for technology, for purchasing collections, and it’s also for working with our educational component to build lesson plans and to move this content into K-12 … not only K-12 but into undergraduate and graduate programs in Texas and all around the world,” Phillips said.
Last semester, Martin Halbert, dean of UNT Libraries, was helping his 11-year-old daughter with a school project — her assignment was to create a new toy that was a modification of an old toy. She chose the Radio Flyer.
“So she said to me, ‘Well, Dad, one of the things I’m supposed to find out is how much a Radio Flyer cost in my community in the old days.’ And I thought, well, we can look that up in The Portal to Texas History,” Halbert said.
The portal uses optical character recognition technology to convert text images, such as newspaper pages, into searchable text, which allowed Halbert and his daughter to search newspaper ads, in addition to articles.
“What did a Radio Flyer cost in 1948? What did it cost in 1954?” he mused. “It was interesting. They always advertised right before Christmas, and there was a pretty steady period through the late '40s up to the '50s when it was about $10 for a Radio Flyer.
“My daughter was fascinated by that.”
Photo by the Cherokeean Herald: Terrie Gonzalez, editor of the family-owned Cherokeean Herald (formerly known as The Rusk Cherokeean), holds one of the last remaining printed copies of The Rusk Cherokeean story on the April 16, 1955, riot at Rusk State Hospital, written by her father, Emmett H. Whitehead, who was editor and publisher at the time.