Q&A with Nicholas Graham of the N.C. Digital Heritage Center

Newspapers like these are part of the online collection of the N.C. Digital Heritage Center.

Nicholas Graham is program coordinator at the N.C. Digital Heritage Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. In this interview, conducted by email, he discusses the center’s efforts to digitize and publish historical documents, including newspapers, that reflect the history of North Carolina.

Q. What is the mission of the N.C. Digital Heritage Center, particularly regarding newspapers?

A. The N.C. Digital Heritage Center is a fairly new (we started work in 2009) organization dedicated to working with cultural heritage organizations around the state to digitize selected materials from their collections and share them online via our website. We’ve worked with 80 different institutions to date. We’re supported by the State Library of North Carolina and the UNC University Library.

We work with lots of different kinds of materials — photos, scrapbooks, documents, maps, books — but newspapers are by far the biggest project we’re working on and the toughest. We work with our partners to select materials that will help their users who are interested primarily in state and local history and genealogy, and newspapers are an unparalleled source of information.

In keeping with our mission, we work to provide the best possible digital images and present them in a way that is easy to use, freely available to all, and sustainable. The newspapers are available online at http://digitalnc.org/collections/newspapers.

Q. How are newspapers selected for scanning and posting?

A. We asked public libraries around the state to nominate newspapers that they would like to see digitized. We received a great response, and we will be working this year to digitize papers from all over North Carolina, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries.

We digitize from microfilm because it is much faster and cheaper, and in many instances original copies of the old papers don’t exist anymore. When we finish the current batch of papers, we’ll look again to our partners to suggest more titles.

It’s important to us to have a range of titles that reflect the cultural and geographic diversity of North Carolina. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of that now.

On our site you can find a pretty broad selection, from the Fayetteville Observer in the 1850s and 1860s, when it was a staunch supporter of the Confederacy, to the Carolina Times from Durham in the mid 20th century, an important African American newspaper that was a prominent voice for the Civil Rights movement.

Our biggest frustration is that we can’t get the work done nearly fast enough to cover the demand. We’re on pace to digitize around a hundred reels a year, which is just a drop in the bucket in terms of what’s out there (the North Carolina Collection at UNC, for example, holds over 40,000 reels of North Carolina papers on microfilm).

Q. What are some common characteristics of the newspapers that you’ve posted so far? Any surprises?

A. Because of the wide variety of papers we’ve worked on — both in terms of geography and time period — there aren’t too many common characteristics that reach across all of the papers.

One of the things that continues to surprise me is the amount of seemingly mundane news that was included. Nearly all of the old papers had a social column where they reported on the comings and goings of the people in the town. This was far more than just births and deaths — they would report if somebody was going to be out of town for the weekend or if they had a dinner party.They provide a fascinating look at the life of a community.

I’m also surprised by how much we can learn about the day-to-day life of North Carolinians through the ads and announcements in the old papers. If we look at the early 19th century papers, we see things like notes about turpentine manufacture, horse-drawn carriages, food sold by the barrel, and runaway slave ads — it’s a detailed and often stark look at a very different way of life. Looking at the early 20th century papers, we can already see the modern world emerging in ads for movie theaters and department stores, and the much wider variety of goods available due to the increasing reach of the railroad.

Q. The center uses Facebook and Twitter to promote its work. Do you see a day where we’ll be archiving tweets and status updates?

A. We have a couple of features on our Facebook page that have been fun — we post a “Yearbook Photo of the Week” from one of the old yearbooks we’ve digitized and also have an album of interesting ads from old newspapers. We’ve been tweeting at @ncnewspapers for just a couple of months. We post a headline each day from an old paper published on that day in history. It’s been a great way to connect with users and provide a preview of the materials we’re working on.

Libraries and archives are already working on policies and strategies to archive social media and other “born digital” content. The Library of Congress has announced an effort to archive every tweet — it’s a daunting job, even for an organization as big as LC.

Librarians and archivists in Wilson Library are focused on preserving and providing access to the myriad ways in which North Carolinians express themselves today. There are a ton of technical and administrative challenges. It was certainly a lot easier to buy a copy of a book or newspaper (or even a letter or diary), which had all of the content in a fixed format. This is a big focus of the whole profession now, and the School of Information and Library Science at UNC is one of the leaders in digital preservation research and education.

It’s definitely where our field is heading in the future, and I’m confident we’ll rise to the challenge. In the meantime, we’ll keep working on the old newspapers.