Friday, July 17, 2009

I Re-Learned History From Reading Newspapers

Part 11 of The Library Chronicles
I'm sorry, I'm getting even worse about reminiscing about my first state job. This one is about 39 days after I wrote the last one. And like I said previously, better late than never (if you thought the gap between part ten and eleven was bad, the gap between part two and three of Sunday at G's was even worse).

Anyways, this post will be about what I re-learned about history while working at the library (for those of you who have come in at the equivalent of halfway through a movie, I spent the first six years of my state career working at the library, preparing newspapers for microfilming). Yes boys and girls, re-learned. I originally learned all I thought I needed to know in skool, with just a little brushing up by trolling around the library for a couple of decades.

Boy was I sadly mistaken. Unlike today's recycled wood pulp/rags (yes rags. what do you think newspapers of the 18th and early 19th century were made out of? actual paper was incredibly expensive) with miscellaneous layers of black ink written by people who have an agenda to install whatever skewered viewpoint that they possess into the unsoiled and untarnished minds of the general public, the newspapers of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century (with the 1950's as a cap) were actually written to objectively inform the masses. No skewered viewpoints, no sanctimonious hyperbole, no hysterically beating the drum (or a dead horse for that matter), none of that useless bullshit that permeates the newspaper industry and is the primary cause of why newspapers have been sticking an automatic at their head, pulling the trigger and wondering why it doesn't go off (hint: up until now, the reading public has been handing you, the media conglomerate, the automatic sans bullet in chamber, because they've been feeling very sorry for you).

Because newspapers back then were the only form of entertainment/keeping informed about the world around them, they had to be both incredibly objective (or non-partisan, take your pick) and mind numbingly dull with information overload.

The good thing about information overload as it applies to the local communities that a particular paper covered, is that you knew everything about what was going on in your town, be about politics, business, your neighbors, or the town at large. Newspapers back then became an absolute gold mine for slobs like you and me, who want to learn more about the town they live in or the people in their lives.

As for me, I learned quite a bit about foreign history and much more about American history than I ever got while going to skool or trolling the library. With newspapers, not only did I get to read about whatever well know event took place then (Hindenburg, Lindbergh, and locally the Hartford Circus Fire for example), but I got to read about the underlying causes and backstory about the events, but I got to read the various small tangents that the journalists saw then, but we really didn't see until only ten or fifteen years ago (again, Lindbergh and the Hindenburg tragedies are two prime examples of this). I even got to read intelligent, multiple viewpoints of the same events.

And what made it more interesting sometimes, was reading about a particular event that you knew how it was going to end, but reading about how the event unfolded to reach that bitter end (yeah, I know, I just repeated myself from the preceding paragraph). Well known murder trials were particularly good for this, such as well known architect Stanford White who was murdered by unbalanced socialite Harry Thaw. That particular trial was really the granddaddy of all celebrity murder trials. It really showed that money could buy a not guilty plea (side note: Harry Thaw remained in the news for decades to come, due to spending more time in the asylum for a vicious assault and for escaping from another asylum. As for the ingenue Evelyn Nesbitt, she disappeared from the scene much like Cato Katelin did with O.J.).

As for multiple viewpoints on the same event, for me locally was the Hartford Circus Fire of 1944. While reading about the initial event, I was later able to read about 20 different viewpoints about the circus fire as it applied to the surrounding communities and the state at large (Note: The CT State Library has the largest and most thorough collection of ephemara related to the Circus Fire in the country, whether you're looking for coroner records, photos of the day, case histories, criminal histories, the unprecedented legal settlement, legal precedents, you name it, you will find it here and nowhere else).

These are just a few examples of the many well know events in American history (in this case, pop culture), that you can get learn a great deal more about from reading old time newspapers than you ever could from reading a textbook or from a book taken from your local library or bought at a bookstore.
For now, this concludes my look back at the first several years of my state career that I affectionately called The Library Chronicles. I hope your trip back in time with me was a pleasurable one and that you were able to learn a little bit more about me and the world I that I currently ramble around in.


  1. Have they converted all those old microfilm and microfiche to digital. Good thing you weren't around to have to do that?

  2. I used to collect a great many newspapers from the 60's that featured articles about singers and pop stars. Much more interesting than books about these performers.

  3. I remember that poor little girl from the circus fire who went unidentified for decades, until finally claimed. What a sad story. Interesting thought to learn more from the news reports than textbooks. I suppose the newspaper articles were so much more immediate, without time for a spin to be put on the situations, so they give a clearer viewpoint.

  4. Bearman: as far as I know, I don't think so. Digitizing takes money, and money is in short supply. There will always be a call for microfiche and microfilm, becaust it is the cheapest way for anyone at any library to do the research. Most public and private libraries participate in some kind of inter-library loan system, so it's really easy to get what you need when you need it.

    LL Cool Joe: Most definitely. The newspapers I dealt with covered mostly the 18th through the early 20th century, so I only saw classical composers, opera singers and big band/swing/jazz singers for news coverage.

    Joanne: From what I understand, in the book entitled "Little Miss 1565" by Stewart O'Nan argues a convincing case that the girl is not who they say it is. I remember seeing him on an episode of BookNotes (C-Span) that was carried live from the State Library in Hartford.

  5. G -

    That sounds like fascinating reading! I love history and reading from the old papers while events unfolded sounds so interesting.

  6. It really was.

    It was interesting to read historic events that unfolded from the very beginning to the (sometimes) bitter end.

    Example: Rudolph Valentino. Most newspapers from that time period didn't publish on a Sunday. So it was interesting to read on the Saturday before his death how he was making a miraculous recovery, then read on Monday about his death and the planning of his funeral.

  7. Then again, I never read the papers on microphiche. I was too busy checking out the old advertisements.

  8. Microfiche was never really used with newspapers, it was used for more technical items, like documents and books.

  9. I consider myself an information hound. I would have enjoyed these daily history lessons from reading newspapers. Very interesting.

  10. I find the different angles of local history pretty interesting. Sounds like that job did alot for your perspective of media!
    Bet I would've liked that job- but would've spent too much time reading!

  11. Septembermom: They were very interesting. Over the course of the seven years of doing them, not only did get to re-learn history from the ground up, but I got a good crash course in the nuances of newspaper publishing (as it applied to back then).

    Snaggle Tooth: It definitely changed my perspective of the media. After spending several years reading newspapers ranging from the early 1800's to the early 1970's, it showed me how good the industry was back then and how lousy it is now. Even saw the seeds of the crappiness today when some of the papers we did started to be taken over by the Journal Register Co. (now delisted from the stock exchange and in bankruptcy)


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