Just as several of Washington’s newspapers have vanished from the landscape, librarians and volunteers are bringing our state’s near-forgotten newspapers to light. Through a project in the Washington Secretary of State’s office, library employees and about 15 volunteers are digitizing the Washington State Library’s extensive newspaper collection to make it accessible to teachers, students, and the general public. In addition, WSU’s own Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections division recently assumed responsibility for an aging newspaper collection in the Holland library that contains Pacific Northwest papers dating back to 1851 as well as Colonial America papers dating to 1728.

Both collections hold rare editions of some of the region’s earliest papers detailing public events, pioneer life, and the efforts of achieving territory status and then statehood. Many of these documents are too fragile to be handled by the public, and some are only preserved on microfilm. By digitizing the state library’s collection, everyone can use them, says Marlys Rudeen, deputy state librarian.

Courtesy Columbia Gazette
Courtesy Columbia Gazette

Among the state’s collection are the 1852 Columbian, a paper produced out of Olympia and the first to be printed north of the Columbia River. The state project is aiming for a sampling that provides geographical coverage of the state, with papers like the Lynden Pioneer Press, the Weekly Argus of Port Townsend, the Spokane Times, and the Walla Walla Statesman. The last one is especially interesting, says Rudeen. Some 1866 issues have conflicting accounts of the Whitman Massacre, an 1847 Indian attack on missionaries who had brought white settlers and disease into the area that is now Walla Walla.

With old paper and old microfilm, the team has found the process of scanning newspaper pages and cleaning them up to be read and digitized an incredible challenge. At times it is “insanely difficult,” says Rudeen. Still, the volunteers are enjoying the work. This summer more than 6,000 images representing about 21 different newspapers were made available online.

Back on campus, archivist Cheryl Gunselman is attending to WSU’s own rare selection of newspapers. When most libraries were throwing out their old bound volumes of newspapers in favor of microfilm, someone at WSU set aside this small collection for posterity, says Gunselman. In it are 90 years of newspapers from the Pacific Northwest, as well as early Colonial America. “It’s a very curious collection,” says Gunselman. “A librarian at some point identified these as important or treasures, though sometimes it seems to me there is no particular rhyme or reason about it.”

While there aren’t the resources yet to digitize the WSU collection, a list of what’s available can now be found online. As well, Gunselman regularly brings them out for viewing, using them in classes and exhibits. They detail events and more importantly provide records of how communities were built and how the people who came before us lived, she says. “These papers are great teaching tools. It’s especially meaningful for the students to see these things that people of another time would have actually held in their hands.”