In praise of local newspaper indexing

“To the newspapers of our communities the historian turns to interpret the mind of the people during any crisis. For this quest the newspaper index is the indispensable key to the treasure house of facts locked away in newspaper files…Yet in the United States there is but one such index, published by The New York Times.”

–Paul P. Foster, librarian of the Philadelphia Inquirer, March 2, 1935. (in a Special to The New York Times)

In many cities, the newspaper with the most readers and the largest distribution area cannot possibly report on the happenings in the myriad neighborhoods and communities it covers. For example, in a 1995 article on collection building, John Yewell wrote that the Minneapolis Star Tribune “is no different from most other large city newspapers. The news decisions they make are intended to appeal to a wider audience. Their withdrawal over the years from local politics in Minneapolis has left a void that several small, scrappy newspapers are attempting to fill.” In Pittsburgh, we have the excellent City Paper, but also an impressive number of publications dedicated to reporting on happenings in our many neighborhoods and communities. The Greenfield Grapevine, the Spirit of Bloomfield, and the Pittsburgh Senior News are just a few examples.

While many large city newspapers (and even some small ones) have adapted to the Web and provide keyword searchable content online, most community publications remain confined to the world of print (or PDFs, if you’re lucky). Few small newspapers possess the funding or expertise to mount their archive of print content online. Their content is not included in news databases, and libraries often neglect to collect them at all. This is unfortunate, because community and neighborhood newspapers can provide journalistic detail and a unique historical perspective that is increasingly absent from larger newspapers. Now that news information is more accessible and ubiquitous than before, community-produced information about local history and current events can be easily lost in the chaos or overshadowed by more easily accessible digital resources.

While in library school, I became especially interested in local news indexing practices and history. Indexing “small, scrappy newpapers” arguably requires knowledge of local history and language, in addition to familiarity with the needs and interests of potential users of the index. Since community publications may never make it to the Web, an index may be the only way to provide subject access to the years of history contained in their pages. It’s hard to argue for the time-intensive effort of indexing when digitization seems so quick and supposedly timeless. Despite the many benefits of news indexes, librarians and archivists have often found it difficult to convince users to use them, and library administrations to support their production at a local level. The format of indexes can be especially daunting for users accustomed to keyword searching, but these users have been found to appreciate indexes once they are made aware of their usefulness (Knapp, 2008). The issue of funding and staffing for the production of a local news index is a larger problem. I admit that researching this topic is a little self-indulgent. Still, you never know what can be accomplished with some tenacious grant-writing. Even if a small newspaper is capable of offering full-text content online, its users could still benefit from the improved retrieval accuracy that a good index can provide. (On a related note, see this article by Heather Hedden on book-style indexes for websites).

Journalists don’t use standardized terminology within a single issue of a paper, much less over a number of years. Indexing with the use of a controlled vocabulary (or “heading authority”) brings together all references to constantly changing personal, organizational, and community names. Local news indexers often use an already established heading authority like SEARS or LCSH, and modify it for local use. “To accurately assign subject headings requires an intimate knowledge of the community and its history”(Weaver, 2006), and indexers with local expertise can better recognize associative relationships that should be created between concepts and entities in the index. Community news indexers may also develop a list of recommended or modified headings designed to reflect local terminology and respond to the needs and viewpoints of anticipated users (Sholtys, 1984). Genealogists, local historians, reporters, authors, business people, county agency staff, students, and historical preservation society members are all potential users of a local news index, and their information-seeking habits should be considered in the wording of terms and their variants.

The main reasons to create an index are to save users’ time and facilitate their access to information. In 1982, one librarian wrote that the microfilming of local news archives resulted in “readers [being] less able to browse among the yellowing pages of bound volumes and [being] forced instead to endure the microfilm, where soonest found, soonest done” (J.D.L., 1982). This librarian’s indexing project was valuable because it enabled patrons to go directly to an article without having to deal with browsing and switching between reels of dreaded microfilm. I imagine that an electronic index could be especially useful for the community newspapers that exist in Pittsburgh, which aren’t necessarily archived in local libraries or even accessible to the public. I think a lot of them are stored at community centers, where (for all I know) there might be lovely filing cabinets or even a dedicated volunteer toiling away at an index. (I’ve been meaning to find out about this for the last year!) The time-saving principle of indexes applies to the Web environment as well as to print. Online, indexes have been shown to direct users to answers an average of 2 minutes faster than keyword searching (Knapp, 2008) (who knew?!). Users benefit from not having to browse through results only to realize they are irrelevant, and an index reduces the need to perform multiple time-consuming searches using different terms in hopes of getting all results on a topic.

During the 1970s, there was a flourish of local newspaper indexing projects. The interest was not limited by international boundaries nor by library type: projects were initiated in public and academic libraries in Scotland, Great Britain, New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere. The majority of these projects were grant-funded, and staffed by one dedicated librarian with a few volunteers. Training the volunteers was time consuming and difficult, and volunteers were often not able to stay interested long enough to complete the project. This was a frequent problem with projects attempting to index a historical collection of newspapers. Projects that began indexing current issues seemed to fare better because they didn’t have such a daunting body of work facing them. In order to make indexing workflows as efficient as possible, one should consult the literature before taking on a project. Though they are outdated in many ways, articles from the 1970s and 1980s provide valuable tips on developing a name and subject authority file, determining depth of indexing, and dealing with staff and money shortages.

People (especially librarians and archivists) who want to begin indexing their neighborhood or community newspapers may be able to advocate for a project by invoking some practical benefits, which may especially appeal to administrators and funders:

  • A local news index is tangible proof of library activity (Dewe, 1972).
  • Librarians working on an index will be acutely aware of trends and issues that are of interest to the community. This is important for almost all aspects of public library operations, including programming, collection development, and marketing.
  • The production of an index is a chance for the library to form partnerships with other institutions. Librarians in Napa, CA used their indexing project as an opportunity to achieve closer cooperation among a community college, two small city libraries, four high school libraries, a private parochial college, and a historical society (Vierra & Trice, 1980).

The Web seems to lead many information-seekers to neglect the importance of information that is not available online. Local newspapers provide unique information about people, places, and events that may never appear on the Web or in any major publication. The time and money it takes to produce an index are significant, and it is harder than ever to convince non-cataloging types that such “old-fashioned” efforts are still worth it. However, without any way of facilitating the retrieval of information from small local publications, their “treasure house of facts” will be “locked away” when it could instead be helping people access relevant information about their communities and their histories.

Works Cited + Further Reading:
American Society for Indexing. “ASI Publications.”

Aslin, P. (2001). Raising Rochester history: The history of an index. Key Words 9 (3), 76-82.

Beare, G. (1989). Local newspaper indexing projects and products. The Indexer 16(4), 227-233.

Dewe, M. (1972). Indexing local newspapers. American Libraries 3(4), 59.

J.D.L. (1982). Local newspaper indexing in the UK. The Indexer 13(2), 103.

Knapp, C. (2008). Breakout session C1: indexes and the Google Generation: what you don’t know CAN hurt you. 2008 CALI Conference Report. Key Words 16(3), 95.

Knee, M. (1982). Producing a local newspaper index. The Indexer 12(2), 101-103.

Napier, K. (1982). Indexing a local newspaper. New Zealand Libraries 43(12), 197-199.

Sandlin, L. (1985). Indexing of smaller-circulation daily newspapers. The Indexer 14(3), 184-189.

Sholtys, P. (1984). Adapting Library of Congress Subject Headings for newspaper indexing. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 4(4), 99-102.

Special to The New York Times. (1935, March 2). Newspaper indexing urged as library aid. New York Times (1857-Current file), p. 13. Retrieved November 12, 2008, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2005) database. (Document ID: 97144991).

Vierra, B. & Trice, T. (1980). Local newspaper indexing : a public library reports its experience. The Serials Librarian 5(1), 87-92.

Weaver, C. (2006). The Indexer as consultant: collaborative indexing of community newspapers. Key Words 14(1), 18-33.

Yewell, J. (1995). Why libraries must subscribe to –and preserve—the neighborhood and community press. Collection Building 14(2), 47-48.

FYI: much (but not all) of this post was distilled from a paper I wrote in 2008 as part of my MLIS coursework. Please give me credit if you’re citing or using any part of it.


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