The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

September 14, 2008

Bringing Old News Into the Internet Era

Filed under: History, Technology — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 9:48 pm

In the decade or so since the Internet has made the transition from being the exclusive realm of pocket protector nerds with PhDs to being an everyday part of our lives, we have become used to being able to just type in whatever we’re looking for and have a search engine spit out a simple, easy-to read page of ads with 2 or 3 useful results scattered throughout.  Fir more focused study, Wikipedia provides a simple, easy-to-read summary of questionably accurate information on the subject of their choice (and about half a dozen tangentially related subjects that you probably weren’t interested in, but feel oddly compelled to click through to anyway.)  For the vast majority of subjects these days, it would seem that you would be able to find just about all the info you could possibly need on the Internet. 

In the research that I have done for this site (particularly with regards to local history,) I have found that this simply isn’t the case.  In spite of the best efforts of the local historical societies, the fact remains that there is a huge amount of information out there which has yet to get anywhere near the Internet.  The fact that we average computer today is capable of storing hundreds of gigabytes of data (and rapidly approaching the terabyte mark) and retrieving any of that information within a split second doesn’t do much good if the information doesn’t exist in digital form.

This is one of the large cabinets found at the Regional Library in downtown Bellevue used to store their microforms collection.  Within this cabinet can be found a complete microfilmed archive of the Bellevue American from its establishment in 1935 up to its merger with the East Side Journal (which has archives back to 1918) to form the Daily Journal-American in 1977.  The cabinet also contains an incomplete archive of Redmond’s Sammamish Valley News from 1965 to 1989 (with a big hole between 1971 and 1977.)  In addition, there are also archives of the Lake Washington Reflector (an earlier Bellevue newspaper that ran from 1918 – 1934, as well as early papers from Duvall and the north end of Lake Washington.  The microfilm that all of these old weekly Eastside newspapers are stored on takes up a total of three drawers of this cabinet (the Journal-American, which was a daily paper, takes up a much larger amount of space.)

To people in a time before the Internet era, a huge cabinet full of microfilm like this must have represented an unimaginable quantity of information, and even though the actual amount of time I have spent reading and searching through the old newspapers found in this archive is relatively short, I have still been able to learn all sorts of new and interesting information about the history of the Eastside, much of which I didn’t even know I was looking for.  Of course, with modern technology all of this info could probably be stored on a single hard drive in a typical desktop PC with room to spare, but for the time being, the whole process is strictly analog.  There is a searchable index of the East Side Journal which does help with searching in that paper, but since it tended to be focused primarily on Kirkland it is of limited value when searching for information on Redmond or Bellevue.  For the other papers (primarily the Bellevue American and Sammamish Valley News,) I mostly have to work from approximate dates, and browse around hoping to get some hits (a bit of luck seems to be involved here.)

Even when I do manage to find the info I was looking for (or wasn’t looking for in some cases,) there are still some issues that can complicate the process.  For one thing, microfilm isn’t exactly the most user-friendly medium for storing information.  Some text (especially around the edges) can be blurry or distorted, and items which were colored in the original form tend to become especially difficult to read.  There’s also the matter of getting the information into a usable digital form.  The microfilm readers at the library have the ability to make copies off the microfilm, but these cost ten cents apiece and are only of standard xerox quality, which is fine for text and line art but basically useless for photos. 

The solution that I use, as you can see above, is to take photos of the microfilm reader’s screen with my digital camera.  While I have been able to get useful images out of this, I have found it to be difficult to work with at times.  The main problem with taking photos of the microfilm reader screen is the fact that often with full-page ads in the newspapers, you simply can’t get everything on screen at once.  Sometimes, getting the camera to focus properly can also be an issue, and since you can’t use the flash for this, images can turn out dim at times, especially if the reader has a dim bulb in it.  Incidentally, the photo above shows the front page of an advertising circular for Bellevue Square’s 23rd anniversary sale from a November 1969 edition of the Bellevue American.

In spite of these limitations, I have still been able to get a surprising amount of useful information out of this, as tedious as the process might be at times.  Fortunately, it looks like an alternative to using the microfilm at the library is on the horizon.  Last week, Google announced that they are launching an initiative to digitize historical archives of newspapers going back as far as 200 years.  Immediately after this was announced, Sound Publishing (the publishers of the various local biweekly Reporter newspapers found throughout the area, and IP holder of many of the older Eastside newspapers, including the East Side Journal and Bellevue American) announced that they will be participating in this initiative, which should bring all of these historic newspapers to the web through Google’s News Archive search.  The Google Blog post above has links to an example of how this will work, and although I think the user interface could use a bit of work, it still beats trying to dig through microfilm any day.  Even though my current employment has me working for Google’s competition, I’ll have to tip my proverbial hat to them if they can pull this off.  Putting these old newspapers online will reopen a largely forgotten world of old information to a new generation of history junkies, and will certainly make my job here a lot easier.  Until that happens, it looks like I’ll be digging through the microfiche for a while though…



  1. Browsing old newspapers on microfilm were exactly what triggered my fascination with retail history more than two deacades ago. I loved seeing the advertised merchandise from the time periods of the papers along with the old logos of the retailers. This interest endures to this day. Now you could check out old retail print ads from, and you could also check out microfilms of fashion magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Madameoiselle, etc. and see ads from most of the now-defunct local department stores.

    Comment by Randy Hansen — September 18, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

  2. A resource of interest might be The Nambour Chronicle & North Coast Advertiser was first published 31st July 1903 and continued as the local newspaper for the Sunshine Coast Region (north of Brisbane, Australia) until 1983. It has been scanned from microfilm and made available, in digital format, the entire full text run of this newspaper from 1903 to 1955. Researchers are now able to search the entire paper by keyword or issue date and can download and print directly from the paper. This provides easy and convenient access to this valuable historical newspaper

    Not on the same scale as the Google project but still worth a visit

    Comment by Greg — September 29, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

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