The Knox County Public Library Foundation is taking on its most ambitious project: to digitize all the copies of one Knoxville newspaper from 1922 to 1990.
Why digitize a newspaper? Almost all modern history depends on newspaper research. Although any given article may be incomplete or biased, a newspaper story is very often the only surviving account of an important event in American history. To anyone seeking the history of a movement, or a business, or an organization, or a family, newspapers are indispensable.
Old newspapers are already more convenient than most people realize. For many years, Knoxville newspapers have been saved on microfilm. Lawson McGhee Library on Church Avenue has an almost-complete collection of both the Knoxville Journal and the Knoxville News Sentinel on rolls of microfilm. Any citizen can visit the library and read them on the library’s hand-cranked readers.
However, these physical systems offer two challenges. You have to visit the libraries in person, during business hours, to use them. That’s a problem for people of limited mobility and for those who don’t live in the Knoxville area. Scholars in other countries, in particular, have wished to be able to study old Knoxville newspapers when looking into Knoxvillians of international interest, like bluesman Brownie McGhee or filmmaker Clarence Brown.
A bigger problem, though, is that the libraries’ thousands of rolls of microfilms, though mostly chronological, are not indexed. At present, you can’t search old newspapers for a particular subject, whether an individual or a business, except through the library’s paper files. The McClung Collection keeps separate subject and biographical files, which are alphabetized in cabinets. Though better than most other libraries’ resources, they are incomplete at best and very spotty before the 1960s. Searches still have to be done by cranking through microfilm. A thorough study of one month of one newspaper can consume more than a day’s work. Even if you go to that trouble, tired eyes still miss things.
The Paper to Pixels project is aimed at digitizing the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1922 to 1990. This 68-year period includes the Knoxville-based organization of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Great Depression, the beginning of air travel, the formation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Manhattan Project, a few football championships, the dawn of television, the Civil Rights era, and Knoxville’s World’s Fair. It’s a 68-year thicket of cultural and technological change, political turbulence, and interesting stories that can’t be told until they’re found.
One good example of how digitization might revolutionize Knoxville’s story is in the realm of popular music. This era witnessed the early days of radio and the dawn of the careers of Roy Acuff, Chet Atkins, and many others. How often were these former Knoxvillians mentioned in the paper before they were famous? Right now we don’t have any practical way of knowing. Before they were famous, few took enough note of them to save clippings, and very few of them survive in library records.
Digitization will change all that. Library card holders of all ages will be able to peruse stories by subject.
Potential donors need not allow their impressions of the current leadership of the News Sentinel discourage them from donating to this cause. The project will not involve anything published by the News Sentinel after 1990, or any content generated on behalf of that newspaper’s current publisher.
And the project will benefit research into other media by identifying dates of significant events that can then be looked up in the Knoxville Journal, other publications, and other sources. Often just identifying the date when something occurred becomes the key to finding a mother lode of useful information from multiple sources.
Digitizing 68 years of newspapers is not a simple process. If this campaign is successful, NewsBank, Inc., one of the nation’s leaders in this field, will digitize 24,820 daily newspapers covering that era, almost a million pages in all, at 60 cents a page. The Knox County Public Library Foundation, an adjunct to Friends of the Library, is seeking to raise $600,000 to complete this project.
Photo of Howell Carter of the Knoxville Journal (Jan. 21, 1925) courtesy of the C.M. McClung Historical Collection.