University of Florida Libraries Awarded Grant, Digitizing Historic Newspapers

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In late 1894 and early 1895, the Great Freeze swept across Florida all the way down to the Manatee River south of Tampa, freezing citrus to its trees and ultimately devastating the state’s economy.

Although this happened over a century ago,  the means still exists to flip through newspapers documenting events like the Great Freeze — not in a tangible, paper format, but online.

Earlier this month, the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries was awarded a $288,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund the digitization of historic newspapers. The grant, coupled with $325,000 Smathers received in 2013, adds up to the largest direct monetary award in the libraries’ history.

The grant allows the Smathers Libraries to digitize 110,000 pages of six Floridian and Puerto Rican newspapers as part of the Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project, a collaboration between UF and the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras.

The awarded money will specifically pay for UF and UPR personnel involved in the project, microfilm machines and external hard drives, vendors for the duplication and digitization services, monthly shipping of hard drives and travel for meetings and conferences.

The Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project, representing participation in the National Digital Newspaper Program, provides free online access to newspapers published from 1836 to 1922, such as the Pensacola Journal, which is now the Pensacola News Journal, the Ocala Banner, which is now the Ocala Star-Banner, and La Correspondencia.

“This NEH grant brings national attention to UF and our digital work, especially since it is funded with federal money,” said Melissa Espino, the project coordinator. “It also helps to bring attention specifically to the humanities at UF.”

UF and UPR already had an existing relationship, with UF holding various Puerto Rico governmental records and helping UPR digitize another newspaper, El Mundo. UF initially approached UPR to partner up to apply to the National Digital Newspaper Program.

The National Digital Newspaper Program, funded by NEH and managed by the Library of Congress, is working to create a national digital database of historically significant newspapers from all U.S. states and territories published between 1836 and 1922.

The digitized newspapers will be made available nationally through Chronicling America and locally through the Smathers Libraries’ Florida Digital Newspaper Library, as well as on UPR’s Biblioteca Digital Puertorriqueña.

The NEH grant supplements UF and UPR’s second phase of the project. In the first phase, the universities digitized 100,000 pages from nine Floridian newspapers and one Puerto Rican newspaper — 90 percent of which is available to view on Chronicling America.

Selected newspaper titles are broken up into monthly batches of about 7,500 pages each and digitized over the span of 14 months, said Espino. Once each group of pages is uploaded, it must pass a quality review check.

The digitization of each newspaper prevents the information from being potentially lost forever, as the microfilm the Smathers Libraries receives has aged over the years.

“There is also an important archival and preservation angle to the grant as well, since the digital files are more stable and more easily stored than microfilm,” said Patrick Reakes, the project’s principal investigator and member of the Smathers Libraries administration.

Storing these newspapers on an online database, Espino added, makes them more easily accessible to students, historians, journalists and the general public.

Jack E. Davis, Ph.D., a professor in UF’s Department of History and a historian focusing on environmental history, has tried to access Florida newspapers through the database for research purposes before. However, he’s always had trouble using the search engine and hopes that Smathers will set aside a portion of the NEH funding to make the database more user-friendly.

“Only then can I use these newspapers to the benefit of my students and my research,” Davis said.

About Layne Weitzel

Layne is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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