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Historic Newspaper Archive Makes the Past Alive at San José Public Library

It’s often said that newspapers are the first draft of history, and a new archive at San José Public Library (SJPL) has made it a lot easier to read those first drafts of Bay Area history.

The San Jose City Library’s new Mercury News archive provides online access to newspapers from 1900 to 1985, previously only available on microfilm at the library. Unlike the existing text-only online archive from 1985, the new archive shows entire pages with all their illustrations and photos via the digital news archiving service Newsbank.

This first writing of history is essential to understanding the present. If you want to understand the county’s seemingly irrational city and school district boundaries, search in the archive for “Dutch Hamann” and “annexation.”


For example, the Jan. 5, 1908 edition hailing progress in Santa Clara County, is a prime specimen of California boosterism. [1908 Mercury_News_economic growth January_5_1908__p22]

The City of Santa Clara was praised for a successful bond sale to finance water and sewer infrastructure, as well as improvements to the high school building. Sunnyvale was commended for its “phenomenal growth” and a boom in manufacturing in the then-new town. Mountain View was noted for its “great advance” in constructing a water tank and tower.

And no one enjoys the trip down memory lane as much as San José Library Director Jill Bourne.

“One of the things that’s so wonderful about the archive is that it unveils all these really interesting stories that can definitely have relation to our lives today,” she said. “It can help us understand where we came from.

“That’s what I love,” she continued. “Talking to folks about how they were able to research a distant family member. I learned the most colorful stories about the history of San José, of the founding families. There’s true crime, soap opera, power struggles, real estate deals. They’re real people and you get to see their photos, how they dressed, what their houses looked like. It’s much more brought-to-life than text news.”

Since the archive was launched last year, use has grown dramatically and Bourne says it has attracted about 100,000 page views.

The founding mother of the archive is SJPL volunteer Margaret Ma. A researcher and local historian, Ma donated the money to create the archive in memory of her mother, Susan Renville Carter, a San José native who loved the library. Ma’s donation grew out of her own work with historical documents.

“She was helping us with digitizing resources,” Bourne explained. “Hand digitization of primary source materials in an archival setting is a very time-consuming and laborious task. So if we were to try to digitize each page of a newspaper, it would take a really long time.”

A second gift from Ma will let the library expand the archive to include the Mercury’s old evening edition, as well as photo-realistic editions of papers from 1985 to the present. “We’re working currently to add that and we’ll be kicking that off sometime this spring,” said Bourne.

“We’re really excited to build awareness around this incredible resource,” continued Bourne. “To make the archive come to life for people.

“It is for free,” she continued. “It’s easily accessible on our website. And it’s not only useful for researchers, it can be useful for homework and for researching family history. It’s a unique local treasure trove of information and stories brought to you by the public library, which is a perfect platform for sharing all this information.”

Interested in the archive? All you need is an SJPL library card, and you can apply for one online.


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