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Georgia’s earliest newspapers are now online and searchable
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Constantine Wright, microfilm supervisor, showcases a negative roll of microfilm at the University of Georgia Main Library on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. The negative copy is sent off to a vendor to be digitized. - photo by Austin Steele

If you’ve ever wanted to take a trip down memory lane — a really, really long trip — you’re in luck. The Digital Library of Georgia has now digitized antebellum newspapers from across the state and they’re all searchable by text.

You'll be able to type a word into the search bar on the site and pull up pre-Civil War coverage categorized by newspaper and timeframe.

“We’ve been digitizing newspapers since 2007 and when we first started, we took more of a geographic approach to the newspapers we would digitize,” said Sheila McAlister, director of the Digital Library of Georgia. “I made the decision to supplement those geographic newspapers … with the ones that were published prior to the Civil War so that we could have sort of a comprehensiveness of the papers that we have access to.”

Although Hall County does not have any antebellum newspapers that have been digitized, The Georgia Cracker has issues from 1897 through 1902 and The Gainesville News has issues from 1902 through 1922.

“Newspaper content is often very local and it is a firsthand look at what’s going on in your community,” McAlister said. “It also provides information on how your community is reacting to national and international events.”

McAlister said the process for digitizing newspapers is a long one. Most of it is done at the University of Georgia, but some is done offsite. At the university, they take pages from newspapers and use an iron to flatten them. After flattening the pages, a special camera is used to take photos of the pages. The film used in that camera is processed in the dark room at the university and turned into the microfilm that is used to get the newspapers online.

“We look to make sure the film is in a really good condition,” McAlister said. “When you film the newspaper, you create a master reel of film, then you create a copy negative. And the master reel doesn’t get used again, it gets stored at the state archives so it’s safe.”

After inspecting the copy negative to make sure it has no scratches and the film process was done correctly, McAlister said they make more copies of it. She said those are the ones you’d see at local libraries.

Then, they go through and organize all the film, making sure it’s in the proper order and checking for any missing issues.

“We work with a vendor, and they scan the microfilm, and they do the optical character recognition work on it,” McAlister said.

Optical character recognition is the process that makes the database searchable. Once the vendor is done, the Digital Library adds it to the database where it can be used by anyone visiting the site.

“It’s really an eyewitness view of life at a certain time in a certain place,” McAlister said. “And it’s also valuable to genealogists. And newspapers are used by scholars for a number of different kinds of research projects.”

So far, the Digital Library of Georgia has digitized around 1.2 million pages from newspapers all over the state. And McAlister said there’s still more to go. With more funding coming down the line, she said they plan on digitizing more newspapers from the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

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