Catholic News at your Fingertips

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Submitted by Jennifer Younger, Executive Director, Catholic Research Resources Alliance and Director of the Hesburgh Libraries Emerita, University of Notre Dame

Digitization has made a vast body of historical newspapers instantly accessible to scholars and students on their desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones. Yet, religious newspapers of all stripes are conspicuously under-represented in the familiar online newspaper full-text databases, which are comprised largely of municipal and trade newspapers. Publicly available digital collections of historic newspapers, such as Chronicling America and those in several states, as well as commercial subscription-based databases, contain but a smattering of religious papers, despite the fact that religious thinkers and places of worship have significantly influenced every aspect of American culture, for good and bad.

The Catholic News Archive is filling one part of the gap by making Catholic newspapers freely available online to all users. We invite you to search topics, people, or events of which you want to get more information. Let us know about your experience.  

A page from the Pittsburgh Catholic April 28, 1969 on the adoption of streamlined garb.

Religious Newspapers and Scholarship

Religious newspapers have long been a primary source in bringing religious voices into scholarship. Dr. Paula Kane, Marous Chair in Contemporary Catholic Studies, University of Pittsburgh, explained the use of Catholic papers in student research projects. Students might explore the editorial outlook on specific issues or how major issues such as the Homestead Strike of 1892, the Great Depression, and the assassination of John Kennedy were reported in Catholic papers. “Students,” she said, “love to click to their sources, rather than going through hard-bound newspaper issues in the stacks….” She goes on to say, “one student who was researching the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh, was able to locate information in digitized Irish newspapers as well as in the local Pittsburgh Catholic (digitized).”

Ensuring the continuing use of religious newspapers in today’s digital world means making them available online. In a recent blog, Darren Poley, Associate Director of Research Services and Scholarly Engagement, Villanova University, described finding the full text of the “Address of the Catholic Laity of Philadelphia” in the Catholic News Archive. The address was to answer the accusations of a Grand Jury which blamed Catholics for the conflagration resulting from the Anti-Catholic/Anti-Immigrant fervor whipped up by reactionary agitators called Nativists. The full text as reported in the press at the time was easily discovered by searching “Catholic Laity of Philadelphia,” and found in The Catholic Telegraph, 6 July 1844, p. 2 (Cincinnati, Ohio). A similar search in Chronicling America did not result in finding the full text of the Address, which was likely published in full only in a Catholic paper, although it did find one mention of the Bishop’s approbation of the Address in the New York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1844.

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Turning Disparate Papers into a Narrative

From among the over 1,100 users per month of the Catholic News Archive (CNS) in 2018, one fascinating story comes from Mary Brown, Archivist, Center for Migration Studies, New York City. She tells how the story of turning a folder of disparate papers into a story of refugee rescue.

She and an intern were looking among the National Catholic Welfare Conference (NCWC) Bureau of Immigration records when Mary noticed the Bureau’s Czechoslovakia file seemed thicker than the usual folder. “To our astonishment, we found documents from the 1930s describing the Czech Catholic immigrant aid agency’s efforts on behalf of refugees from the Nazis.” Using the clues from the documents, they found press releases from the NCWC newsfeeds “about ‘political changes’ in Czechoslovakia (and) described Czech Catholic efforts to aid co-religionists whose Jewish ancestry left them vulnerable to the Nuremberg laws recently imposed on their country.” Matching names, dates and activity reports, Mary and her colleague were able to tell the story that the documents in the archive alone could not.

“Journalism has been called the first rough draft of history. Looking beyond the main headlines of old newspapers, at minor stories and even advertising, gives us a sense of the culture of a time, and helps us place past and current events in historical perspective. For Catholics who wish to look back on the revolutionary changes that took place in the Church in the 1960s, the Catholic News Archive offers compelling reading.” — K. E. Colombini, author of Tracing Church History through Old Newspapers, published in First Things, May 18, 2017.

Developing a Freely Available Catholic Newspaper Collection

The Catholic Research Resources Alliance (CRRA) is a nonprofit membership alliance with deep connections in the Catholic community. Its members and partners include academic, diocesan and religious congregation libraries and archives, allowing easy connections with diocesan bishops, archives and newspaper editors. With generous financial support from 25 Founders and two grants from the Catholic Communication Campaign of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, CRRA established thecatholicnewsarchive.org. Early content includes 10,971 issues from nine diocesan papers (Cincinnati, Hartford, Miami, New Orleans, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and St. Louis), the Catholic News Service historic newsfeeds to extend through 1986, the National Catholic Reporter and the Catholic Worker (forthcoming). We continue to add more years of current titles as well as adding new titles. We are grateful to these bishops and papers for their permission to include their content for freely available access via the Internet.

There is a long way to go in building a digital collection that includes diocesan and lay papers known to exist. Yet, it is rewarding even at this early stage as David E. Cassens, Dean of Libraries, Saint Louis University, describes: “The goal of the Catholic Newspaper Program is to provide concurrent access to primary source materials that in most cases have been available only to a limited number of scholars and students. This important project will result in a wholesale transformation of how Catholic newspapers are read and studied by scholars, students, and the public, enhancing humanities scholarship in a significant way.”

Going Forward

It isn’t just about Catholic newspapers. As valuable as Catholic journalism is for the Catholic view on events and Catholic views about other religions (searches in the Catholic News Archive on Islam, Judaism, Protestant, Mormon, and Baha’i result in hundreds of hits), this fact simply underscores the need for digitizing many more religious papers.

Our own initiative is inspired by scholars as well as by other programs such as the Florida Jewish Newspapers in the Florida Digital Newspaper Library. Within the library community, there is broad recognition of the need to digitize diverse voices with interest in religious papers growing at the state level. It needs to be easy for scholars to find religious newspapers and mine the richness of significant religious voices therein. Dr. Timothy Meagher, Associate Professor of History, Curator of American Catholic History Collection and University Archivist, The Catholic University of America, speaks about the Catholic voice but his words apply to all religious voices. We can understand “religious” in his words: “But think how much more significant it would be if all Catholic newspapers were online, ensuring the Catholic tradition, experiences, and views of Catholics continue to be part of the American dialog. Absent from the ‘net’, Catholics may well soon be invisible in history.”

We hope you find the Catholic News Archive a useful resource for scholarly inquiries at your institution. We welcome your feedback, questions, and suggestions. Write to us at jyounger@catholicresearch.org.

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