Smile Politely


Did you ever wonder what people in Champaign-Urbana did in the past to celebrate Armistice Day?  Well, according to the article “Twin Cities Wild With Joy” in the November 11th, 1918 edition of The Urbana Daily Courier, the general “jollification” included crowds in the street, steam whistles blasting, and “a big Illinois Central locomotive draped in flags and loaded with people come puffing up Main Street on the street car tracks.”

It’s easy enough to read the whole article online, as well as thousands of others from The Urbana Daily Courier and The Daily Illini through The Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection, a service of the University of Illinois Library.  The Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection (IDNC) allows anyone with an Internet connection to view digital facsimiles of The Urbana Daily Courier between 1903 and 1935, The Daily Illini between 1916 and 1945, and scattered issues of The Express of Tallula, Illinois, between 1895 and 1896.  Coming soon are The Daily Illini from 1962 to 1975 and The Sycamore True Republican from 1854 to 1923.

The IDNC website boasts: “You can browse the newspapers by date or search by keyword across articles, advertisements, and photo captions. You can print, download, or e-mail individual articles.  And it’s free!”

All of this is true enough.  In a few mouse clicks, you can be reading the article “Boy Burglar is Homesick (a story about an unhappily jailed teenager who robbed a store in Seymour) from the December 2nd, 1920 edition of The Urbana Daily Courier; or an announcement from the March 23rd, 1929 Daily Illini that Carl Sandburg would be coming to campus later in the month (he was scheduled to give a public lecture after being an honored guest at a banquet given by Theta Sigma Phi). 

Mary Stuart, the UI librarian in charge of the IDNC, stated that the project began around five years ago: “We started investigating the options for digitizing newspapers in 2005.  Newspaper digitization started in the commercial sector in 2000, when a company called ProQuest digitized the New York Times all the way back to 1851.  Public sector projects got underway shortly after that in Colorado, Utah, and at the Brooklyn Public Library.”

Not necessarily what you’d expect

You’d expect that a college publication like The Daily Illini would be less uptight at the beginning of the twentieth century than The Daily Courier, a publication aimed at the Twin Cities townie population.  However, Stuart said this wasn’t the case, especially in the teens and twenties before the Hollywood Hays Code of 1934:  “The DI is relatively staid.  The Courier reflects the standards for small-town journalism in the early twentieth century lurid, extremely graphic, and sensationalistic.  The movie advertising alone was eye-popping.  There are explicit ads for movies about same-sex relationships in The Urbana Daily Courier.”

Stuart said that there are a lot of differences between mainstream journalism in the early twentieth century and now.  For one, despite all the talk of people’s attention spans decreasing, newspapers in the past were much shorter often less than ten pages.  For another, obituaries now don’t generally show cause of death like they used to.  Stuart said, “Things have in some ways become more buttoned-up.  There was a lot more information about people’s private lives on the pages of newspapers than you find now.  Today there’s more than you want to know about the lives of celebrities, but not so much about local crimes and scandals.  There was a lot more warts-and-all coverage.”

One story that is pretty warts-and-all is in the October 25, 1929 edition of The Urbana Daily Courier (on the eve of the stock market crash of 1929) and is about John H. Thornburn, president of the Urbana Banking company, who was accused of embezzling $100,000 of Urbana school funds.  After he came under suspicion in the Twin Cities, Thornburn fled to Chicago.  He then returned to C-U to turn himself in to the authorities “and to take his medicine, whatever that may be.”  According to the Courier, Thornburn’s time in Chicago just before his surrender was “spent in consideration of the best thing to do, and it finally resolved itself into a choice of a suicide or coming back home and admitting his wrong-doing and taking the punishment like a man.  His wife elected the latter, and that became his decision too.”

When asked how the community itself has changed since the early twentieth century, Stuart responded that when she first began reading the old newspapers, the Courier especially, “I was horrified by the amount of racism that jumped off the pages.  Undoubtedly there’s still racism in our community now, but it can’t be as pervasive as it was in 1910.  So that’s different.”

She also reflected on the community now versus then: “I wonder if there’s as great a disparity between rich and poor now as there was in 1910,” her perspective coming from having spent so much time reading century-old local newspapers. 

A complicated and expensive process

Digitizing newspapers is a complicated and expensive process.  Since the articles need to be browsed and searched, it’s not enough just to create images of the original newsprint.  The IDNC uses software from a company called Olive Software to turn images of words into searchable text.  In Stuart’s words, this software is “a content management platform for digitized newspapers.”

For the Courier and The Daily Illini, the IDNC worked off of copies of the newspapers that were already on microfilm.  In the process the IDNC used, a digital image is created of the newspaper from the microfilm.  The difficult and costly part of this process is turning that image into searchable text. 

In part because of the poor quality of some of the microfilm made years ago of The Urbana Daily Courier, some of the digitized Courier articles are difficult to read.  However, Stuart said, “The saving grace of newspapers is redundancy.  Key words are repeated.”

Digitizing from microfilm is cheaper than digitizing directly from original newspapers.  Moreover, microfilm of old newspapers is often the only surviving record of them. 

Stuart explained that digitizing newspapers costs roughly 90 cents per page versus roughly 10 cents per page for a regular book for a number of reasons: newspapers have a larger format, have “jump continuations” (they start articles on one page which continue on another and need some kind of linking process), and have columns and a variety of different fonts and graphic materials.  Also, the physical condition of older newspapers is often bad to begin with. 

The bulk of IDNC funding has come from external grants and private donors.

To give an idea of cost, a possible future IDNC project is digitizing The News-Gazette from its earliest issues up to 1950 or so (Stuart said she wouldn’t do this unless the publisher approved, although the IDNC has the legal right to digitize newspapers published before 1923, which for copyright purposes are in the public domain).  Stuart estimated that the cost of such a project would be around $200,000.  

“A city is known by its local newspapers”

When the subject turned to the state of journalism today now that print publications like the ones the IDNC digitizes are becoming endangered, Stuart said, “I do worry about the future of print journalism.  I don’t see the investment in investigative reporting in other media that has been associated with print journalism, and newspapers have drastically reduced the number of reporters they employ.”

But what about new media, in particular Smile Politely?  Stuart responded, “Is Smile Politely being archived?  The files may be on some server and can be accessed, but do you have archival copies preserved somewhere?  As a newspaper librarian, having faced so much of a loss of our cultural heritage from a hundred years ago I can tell you there’s going to be two people sitting here in 50 or 75 years saying, ‘Oh, if we’d only preserved Smile Politely from the first decade.’  I can tell you that conversation will be happening if it’s not archived someplace.”

On the IDNC website, you can surf through back issues of the Daily Illini or the Courier just for the fun of it; take today’s date in 1910, for instance, and see what the headlines are.  Or check out the advertisements.  However, Stuart noted that the digital collection has more practical uses as well: “For family history, it’s an incomparable resource.”  She also mentioned that local historical preservationists used digitized issues of the Courier to find residences in Champaign-Urbana that architect Joseph Royer designed (apparently not all his buildings are as famous as the Champaign County Courthouse or the Urbana Post Office). 

In the March 1st, 1903 edition of The Urbana Daily Courier, the newspaper says in an advertisement for itself, “A CITY IS KNOWN BY ITS LOCAL NEWSPAPERS, YOU WANT URBANA FAVORABLY KNOWN.”   This is just as true now as it was then, and people in C-U still care a lot about local sources of newsif you’d like evidence of this, read the comments section of Stuart Tarr’s recent Smile Politely article criticizing The News-Gazette

The Courier has been gone since the 1970s, but in its day (under different variations of its name) it brought residents of the Twin Cities big news stories like the one from the April 16th, 1912, “Titanic Sinks; 1490 Drowned; 866 Are Saved” and smaller ones like “Jackson Akers Injured By FallVeteran Carpenter Hurt When Scaffolding Collapses at Free Home on Cottage Grove Avenue” from the same day’s edition.  The Daily Illini is still around, albeit without the moral certitude of years past (see the October 23rd, 1937 article under the headline “University Opens War on Vice” about stamping out local prostitution).  The Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection makes it easy for anyone to reopen these C-U windows on the world, local and global, to see what can still be learned from our past. 



Thanks to Tracy Nectoux for her help with this article.

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