Old news in the Catholic News Archive

Author: Wm. Kevin Cawley

In my mailbox I find another invitation to Catholic tourism, promising that I will not only see the world but also go back in time. After filing it in the recycle bin, I get into my time machine and go back to 1966. If you would like to take a Catholic tour but lack the requisite thousands of dollars, I invite you to join me. You also can take advantage of the time machine known as the Catholic News Archive.

After the Catholic Research Resources Alliance (CRRA) set up its Catholic Portal in 2007—an online union catalog of resources held by Catholic institutions—it asked an advisory board of scholars what to do next. The scholars favored the plan that CRRA implemented as the Catholic Newspapers Program and the Catholic News Archive. CRRA has some 40 member institutions: Catholic universities, colleges, religious congregations, and dioceses in the United States and Canada. The Catholic Portal has over 135,000 records of Catholic archives, rare books, and digital resources. An email circular sent to scholars in 2019 said that the Catholic News Archive had over 12,000 issues of Catholic newspapers. Today that figure stands at 31,723 issues—651,624 pages—an impressive rate of growth in such a short period.

That same circular characterized the Catholic News Archive as a “fully-searchable, open digital repository of historical Catholic news” and featured such bullet points as “Built with the researcher in mind, Freely available to all users, Mobile friendly, Optimized for research, classroom and individual use,” providing “preservation and access, All simply for the sake of scholarship.” The flyer also included supportive quotations from James P. McCartin of Fordham University, Darren G. Poley of Villanova University, Timothy Meagher of The Catholic University of America, and Katherine Nuss, archivist for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

I particularly appreciate comments by K. E. Colombini in “Tracing Church History through Old Newspapers,” published online by First Things, May 18, 2017: “. . . journalism is the first rough draft of history. . . . looking beyond the main headlines, at minor stories and advertising—gives us a sense of the culture of a particular 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.” I myself have been going back to the 1960s every day, reading the National Catholic Reporter starting with its first issue of 28 October 1964. I am presently living in 1966.

According to the library catalog description, “The Catholic News Archive is a full-text searchable newspaper database that includes Catholic news publications from around the United States. The papers cover national, local and international news.”

Currently, the Catholic News Archive includes issues dating from 1831 (Cincinnati’s The Catholic Telegraph) through 2023 (Our Sunday Visitor and Oakland’s The Catholic Voice). It includes more than a dozen other publications spanning the United States: Baton Rouge, Columbus, Hartford, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

One can browse the Catholic News Archive by title or by date, or do a keyword search of the contents of all of the newspapers at once. A search for aggiornamento turns up 1,136 results—976 from the 1960s, one from the 1990s. In the 21st century we are apparently enjoying a revival of aggiornamento: 21 results so far this millennium. Once you find an article that you want to read, you can click on a link and see on the right an image of the article as it appeared in the newspaper and on the left plain text extracted by Optical Character Recognition (OCR). You will probably notice that the OCR software has not perfectly rendered the text. Often aggiornamento becomes aggiomamento, and unless you search for that variation you will be missing some pertinent articles. A search for aggiomamento turns up 330 results. If you search for the “Church in the Modem World,” you will find 863 articles dating from 1948 to 2015.

What can you do about it? Near the top of the left column you will see a link with an invitation to “Correct this text.” I myself have turned many an aggiomamento into aggiornamento, and made many a modem modern.

You can also make the Text column disappear entirely by clicking the “<” between the text and the page image. You can click a button at the top right of the page image to expand it to fill most of the screen and use other controls to magnify the page image, clip it, or save it as a PDF file. You can find other useful options by right-clicking on the image itself (or using the equivalent gesture if you’re using a phone or tablet). I especially appreciate the ability to select an article and clip it. If the article continues on another page, the clipping brings all of it together in a more coherent arrangement. This feature can make even short articles more readable.

The Catholic News Archive continues to grow. It belongs to a broader effort by CRRA and its many collaborators known as the Catholic Newspapers Program, which has the ambition “to provide access to all extant Catholic newspapers published in North America.” In 2012, with help from Notre Dame, the Catholic Newspapers Program assembled a preliminary database of 861 Catholic newspapers.

Thejesuitcatholicsentinel Fullweb
The Jesuit, or Catholic Sentinel 1, no. 2 (September 12, 1829), p. 1. This Boston-based Catholic newspaper is just one of the many available at the Directory of Catholic Newspapers Online. Public domain.

On its website CRRA hosts a Directory of Catholic Newspapers Online (not the same as the Catholic News Archive) and says “If you know of other newspapers available online, we would appreciate your help.” Most of the newspapers available online date from recent times, but the directory does provide access to many earlier publications. For example, The Catholic (Kingston, Ontario) has issues dating from 1830–1844, the Catholic Herald (Philadelphia) 1833–1867, The Catholic Messenger (Davenport, Iowa) starting in 1883. The Rochester (New York) Catholic Courier has searchable content starting in 1889, the Catholic Advance (Wichita, Kansas) has issues starting in 1901, and Arkansas Catholic (formerly the Southern Guardian) has digital copies starting in 1911. This is not an exhaustive list; other newspapers in the directory also provide online access to early newspapers.

The Directory of Catholic Newspapers Online includes newspapers from the United States and Canada but so far none from Mexico. The directory does include some newspapers in languages other than English—French, Spanish, and Polish—and one newspaper from the United Kingdom, The Catholic Universe.

The CRRA exists to support scholarly research. But most scholars also teach. Teachers can direct their students (who may not need access to archives or rare books) to search the Catholic Portal for digital resources—32,022 of them, including photographs, books, pamphlets, leaflets, periodicals, broadsides, dissertations, and manuscripts. (To do this after a search, check the box at the top right “Limit to digital resources.”) Students can also, of course, search the Catholic News Archive and explore the Directory of Catholic Newspapers Online.

Now I have to return to 1966 and learn more about the Church in the Modem World.

Wm. Kevin Cawley retired in 2019 from his role as senior archivist and curator of manuscripts at the Archives of the University of Notre Dame, after 36 years of service. When he’s not living in the 1960s, he serves as chair of CRRA’s Digital Access Committee. 

This report appears in the spring 2023 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter