About half a mile southwest from the Arizona Capitol sits a building with practically the entire history of the state as reported in some 700 newspapers. Also in that building is Sativa Peterson, the news content program manager for the State of Arizona Research Library. She has been working on the Arizona Memory Project, with a goal of digitizing Arizona’s newspapers dating back to the 1800s.
In a far back room that Peterson calls “a pod,” is something out of the movies. With rows and rows of old newspapers, silence fills the room, and the only sound heard is footsteps of Peterson and a visitor walking through the aisles on their way to view major papers from the earliest days before Arizona was a state.
But the smaller newspapers have much of the history.
A paper written in both English and Japanese from internment camps, a paper created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s daughter as a challenger to The Arizona Republic called the Arizona Times, and papers from nearly every city and county.
Peterson gets to relive Arizona’s history every day as she helps to digitize them for the viewing pleasure of the state, country and even the world.
What made you want to start archiving?
I have a background in both journalism and libraries and this job was the first time that those two things were naturally married into this project that was really exciting. It’s the largest newspaper collection in the state and it expands from 1859 when the first newspaper was published in Arizona, all the way to the present. So just to be able to work with that collection seemed like an amazing opportunity.
What was the first Arizona paper?
It was called The Weekly Arizonian and it was out of Tubac.
Out of all the papers you have viewed so far, what has been the most interesting thing you have seen?
It just happens daily. I have a few, but they are probably going to be silly examples. For example, there’s a paper from 1909 and it says, “What if Halley’s Comet hits you?” So it’s giving some practical advice about if the comet should hit you. I saw something from The Winslow Mail and it mentioned (it’s from 1926) a local girl who grew up in Winslow is now teaching in Winslow and it;s the first time that someone from the town has become an educator in the town. And it turns out that she taught my grandparents. … so there’s a connection to community and place that you see in a paper. Newspapers contain so much more than government and how we govern ourselves – they contain info about community. They serve as the memory of these towns.
If I was in this position, I feel like I would get too distracted trying to read all of these historic papers. Does that ever happen to you where you find yourself reading more than you probably should?
I read a lot of old news. I probably read more old news than I do current news. That’s what happens when you’re in this position, and that is interesting because one of the things about reading old news is it can be discouraging and encouraging. Sometimes you’re like, “Wow, we really made so much progress” and other times, “Wow, we are still working on this.” So all of that is contained in these papers.
So what examples come to mind for what’s discouraging and encouraging?
Oh wow … I mean, it’s all in our present headlines. We have many papers that we’re digitizing in this current grant cycle from the U.S.-Mexico border, so just to watch how views from the border change throughout history, sometimes more welcoming, sometimes less and how that correlates to other things in U.S. history. For example, we’re looking at Nogales International and we would notice how all these big events were happening in town. Like big conventions, firemen, dentists, and we realize it’s because of prohibition. So of course these are all happening because in the town you can go to the back of restaurants and drink legally. There’s all kinds of examples.
And then, how we’ve progressed. Well, I mean we’re celebrating votes for women … we have a lot of digitized pages already from 1917, and that era around women’s suffrage movement and you can just track how Arizona was ahead of the national vote for women.
What have you noticed about the scope of local journalism from 1859 – when the first Arizona paper came out – to now?
I think about that a lot actually. We are living in a time when there is less local newspapers being published and I think one of the great advantages of these historic newspapers is they can really transport you back in time. And what you notice as you’re looking at them is that smaller newspapers really served as the informational hub of the communities where they were published.
What type of challenges do you face in this position that you maybe didn’t expect when you started?
How labor intensive it is to digitize the papers. I want to make as much available as I can, and we’re making great strides. There were about 80 papers available on the Arizona Memory Project and this year we’re releasing sections of 40 new titles. We have about 700 Arizona newspaper titles in the collection as a whole so with these 40 new titles coming out we think we will have about 8 percent or 9 percent of the collection digitized. So there’s so much more to do.
What are you looking forward to finding next in the process?
In the next six months, we are going to be releasing six Spanish language papers from Phoenix and Tucson. We are going to be putting online six African-American newspaper titles that are pre-1963 and papers of the U.S.-Mexico border. Moving forward, I would like to try to look at papers during Arizona’s growth post-World War II. So that may start with military papers published here and as towns started to form.