Features – The Growth of Digital Image Archives: Can We Toll the Bell for Microfilm?

Joan E. Thomas is Reference Librarian, Polsinelli Shalton & Welte, PC.


Microfilm and microfiche: two simple words that stir feelings of fear, nausea, and regret in librarians and researchers everywhere. In Double Fold, Nicholson Baker’s diatribe against libraries and our assault on paper, he accurately describes using microfilm to browse newspapers as “a brain poaching, gorge-lifting trial.1 ” Librarians may disagree with Mr. Baker on other matters, but most of us will agree with his accurate depiction of using microfilm to access articles. We all know that using microfilm is one of our profession’s most tedious duties.

The recent announcements from vendors about completed and future digitization projects are good news for Mr. Baker, librarians and researchers everywhere. The efforts of numerous vendors to digitize the archives currently stored on microfilm or microfiche may eventually make the tedious multi-step process of using print indices to locate articles on microfilm obsolete. Many of us in the legal community are becoming more familiar with using full imaged document providers like Hein-On-Line’s imaged based collection of legal research material.2 West Group recently announced that it would begin retroactively imaging case law to provide users with exclusive imaged documents. According to company press releases and advertisements, users will have the option to print the full-imaged cases from the print pull-down menu3. Outside the legal community, other companies are undertaking similar projects. In the past few months, several other vendors have introduced digital archives that allow the user to search, print, and browse original digital images of newspapers. This article will review the recent introductions of products outside the legal arena that may prove useful to law librarians.

ProQuest Historical Newspaper Archive4

In July 2002, ProQuest announced the completion of its year long project to fully digitize The Wall Street Journal from 1889-1985 and The New York Times from 1851-1999.5 As a result, for the first time ever users can now search the entire archive of these two papers in electronic format. The company is currently developing imaged archives of The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. They plan to offer imaged versions of national, regional and local publications over the next few years.

For all the skeptics out there, rest assured that ProQuest means what it says when it says it fully digitized the newspaper collections. The digital archives includes the contents of the paper from cover to cover including the basics like news articles, photos, and graphics. In addition, the digital archives includes those hard to find items that are usually not indexed or included in full-text databases: editorials, letters to the editor, advertisements, cartoons, wills for probate, legal notices, stock quotes, weather reports, obituaries, birth and marriage announcements, property transfers, ship arrivals, classified advertisements, and even lottery numbers.

Users familiar with ProQuest’s other online products will recognize the template and search features. Although it does not employ sophisticated Boolean or natural language search techniques, ProQuest’s searchers can use basic keyword, advance and relevancy search techniques to search the ASCII text that underlies each article and page image. Searchers can also browse or scan the entire issue page by page, as they would read the print issue. As with other ProQuest products, search results display the complete bibliographic information including date, issue, headline, page number, and author name. Searchers can view the full imaged article by simply clicking on the bibliographic link, which displays the article as a PDF file. The searcher can view the individual article by selecting “Image Map” or the entire page from the newspaper by selecting “Page Map.” The PDF format gives the user many delivery formats including printing, saving, or e-mailing the article.

Both the archive and current files are available online via ProQuest’s Web based online information service. Pricing is available for institutions and libraries. The prohibitive subscription costs does not necessarily rule out this resource for smaller law libraries. More and more large public libraries are offering remote access to their databases. Now would be a good time to consider renewing your library card to the local public library.

The Times Digital Archive 6

If you consider The New York Times to be the newspaper of record for the United States, then The Times of London is probably the newspaper of record for the world. In January 2002, the Gale Group announced its ambitious plans to digitize the entire archive of The Times from 1785 – 1985. Issues from the World War II era editions are now available and Gale hopes to complete the project by the beginning of 2004. It estimates that there are at least 10 million original news and advertising items contained in the archives.

As with ProQuest, Gale is imaging the entire contents of The Times. Of particular interest to law librarians, the digital archives will include the Law Reports, daily reports of Parliamentary debates and the Court Page.

I was unable to obtain a trial password, but the search mechanisms are similar to Gale’s other InfoTrac products. The articles are delivered to the user in PDF format.

Both the archive and current files are available online via Gale’s InfoTrac web based online information service. Pricing is available for institutions and libraries. Once again, the prohibitive subscription costs does not necessarily rule out this resource for smaller law libraries so check with your local academic and public libraries.

Paper of Record

If your research needs encompass Canadian resources, then be sure to check out Paper of Record, Cold North Wind’s portal to its growing newspaper archives. Founded in 1999, Cold North Wind is working to provide online access to imaged copies of the world’s newspapers. Its goal is to build “the World’s Largest Searchable Archive of Historical Newspapers.” With over 3.6 million pages digitized, it is well on its way to reaching this goal.

Cold North Wind includes a hodgepodge collection of newspapers from the U.K., Mexico, Ireland and the U.S., but it’s main focus is on Canada’s national and regional newspapers. A list of current and future newspapers is available. In May 2002, Cold North Wind announced plans to begin archiving Canada’s The Globe and Mail’s archives from the past 158 years. In June 2002, it announced plans to begin imaging the Mexican historical newspapers and periodicals held at the National Library of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Upon completion, this project will create the largest portal of Spanish historical newspapers on the Internet.

Users can access and search the archives for free at the Paper of Record web site. Searchers must purchase a subscription to view the articles. Rates are available for daily, monthly and annual subscriptions. Articles are delivered in PDF format.

Unfortunately, users cannot search across each and every newspaper. Searchers must select individual newspapers to search. This could prove to be a huge hindrance unless the user knows some basic information about the search that will aid in selecting the correct newspaper. Until Cold North Wind is able to pump up its collection of mainstream newspapers, Paper of Record will probably maintain its reputation as a good resource for genealogists and amateur researchers.


If your research needs hit closer to home then be sure to check out Heritage Microfilm’s NewspaperArchive. The whimsical 1950s design indicates that this is a great site for genealogists. Its collection currently includes regional and local newspapers from 15 states with plans to image at least one major paper from all 50 states by mid-2003.

Users can access and search the archives for free at the NewspaperArchive web site. Searchers must purchase a subscription to view the articles. Rates are available to individual users for monthly, quarterly and annual subscriptions. Institutional subscriptions are also available. As an added benefit, NewspaperArchive will digitize the local historic newspaper microfilms for institutional subscribers. Users must download the free DjVu Plug-in to view the articles.

NewspaperArchive includes many features aimed at genealogists. An online discussion forum is available for users to post queries. A quick review confirmed that the majority of the postings are from genealogists. Users can also order full size reproductions of articles.


The current push to image historical newspapers is an indication that users are ready to accept digital copies of current mainstream periodicals. Many mainstream magazines and newspapers are responding to the growing need by offering current subscriptions in digital format to subscribers. Available digital titles include The New York Times, The Harvard Business Review, PC Magazine, Technology Review, eWeek, Barron’s, The Boston Globe, and Consumer Reports.7 Microfilm won’t disappear overnight. But as the attraction of its space saving feature is soon surpassed by the search capabilities of imaged archives, its days are definitely numbered.


1. Baker, Nicholson. Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, New York: Random House (2001) p.39. <back to text>
2. For a review of Hein-On-Line, see James W. Shelar’s article Hein-On-Line, August 1, 2001. <back to text>
3. Yet another reason to discard the case reporters. <back to text>
4. To view a demo, visit http://www.il.proquest.com/proquest/histdemo/ <back to text>
5. Users can search the full-text ASCII databases of the current files on ProQuest. In the current database, users can toggle between viewing page images in PDF, full-text images, cites/abstracts, or text and graphics. <back to text>
6. To view a demo, visit http://www.galegroup.com/Times/ <back to text>
7. Two main vendors that offer digital delivery are Newsstand.com and Zinio.com. <back to text>

Posted in: Digital Archives, Features