Searching historical newspapers with the Chronicling America API

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One of the weirder experiences in writing software is that we can never hold what we create. Mess up a piece of hardware, there's a heap of scrap metal. Mess up a piece of software, there's a few wasted hours and quick rollback in git. Old versions aren't placed on a shelf to collect dust, or put on display in a museum. But being able to touch something connects us to it differently.

Last summer I found an old newspaper for a buck at a garage sale, an edition of The Johnstown Democrat from 1931. It was a lot of fun to show the kids, and to let them actually hold and touch a piece of history that's nearly 90 years old. I have a couple newspapers from the end of WWII as well... they're fascinating. (Photos at the end of the post.)

So I was excited to stumble on the Library of Congress's Chronicling America API, which "provides access to information about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages". The result of an effort called the National Digital Newspaper Program, it's completely free and unrestricted. You don't even need to register for a key, which many APIs use to throttle usage. Before we dig deeper though, two things to consider:

  • If you're new to APIs, check out "What do we mean by API?" to learn more.
  • You also may want to install Postman, which lets you access API endpoints without having to write an app, plus you can save/sync everything to the cloud.

How to Access

Since there's no key, it's extraordinarily easy to access... just make the call you're interested in. Using it however, proves to be a little more complicated.


Find Newspapers by Title

This is a pretty big API - really, a set of APIs - and I'm only going to look at one of them. The sheer amount of data available is astounding. They provide bulk downloads of the OCR text they've generated from newspapers, and it must be many terabytes of data.

So let's say you know the name of the paper you want. It was Bourbon News in Kentucky, from around the turn of the century. Search for the title and you'll get back a set of results like below. It's in JSON format using a standard called OpenSearch, where the first line is your search term, and the next 3 blocks represent lists of suggested completions, additional info, and URLs to request each suggestion, in that order. If you want to learn more about OpenSearch follow the links - I don't intend to cover it here.

GET http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/suggest/titles/?q=bourbon+news
[
    "bourbon news",
    [
        "Bourbon news mirror. (Bourbon, Marshall County, Ind.) 1946-1947",
        "Bourbon news-mirror. (Bourbon, Ind.) 1971-current",
        "The Bourbon news. (Fort Scott, Kan.) 1921-1925",
        "The Bourbon news. (Bourbon, Ind.) 1893-1900",
        "The Bourbon news. (Millersburg, Ky.) 1881-1883",
        "The Bourbon news. (Paris, Ky.) 1895-19??"
    ],
    [
        "sn87056228",
        "sn87056230",
        "sn83040370",
        "sn84045464",
        "sn86069871",
        "sn86069873"
    ],
    [
        "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87056228/",
        "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn87056230/",
        "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83040370/",
        "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84045464/",
        "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069871/",
        "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/"
    ]
]

One thing I noticed is that there's something funky about the search. Searching bourbon+news+paris returned no results, while searching the+bourbon+news still returned results without "The" in them. Maybe articles are ignored and words in parenthesis aren't indexed? Not sure.

Narrow results to a single publication

Assuming we're interested in the Paris KY newspaper, we want the last one above (btw, lccn stands for Library of Congress Control Number). We can easily parse the JSON and display the result, or even build a link out of it.

List all editions in a single publication

That's nice for getting the HTML representation, but what if we want to get a JSON representation of that page in order to dig deeper? Some resources take a query parameter like ?format=json so I figured I could just append that to the url, but as it turns out you have to add .json to the URL in this case. Easy enough. Then you get JSON results for each edition. It's the same information reported by the nice little calendar they generate on their site... in fact, with the data you get back you could do the same on your site.

GET http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873.json
{
  "place_of_publication": "Paris, Ky.", 
  "lccn": "sn86069873", 
  "start_year": "1895", 
  "place": [
    "Kentucky--Bourbon--Paris"
  ], 
  "name": "The Bourbon news.", 
  "publisher": "Champ & Miller", 
  "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873.json", 
  "end_year": "19??", 
  "issues": [
    {
      "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-01/ed-1.json", 
      "date_issued": "1897-01-01"
    }, 
    {
      "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-05/ed-1.json", 
      "date_issued": "1897-01-05"
    }, 
    {
      "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1.json", 
      "date_issued": "1897-01-08"
    }
  ], 
  "subject": [
    "Bourbon County (Ky.)--Newspapers.", 
    "Kentucky--Bourbon County.--fast--(OCoLC)fst01216486", 
    "Kentucky--Paris.--fast--(OCoLC)fst01213382", 
    "Paris (Ky.)--Newspapers."
  ]
}

You can manipulate the results however you like. Maybe print out a summary of the returned results, along with a list of each edition that visitors can click on?

List all pages in a single edition

Requesting the third item in the list, part of the data we get back is a "pages" list that includes a URL for each page in the edition we requested. It looks like there's nine pages in this one.

GET http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1.json
{
  "title": {
    "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873.json", 
    "name": "The Bourbon news."
  }, 
  "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1.json", 
  "date_issued": "1897-01-08", 
  "number": "3", 
  "batch": {
    "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/batches/kyu_airplane_ver01.json", 
    "name": "kyu_airplane_ver01"
  }, 
  "volume": "17", 
  "edition": 1, 
  "pages": [
    {
      "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1/seq-1.json", 
      "sequence": 1
    }, 
    {
      "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1/seq-2.json", 
      "sequence": 2
    }, 
    ...
    ...
    {
      "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1/seq-8.json", 
      "sequence": 8
    }, 
    {
      "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1/seq-9.json", 
      "sequence": 9
    }
  ]
}

Find an individual page

Let's check out the first page. We get the name and issue date, as well as links to a PDF image of the page and the OCR they generated from it.

https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1/seq-1.json
{
  "jp2": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1/seq-1.jp2", 
  "sequence": 1, 
  "text": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1/seq-1/ocr.txt", 
  "title": {
    "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873.json", 
    "name": "The Bourbon news."
  }, 
  "pdf": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1/seq-1.pdf", 
  "ocr": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1/seq-1/ocr.xml", 
  "issue": {
    "url": "http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1.json", 
    "date_issued": "1897-01-08"
  }
}

You could use that information to display the page or do something else with it, like embed the pdf in your own site. That might be a little trickier than it sounds, but the point is that the data is there if you've got an idea of what you'd like to do with it.

let elem = document.getElementById('link');

fetch('https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86069873/1897-01-08/ed-1/seq-1.json')
.then(data => {return data.json()})
.then(res => {
    let pdf = new URL(res.pdf);
    pdf.protocol = 'https:'
    elem.innerHTML = `<p><embed src="${pdf}" type="application/pdf" height="300px" /></p>`;
})
.catch(error => elem.innerHTML = error)

Here's the result of embedding the PDF, although the content may be blocked by your browser by default. If it is, check in the address bar for a button that lets you see it.


Other Stuff of Interest

If that wasn't enough, here's a few other random links you can peruse at your leisure. :)


My Newspapers

And finally, here's a few photos from the newspapers I talked about in the beginning.

In Oct 1931, phone calls and radios were luxuries, you could rent a six-room home for $20-$30/month (roughly $325-$500 in 2019), and coal was the primary way to heat a home. The Marx Brothers released a film called Monkey Business, the U.S. was in the middle of prohibition and the Great Depression, and Thomas Edison passed away.

In 1945, WWII ended, jobs included housing, radio and sewing machine repair was a thing, an entire bedroom set cost $120 ($1700 in 2019), and hundreds of items were rationed. The following snapshots came out of a few newspapers from my grandparents.

If you want to learn more about that era:

Author

Grant Winney

Is there anything more satisfying than sharing knowledge? Of teaching someone and witnessing their "ah ha" moment? I usually write about tech, but no promises. I hope you find something interesting!



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