NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

September 27, 2013

Newburyport's history, told through newspapers

Bill Plante's North Shore
Newburyport Daily News

---- — I have been taken by recent letters to the Daily News relating to the historic treasures in the Newburyport Public Library’s archives.

Histories are chronological records of significant events, and Newburyport’s library archives have been impressively enriched by records of every type and purpose.

A visit to its web site will broaden respect for what the archives have to offer, but this reflection deals largely with its microfilm collection of this newspaper and its predecessor since 1773.

The decision to build a new library addition and to modernize the older one in a way that blends all of what was past with the present assures a sustainable pride.

It has become a busy enterprise, not the least of which is its status not just in Newburyport, but among the best the state has to offer.

Central to that is the depth and breadth of its archival presence, an educational resource of a kind undreamed back when it’s residence was in the bowels of the older building.

Communities are complexities of social and professional engagement in the making of history. Library archives maintain details of that making.

Accounts come in many forms, none of which are more collectively relevant to social and governmental behavior in a given time and place than newspapers.

Newburyport’s archives contain those of this newspaper and its predecessor, the Newburyport Herald, published in 1793.

Unfortunately, newsprint does not last long and there were 35 newspapers published in Newburyport between 1773 and 1854.

Had modern means of preservation been as they are, we would be able to research local newspaper coverage reaching back to when the first issue of the Essex Journal, and Merrimack Packet was printed by Isaiah Thomas and Henry Walter Tinges on what was then King Street (now Federal) at the corner with Middle, across from what was the St. Louis de Gonzague church until its end and sale.

“Predecessor” has a special significance because this newspaper, born in 1887, included the Herald as part of its Newburyport Daily News masthead until it was dropped by the late Phillip S. Weld in 1952 when he acquired it and The Gloucester Times.

It’s difficult to imagine just how important newspapers became to a society when the only means of written communication had been by letters, and official broadsides.

Government has never been comfortable with them since the first appeared in Boston where “Public Occurrences Foreign and Domestic”, was published in 1690. Only one edition was distributed before it was shut down immediately by British authority.

Only one copy of it remains.

Of the 35 newspapers published in the city between 1773 and 1854, many did not last for more than a year. In some years, more than one newspaper appeared, suggesting needs for contrary voices to be heard.

History is told in many ways, but from its very beginning, the purpose of newspapers has been to bring information of interest sufficient to sustain publication. Failures were not uncommon.

Consider then, the importance to referencing local history of what has been reported upon by this newspaper since 1887, and what has been recovered of the Newburyport Herald.

It is said by many that newspapers are a dying breed of information presenters. There’s no questioning what has happened to the drain upon them, but there is much to question as to what could replace them.

In all that uncertainty, the library’s archive is an active sanctuary of the past and present and will be for whatever the future unfolds.

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Bill Plante is a staff columnist.