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Newspapers: Our National Conscience

Posted by Megan Rohleder on Aug 23, 2023

By: Lauren Gray, Head of Reference

Upon entering our Research Room at the State Archives, one of the first things you’ll see is row upon row of gray metal cabinets. Inside each of these cabinets are thousands of reels of microfilm, micro reproductions of documents on a cellulose acetate base, which resembles old VCR film. These reels contain a variety of documents and records, the most numerous of which are reproductions of newspapers.

Newspapers are the ‘bread and butter’ of the Kansas Historical Society’s collections, but they also have a larger legacy. The historical society was founded in 1875 by a group of Kansas newspaper publishers and editors who recognized the need to preserve the history of the state. Newspapers were one of the earliest items collected by the Historical Society and continue to be a vitally important part of the State Archives’ collections. The first newspaper was printed in Kansas Territory in 1854, and it can still be viewed in the State Archives’ Research Room or online. By 1916, KHS could boast of having one of the largest collections of newspapers in the world. Today, it is impossible to quantify how many individual newspaper issues we hold, but close to one million would not be an unreasonable number. We are an ally of the printed news.

Why, one might ask, do we make such an effort to collect and preserve newspapers? While they are an important research tool, they are also a complex cultural resource and symbol. At first glance, newspapers may seem passé, a relic of history. With the advent of social media and non-traditional online resources, the printed word, or even a digital news site, can seem slow or out-of-touch with our increasingly voracious need for immediate information. But newspapers should not be supplanted by the digital age. Newspapers are vital to a healthy and functioning democracy.

Newspapers were one of the earliest publications in colonial America, far surpassing books and other print media in popularity. They became an integral component of social and political protest to British taxation in the 18th century. Print resources kept disparate and physically separated colonists informed. Newspapers strengthened the growing American resistance movement, which ultimately resulted in the American Revolution and the creation of the United States. Recognizing the importance of newspapers during the revolution, the First Amendment was established to protect the right of free press and free speech. The First Amendment was intended to defend the press as a part of the democratic process.

Newspapers have long been a means of communication. Before train lines and telegraph wires interconnected the continent, newspapers kept the young country informed. As tensions rose over slavery in the decades before the Civil War, newspapers fueled the debate over the expansion of slavery into the territories. Newspapers were the battleground for the war of words, and Kansas was at the foreground of that fight. With stirring mastheads like “The Herald of Freedom” and the “Squatters Sovereign,” newspapers captured and enflamed the galvanizing language of the day:

 

“The people of the free States, and all opposed to slavery, claim, as their birth-right, all the benefits accruing from the act of 1820, and for them tamely to surrender this right, must be but the discover that they had necks fitted to some vile purpose. They, however, can assert and vindicate their rights without any just cause of offence, and without treading upon any of the rights of slaveholders; and whatever is their right and privilege to do, it is their duty not to leave undone.”

 

                                                -Kansas Herald of Freedom, 1854 

Newspapers have supported and enabled the discourse on politics and policy since our country's founding. They represent our national conscience. We are who we are as Americans because of the power of newspapers. The printed word educates and informs, and we become better citizens through our engagement with that discourse. Newspapers mobilize the public to action as trusted sources of news. Newspapers continue to be a means by which communities discuss and debate ideas and events. While the face of newspapers has changed, with many becoming digital to stay relevant and to cut publishing costs, our need for them has not. Newspapers are an essential component for our cultural, social, and political development, and are a resource worth protecting.

You can access the State Archives’ collection of newspapers online through our website or in our Research Room:

https://www.kshs.org/p/kansas-digital-newspaper-program/16126 


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