[Updated September 20, 2016]

Discovering the Publications in this Collection

Quarterly Visitor (IA, 1844)

Quarterly Visitor (IA, 1844)

The first handwritten newspaper I ever saw (Quarterly Visitor, IA, 1844) was set in front of me by a kind archivist at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, in 1979. For better or worse, I have been chasing handwritten newspapers ever since. I have found them across the continent and in my travels overseas–in Africa, Europe, Australia, Asia and beyond.

But finding handwritten periodicals is a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. Most library catalogs (even today) give priority to printed materials. Most manuscript (manu=hand, script=written) materials are squirreled away in archives that are cataloged or indexed inconsistently  from library to library and even from archivist to archivist. In other words, thousands of handwritten publications may be out there in archive collections that will remain unknown until some enterprising archivist or historian stumbles upon them by accident.

The national newspaper project which led to the U.S. Newspapers Directory, 1690-Present, an excellent resource for identifying the country’s newspaper heritage and finding extant papers, did not provide guidelines on how to deal with handwritten newspapers in their historical searches. Thus, without clear criteria for inclusion or exclusion from the “newspaper” genre, handwritten publications were handled inconsistently, categorized under various names and labels (“hand written,” “holographic,” “manuscript,” etc.) or simply included without any notations or clarification about the papers being handwritten rather than printed. The current Directory identifies only a limited number of handwritten papers and does not provide adequate search parameters within the collection to locate them in the database.

The Denial Bay Starter, Australia, 1908

The Denial Bay Starter, Australia, 1908

This lack of consistency in cataloging handwritten publications in newspaper directories prompted me to turn directly to manuscript archivists, who would know best whether they had handwritten newspapers in their “manuscript” collections. I sent letters to nearly all the major (and many minor) archives and libraries in North America, thanks to a grant from the John Calhoun Smith Memorial Fund of the University of Idaho (where I was teaching journalism history at the time). In my cover letter, I simply asked if they knew of any handwritten periodicals in their collections.

I was skeptical, to say the least, about what my inquiry would yield, but I wanted to do my due diligence to discover, as much as possible, just how many handwritten publications were out there. I expected the archivists’ responses would demonstrate how extraordinarily rare they were.

I was wrong.

The response was overwhelming, stunning. The entries in this collection reveal that manuscript periodicals were much more common than I or anyone, perhaps, might have imagined.

More recently, with the digitization of library and archival catalogs and improvements in online search engines, I continue to find more and more publication online. Almost every time I do an online search these days, new links pop up to papers or references to papers I have never seen or heard of before. This has kept the search going and allowed many new friends to inform me of something they’ve come across. Please do help me keep the search going for these rare gems.

Thanks to all the archivists and librarians who helped identify these handwritten needles in their archival haystacks, from thumbing through old card catalogs to scouring through their newer electronic data bases. Without their generous time and assistance, this collection would be much smaller and very much the poorer.

Prince Albert Critic (NWT, 1889)

Criteria for Including Papers in this Collection

What is a newspaper? Until very recently journalism historians have had a print prejudice in defining the newspaper. But the technology of reproduction can mask a more important and fundamental characteristic: the desire to make one’s news and opinions public, readily available to others. Letters, previously only handwritten, were considered private affairs and lacked the public character expected of (printed) news. Print seemed almost intrinsically public, so the print bias of historians was not unreasonable. But it was a type of blindness to other means of literate public communication. As electronic newspapers, social media, and blogging have demonstrated in recent years, print isn’t the only medium that can “go public.” This collection shows, in the absence of print technology (in prison camps, aboard ships, in frontier mining camps, in the wake of natural disasters, and in the midst cities in developing nations with very poor citizens), that handwritten papers and even chalkboards can transcend their private status stereotype and “go public“–seeking a public audience–as well as any printed newssheet.

Michael Ray Smith, Free Press in Freehand (2011)

Still editorial judgment was necessary when determining if, say, a child’s or school’s handwritten paper should be included. Parodies and humorous sheets presented similar problems. In these cases, I chose to err on the side of inclusiveness for the sake of future bibliographic research. It seemed wiser to err on the side of including too much than to exclude too narrowly and push the obscure into invisibility. These papers had already been hidden away for too long. They at least deserved their 15 minutes of fame, even if they didn’t remain in the bibliography indefinitely.

None of these publications compare in scope, readership, professional reputation, etc., to the New York Times, of course. But then neither does the National Enquirer, the Drudge Report, or thousands of local and weekly newspapers. Rather than let this bibliography get mired down in the ideological-tilting question of what is a “real” newspaper, I chose to include those publications that identified themselves as “newspapers” or mimicked the common characteristics of the news pages of their day. I have included publications which clearly sought a public, rather than a private, audience. Just as there will likely be many more papers added to this collection in the years ahead, I suspect I will, upon further reflection and examination of new evidence, delete some entries from the current collection for not being intended for public consumption or turning out to be more of a private letter or a silly lark than a newspaper.

As the news industry continues to change technologically, perhaps digital, online, and printed news may also change conceptually, becoming more lark than serious reportage. Future cultural, technological, and ideological shifts  in our understandings of news will also no doubt prompt some, still caught up in the grip of the Modern hubris of “the new,” to treat the late New York Times as an ancient printed artifact that had the audacity to consider itself a “real” news publication. Until then I hope you appreciate and enjoy the audacity of these handwritten newspapers.

Roy Alden Atwood
Project Editor

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