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Microtext Department

Boylston Room, 2nd Floor, McKim Building, Central Library
Contact via 617-536-5400

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Newspapers in the Boston Public Library (Background)

The Boston Public Library has a long tradition of collecting and preserving newspapers. As the largest repository in the state, the Library retains in remote storage over 10,000 Massachusetts newspapers, over 1,000 titles from throughout the United States and hundreds of foreign titles. Over 300 titles from around the world are currently received and recent issues made available in the Library's Newspaper Room. In the Research Services Department, back files of over 5,000 titles are available either on microfilm, microfiche, or microprint cards. Retrospective filming of additional titles is done on an ongoing basis. Major newspaper indexes and other bibliographic materials are available for consultation. Were all hard copies of newspapers retained by the Boston Public Library stacked on top of one another, the pile would be nearly one and one half miles high. And if the film from all newspapers retained on microfilm by the BPL stretched end to end, it would reach some 1,700 miles, or roughly the distance between Boston and Fargo, North Dakota.

Who uses newspapers? Newspaper use is as varied as the human imagination. For the scholar of history, the student of culture, the genealogist, the student of contemporary issues, or the job seeker, the newspaper is absolutely essential. In the Library's Newspaper Room or Research Services Department, one is likely to find people of all ages and persuasions, bent over a newspaper or microfilm reader, busily taking notes, engrossed in the never ending quest for knowledge. The use of a newspaper does not end with the date of its publication. Its meaning and significance increases with the passage of time. The newspaper that is discarded today may in the future yield a variety of information available in no other source.




Boston, Thursday Sept. 25th.1690

America's first newspaper suppressed after first issue!

Benjamin Harris published the first American newspaper in 1690. He was a former publisher of Whig books, pamphlets, and a newspaper in London. Harris had fled England with his family four years earlier after clashing with authorities for publishing seditious pamphlets, leading to uncomfortable episodes in the pillory and jail. Successful financial ventures, including a Boston bookstore, coffeehouse, and general printing business, soon enabled him to launch his second newspaper. Publick Occurrences was intended to be "furnished once a moneth (or if any Glut of Occurrences happen, oftener)." Unfortunately, he once again ran afoul of the government, and official reaction was swift and certain. Four days after distribution, the Governor and Council issued a statement disallowing the publication, claiming it had been issued "Without the least Privity or Countenance of Authority."

Particularly irksome to the powers-that-be was some gossip regarding the immoralities of the King of France and an account of recent events of the French and Indian War. Harris denounced the barbarous ways in which the Indian allies of the English had treated their French captives.

Declaring "high Resentment and Disallowance of said Pamphlet," the government ordered that Publick Occurrences be "Suppressed and called in." It was further ordered that nothing would be set to print in the future without prior authority.

Thus, the first newspaper published in America became the first to be suppressed by the authorities. And in the wake of its closing, we experienced the first governmental intervention with an order of prior restraint.

From The New Publick Occurrences, New England Press Association, Sept. 25, 1990.

The Universal Yankee Nation (Sept. 27, 1841) measures 54 1/2"x 35 1/2". "The largest paper in all creation." This newspaper was located in the Library's newspaper collection at the New England Deposit Library during survey work for the Massachusetts Newspaper Program. The illustration on the front page of the paper depicts State Street in Boston, the address of Universal Yankee Nation and several other newspapers published at the time, with the paper hanging from a balcony as several passersby peruse its contents. It was one of several newspapers published in the oversize format during the first half of the 19th century. American publishers were influenced by the size of papers in England where a newspaper tax per page was in effect. The size of the paper was possible due to the development of cylinder presses.

The Massachusetts Abolitionist (1839-1841) was the organ of the Massachusetts Abolition Society, a faction of the Antislavery movement that believed that abolition could be achieved through political means and offered an alternative to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, the Liberator, and William Lloyd Garrison's non-resistance philosophy. Under the direction of its first editor, the multitalented Elizur Wright, the paper became the Massachusetts spokesman for the Liberty Party and its presidential candidate, James G. Birney. After their candidate's overwhelming defeat in the 1840 election, the paper changed its name to the Free American and attempted to broaden its audience; however in December, 1841 it merged with the New York based Emancipator in order to provide a more unified voice for its supporters. Despite its relatively short existence, the paper provides extraordinary insights into the divisions within the Antislavery movement and the movement's relationship to collateral reform activities.

By today's journalism standards, the Mid-Town Journal (1938-1966) probably wouldn't raise an eyebrow of concern among proper Bostonians who have become conditioned over the years to explicit reporting in virtually all media.

But back in the '50’s and '60’s, the "South End scandal sheet," as it was known, earned a place on the local Catholic Church's list of publications "unfit for reading," and faced an unsuccessful bid by a state legislator to ban its publication.

Founded in March, 1938 by Frederick Shibley, a former vaudeville performer, the Journal scandalized authorities and socialites alike as it served up a weekly menu of crime, racing tips, and gossip for its more than 50,000 readers.

Shibley, who almost single-handedly wrote, edited, and published the eight-page weekly, resorted to some clever pseudonyms to vary his bylines and capture the essence of the messages. "Iben Snupin," for instance, was the gossip columnist, and "Handicap Harry" offered tips from Suffolk Downs, the local racetrack.

During the '50’s a department head at the Boston Public Library, outraged by a story in the Journal, did the unthinkable; he ordered all copies of the scandal sheet expunged from the Library's shelves.

The paper ceased publication in 1966, and were it not for a $400,000 NEH grant to fund the Massachusetts Newspaper Program, the Mid-Town Journal might never have found its way back into the BPL's collections.

Penny Shibley, daughter of the former publisher, quite cognizant of the BPL's search for copies of old newspapers, contacted the Library and wondered if we would be interested in appraising 50,000 copies of the Journal found in the cellar of her late father's South End residence.

Massachusetts Newspaper Program staff responded immediately. In the basement of the Rutland Street address they began to sort through the mountains of unorganized papers, some of which were water-damaged and required special effort to separate. After months of concerted effort, they found that all but about a dozen issues of the 1,500 editions published by Shibley had been found and the microfilming began.

The Journal certainly holds a place in Massachusetts history (and lore) with its unique literary vision. It is also a study in how to run a one-man newspaper. Happily, the Mid-Town Journal now resides in its rightful place among Massachusetts' newspapers in the United States Newspaper Program in the Boston Public Library's Research Library.

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