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Digital Archives a wonderful achievement

Archbishop Joseph Harris takes a closer look at bound copies of the paper at the July 17 launch. Photo: Elmo Griffith

University lecturer and historian Professor Bridget Brereton wrote the following article ‘Celebrating 125 years’, which appeared in the September 27 issue of the Trinidad Express. Both have given their permission for its reproduction here.

“Almost everything we know about history comes from an artefact [something made by a human being]. Often, we are able to encounter an artefact in the present, because someone in the past decided to preserve it”—the words of Dr Kwynn Johnson, in her essay about the 125-year Catholic News digital archive.

Studying the past depends on surviving sources of different kinds. Archaeologists depend mainly on objects like pottery, ornaments or human remains, but most historians work with written sources. Among all the different kinds of written sources, newspapers stand out as uniquely wide-ranging and vivid representations of the past. No source has been more used in researching the history of T&T and the Caribbean.

This is why it’s so important that our rich legacy of newspapers, stretching back to the early 1800s, should be carefully preserved—old newspapers are very fragile, especially in the tropics—and made accessible to students and researchers of all kinds. The oldest paper still being published in T&T, and the second oldest in the entire English-speaking Caribbean, is the Catholic News.

The weekly began in 1892, and is marking its 125 years of continuous publication in the best possible way: by making the entire run of the paper available online as a digital archive. This fine achievement was funded by the Vatican (the Papal Foundation) and carried out by CAMSEL (Catholic Media Services Ltd), under the direction of Kwynn Johnson and in collaboration with the National Archives.

The Catholic News is the organ of the Archdiocese of Port of Spain, but over its 125 years, the weekly has always contained much more than items specifically about the Church or the faith. General news about Trinidad, and about the near-by islands (including Tobago, of course), was always carried.

For instance, the attractive booklet distributed at the launch of the digital archive  reproduces two items from 1893 and 1909 about the arrival of the “Waraoon Indians from the Main” to trade their goods (hammocks, birds, baskets) for things obtainable in Trinidad. News from country districts and villages was regularly reported.

The paper often published poems, songs and occasionally short stories. In the 1890s many of these were in French, for the Church was known as the ‘French Church’ at this period: the priests were mostly French-speaking up to the late 1800s, and the island’s French Creole community was the dominant Catholic group. The gradual disappearance of French in the pages of the Catholic News reflects the shift towards English in the early 1900s.

Of course, the paper featured advertisements, and the booklet referred to above reproduces several fascinating ads from the 1890s and early 1900s. Newspaper ads, which are generally illustrated, are great sources for social and economic history.

In this booklet, Kwynn Johnson reproduces each of the different ‘mastheads’—the heading or banner that every newspaper has—used by the Catholic News from 1892 to now. Her essay discusses them as “visual texts” which can be “read”; she describes them as “visual bookmarks” which reflect different periods in the paper’s evolution. Her essay reminds us that visual sources, images of different kinds, are also important for the historian.

The creation of this fully searchable, online digital archive of 125 years of the Catholic News is a wonderful achievement—perhaps a certain daily newspaper now about to celebrate its centenary might decide to follow suit? And, as the Papal Nuncio said at the launch which was held at his residence, it was fitting that the archive was announced to the world at number 11, Mary Street, St Clair—for this historic house was the home, in the early 1960s, of Dr Eric Williams, our first Prime Minister and celebrated historian.