.SJPL’s New Accessibility for Mercury Archives

News Archives Get a Face Lift at the Library

Those old microfilm machines in the main library might get a little lonelier from now on. 

Thanks to a generous donation from an old-school San Jose family, anyone with a San Jose Public Library Card can now freely rifle through the entire digital archives of the San Jose Mercury-News, going all the way back to 1900, and then download any amount of old newspaper stories. Researchers, genealogists, street historians, reporters, novelists and even grade-school kids are already taking advantage of the service.

When the archive first went live a few months ago, a couple hundred people logged on and checked it out. Then, just in the month of June, 11,000 users went searching for stuff.

“Percentages stop meaning anything when there’s that much growth,” said library director Jill Bourne. “So I think that the more awareness people have, the more it’ll be discovered and used. And we have had a few comments, from local history teachers who recognized it as an amazing resource immediately, and then residents, just saying how much it means to them, and being thankful for the gift.”

The archive became available after local library volunteer Margaret Ma spent months researching her family history, pulling endless amounts of microfilm rolls from huge cabinets and stringing them through the machines—then the only way to access old Merc stories. She also spent over 100 hours in the California Room, helping visitors digitize old analog media of various kinds. Like many before her, she began to get exhausted with the time it took to do all these things. Fortunately, a passion for libraries ran in the family. Ma’s mother, Susan Renzel Carter, was the sister of former San Jose mayor Ernie Renzel, himself a third-generation San Josean, and it was through her mom that Ma helped solicit the financial donation that allowed the library to purchase permanent access, making the entire Mercury-News archive available to the public, for free.

“It’s so meaningful because it truly came out of Margaret’s experience as a volunteer, as a personal user of the library and all of the resources, and having multi-generational-deep roots in this city, in this community,” said San Jose Public Library Foundation Director Dawn Coppin. “To be able to take her gift and make that accessible to everybody who has a library card is just so incredibly wonderful.”

One enters the archives through the library’s website. Even from home, anyone can do this. Everything in the Merc before 1985 is available in full-digitized form. That is, you can see what the actual newspaper looked like, every single page, complete with all the photos and the ads. You can save individual articles or even clip specific parts of any page—all for free. Everything from 1985 onward is only text-based.

The word “archival” might imply a collection that only resonates with old crackpot historians. Not true. Perhaps the best aspect of the archives is that they are easy to use. Anyone can search by year, by month, by author, subject or any assemblage of keywords. Looking for obituaries from the ’60s? A prohibition-era crime story? Letters your great grandfather wrote to the editors? How about which films were running in 1976? Or automobile ads from 1959?

“It’s not just for trained professional researchers or passionate genealogists,” Coppin said. “It really is there to be used by grade school children who are doing a history project, or somebody who’s moved into the area and wants to get a sense of how has the community changed over time, or even people who are writing screenplays or doing video game scripts and are like, ‘All right, what was this place like?’”

As such, the archives will help educate tens of thousands of people and maybe even inspire other donations, so the library can purchase even more newspaper archives. Ma initiated the process as a way of thanking her family.

“She wanted to make a gift in memory of her mother, who was a San Jose native who loved books, loved libraries,” Bourne said. “And so we’re very grateful for them to make that gift.”

Libraries exist to allow access and inform the public. It’s that simple. I just hope those old microfilm machines don’t get too lonely.

Gary Singh
Gary Singhhttps://www.garysingh.info/
Gary Singh’s byline has appeared over 1500 times, including newspaper columns, travel essays, art and music criticism, profiles, business journalism, lifestyle articles, poetry and short fiction. He is the author of The San Jose Earthquakes: A Seismic Soccer Legacy (2015, The History Press) and was recently a Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. An anthology of his Metro columns, Silicon Alleys, was published in 2020.

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