Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project launches new platform
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Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project launches new platform

A how-to guide for navigating the new platform containing digitized versions of Pittsburgh's historic Jewish newspapers.

Screenshot of new platform (Screenshot by Eric Lidji)
Screenshot of new platform (Screenshot by Eric Lidji)

Historians and genealogists of a certain age may recall the heroic patience required for conducting newspaper research in the analog age. Before digitization, every search involved hours flipping page-by-page through back issues or seated before the whizzing reels of a microfilm reader that always advanced too slowly or too quickly.

With the arrival of the computer age, all that changed. High-resolution scanners, ever-improving optical character recognition software, and an advancing internet have made it possible to instantly discover single small references to a given subject among millions of pages from newspapers all over the world. Research projects that might have once taken years, and sometimes even decades, can now be completed in a few minutes.

The Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project was launched in 2007 as part of this online revolution. After several expansions, the free website currently contains more than 9,000 digitized and searchable back issues from four local English-language Jewish newspapers: The Jewish Criterion (1895-1962), the American Jewish Outlook (1934-1962), the Jewish Chronicle (1962-2010) and the YM&WHA Weekly (1926-1976).

Carnegie Mellon University Libraries created the website using resources from the Rauh Jewish Archives, Rodef Shalom Congregation, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. CMU migrated the project to a new online platform in 2012 and recently moved the project again, as part of a larger overhaul of its vast repository of digital materials containing more than 350,000 documents. The new platform can be found here.

The new system is built on software framework called Islandora. Islandora is meant for large repositories and is popular among libraries and archives all over the world. It is the same software currently used by the popular Historic Pittsburgh website.

When using Islandora sites such as the new Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project website, it is helpful to think of “filtering” and “sorting,” rather than simply “searching.”

Filtering is a way of winnowing down a large set of information by applying a series of restrictions. A search term might bring back thousands of results, many of them irrelevant to your needs. Strategically filtering those results by date, and then by type, and then by subject can make the results more manageable and more useful, step-by-step.

For example, when you enter a search term on the new website, you’re actually searching all 22 digital collections currently held by CMU. But if you click “Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper Project” in the left-hand margin, you’ll instantly limit the results to those from the four Jewish newspapers in the project. A second filter allows you to limit results to just one of these four newspapers. A third filter allows you to limit results to a range of dates. By this point, you’ve probably reduced the search results to a manageable number.

That’s where the “sorting” happens. You can sort in three ways. “Relevance” uses an algorithm to guess which results are most useful. As with any automates process, sometimes it works better than others. “Date” arranges the results chronological. “Order” sort allows you to “descend” from newest to oldest or to ascend from oldest to newest. A third sort allows you to decide how many results you want to see at once: 10, 25 or 100.

In addition to filtering search results, you can use these tools to browse the newspapers. Know the exact issue you want to find? Just run through the sequence of filtering and sorting steps without entering any search term, and you can locate any issue.

Clicking on any of these results brings up a browsing window. Zooming tools allow you to read online, or you can download a high-resolution JPG version of any page.

Learning any new system can be both exciting and frustrating. It is delightful to discover useful new features and aggravating to encounter new obstacles. CMU is encouraging people to submit feedback, and they have promised to be responsive to any feedback they get, within the technical limitations of the software. Within the past month, they have already made several important changes based on feedback from users. PJC

Eric Lidji is the director of the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center. He can be reached at rjarchives@heinzhistorycenter.org or 412-454-6046.

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