St. Helenans are in for a treat. The digitized back issues of the St. Helena Star newspaper, from “Volume I, No. 1” of Sept. 25, 1874, through “Vol. CXLI, No. 14” of Dec. 25, 2015, are now available online through the St. Helena Library.
These back issues, which were formerly available only through the use of the microfiche readers within the St. Helena Library, represent the archive of one of the oldest newspapers in Northern California.
That first issue published on Friday, Sept. 25, 1874, begins with a salutation by editor and proprietor Dewitt C. Lawrence. He wrote “To-day we commence the publication of the Star, which in size is not quite as small as some of its country cousins, or quite as pretensious (sic) as its City Fathers, but what it lacks in metropolitan grandeur, we aim to make up in local home intelligence, which in reality is of more absolute importance to the people of Napa County, than the mammoth journals of a great city.”
Reading these archives through an Internet Web browser takes a bit of getting used to, but it is undoubtedly easier than loading fragile microfilm into the bulky readers in the back rooms of the library. The experience is infinitely more “user-friendly” than rolling through the microfiche, which often gives a reader a sense of vertigo as the black-and-white photographs of pages flash across the glass screen.
At present, access to the online archive is only available by clicking on a graphic that appears briefly on the library’s home page. It rotates with six other images. (It’s hoped that a more permanent link on the library’s website will be made available soon.) This link takes the reader to a separate website service titled “Digital Reel by BMI,” and displays a single folder titled “St. Helena Star.” Selecting that folder opens up a world of St. Helena’s history.
One can search the entire St. Helena Star archive or select an individual publication year or issue.
For instance, searching on the phrase “Steves Hardware,” one of St. Helena’s oldest establishments, pulls up literally thousands of references that connect the reader to individual articles and/or advertisements about this venerable store. Searches on names, places or locations in the archive are also detailed and nearly instantaneous.
Navigating the individual issues within the archive is a bit more challenging. This is because the software was designed to mimic the functionality of a microfiche system.
For instance, the search results may link you to the image of a page where the search term was found. It even highlights the reference in yellow. However, thereafter manipulating the image becomes somewhat arduous. You can zoom in or out on the page, or “autofit” the page to the screen. Panning the page to get precisely where you want to read requires you to use a combination of CTRL + “Arrow” keys. And since these keyboard commands are not specifically hinted at on the display, the best thing to do is to access the “?” Help link, which will take you to an online manual.
If you wish to print a page, the software first transfers the image to a PDF (Portable Document Format) file, which requires you to have a PDF reader on your computer. It’s only from this PDF file that you can print out the entire page.
Another somewhat annoying limitation of the software is that all the pages and images are in black-and-white. This made absolute sense when newspapers were limited to black ink on newsprint and black-and-white photos.
Nevertheless, this archive is free and it’s of untold importance to those who want to know more about St. Helena’s history, the history of the Napa Valley, and the function of a free press in a democracy. Instead of simply wondering what happened in St. Helena on the day of your birth, you may now quickly access the closest issue of the St. Helena Star of that year and month.