Illinois Newspaper Project Interviews James P. Danky

by Jerilyn P. Tinio  |  Published: February 29, 2020


Graphic: Microphone icon, next to text: "James P. Danky: On the Record." Faded newspaper titles wallpaper background.


In 2019, James P. Danky received the American Journalism Historians Association’s Distinguished Service to Journalism History Award for his 40 years spent expanding and diversifying serial collections at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Danky is editor of the indispensable reference tool, African-American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998) and an advisory board member for the Illinois Newspaper Project’s 2018 National Digital Newspaper Program grant cycle.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society, offers two annual research fellowship awards in his honor. Applications for 2020 awards are due May 1.

In this interview, Danky speaks to future stewards of the historical record about the research value of newspapers, how libraries can collect everything, and the importance of preserving diverse print for telling better history. 

Table of Contents


Heading Graphic: On Newspapers


INP: In the published version of your acceptance speech, you wrote “historians need to consult the widest possible array of sources, including any and all possible journalism.”[1] Do you think journalistic sources are essential to the accurate telling of history?

Danky: I do think journalistic sources are essential to the accurate telling of history. You need to read the local newspaper, the college newspaper, magazines, et cetera. I don’t distinguish between newspapers and magazines. I know that’s an important distinction for some. But I’ve never met a researcher whose interests were articulated as that they wanted to see a newspaper on a subject, or for an area. They’re interested in all the publications from there; it’s an ecology of publications that exists in a particular community.

INP: Is there anything special about newspapers as sources for research?

Danky: Along the lines of what Clarence Brigham of the American Antiquarian Society said: if you can have only one source to do the history of a community, you want to choose newspapers, and that’s simply because it’s the source that has the greatest detail.

The Chicago Tribune doesn’t devote much to, say, Niles, Illinois. It shouldn’t. It has other issues it should highlight. But the local newspaper is the one that will have the greatest density of coverage. It’s with the local, small-town, suburban newspapers—that is, the non-national papers—that you get the admonition to the editor to mention as many names as possible. It has a picture of the girls’ volleyball team. They make sure they identify every single member of it because their parents are going to read the paper; team members are going to read the paper. They want to see their picture and then their name in the newspaper.

That kind of density of coverage is what makes newspapers so essential, because you never know when the genuinely prosaic, repetitious kind of item is exactly what you’re going to want to use. It’s what sets newspapers apart from all other kinds of serials.

That’s why digitizing them and then providing full-text searching à la Chronicling America and Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections just changes everything. It used to be that you’d have to go to a library that had the bound volumes of a paper. You’d have to say: “Well, the person I’m interested in was active in approximately this period.” You just have to start reading.

INP: What else could provide that level of coverage? Government documents?

Danky: Think about a community that you’re familiar with. You can get a lot of information from large government data sets like the U.S. Census and others. These are great resources, but they really only get you the bare bones of the people that you’re looking for. If you’re looking for them collectively, prosopographically, a collective biography of people who live in Niles—sorry, just using that as my example today—in order to really get beyond the sort of bare bones of their lives, when they were born, what their family structure was, you need to go look at the newspaper.

INP: Newspapers definitely seem like a good bet for genealogy research, but what other types of questions can they answer?

Danky: Here’s a question: “When did the soap factory get built in Niles?” There are lots of government documents, public records, that might lead you to that but there’s probably a news story the day that Bubbles Forever opened in Niles, and on the people that were going to be hired to make soap. It’ll amplify those kinds of things, and you’d say, “Oh, but that would only be of interest to a local historian of Niles, Illinois, or historian of soap.” But it could be of interest to a historian of technology, a historian of public health.

In my career at the Wisconsin Historical Society, I selected and added to the collection over 75,000 serial titles. A bunch of newspapers, but then tons and tons of periodicals, from scholarly journals to zines. For each and every one of those titles, I made it a point to—and, I did this very, very quickly—make sure that I could answer a question that nobody ever asked me, except maybe once or twice: “How could this be used?”

My answer wasn’t prescriptive. It’s not how it should be used but just so that I had an answer in case anybody ever asked me. Because I collected a lot of very outrageous things.

INP: This seems important for justifying including things in the collection.

Danky: Absolutely, exactly right. It is important. There was one title that a cataloger, and I had the privilege of working with two wonderful catalogers, brought back to me and said, “This is not about anything.” I said, “I know, but I thought we should have at least one title in the collection that was not about anything, at all, kind of like Seinfeld [laughs]. But it’s from Racine, Wisconsin. We should have that. Because we’re the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.[2] It’s enough of a rationale, that it was produced here.”


Heading Graphic: On Public Libraries as Local Print Archives


INP:  What collection development philosophy do you think is required for building a truly diverse and comprehensive collection, keeping in mind, of course, that not everything can be collected?

Danky: I disagree with the second part of your question. That is, I do think everything can be collected. And that makes me a follower of Antonio Panizzi of the British Library. He didn’t found the British Library but he made it great in the nineteenth century and built the original building that now houses the British Museum. I do think it can happen.

By that, I mean it needs to be a decentralized approach. If you are that librarian in Niles, Illinois, then everything that is produced in Niles should be in your library. You can’t collect everything in Niles, but you can collect Nilesiana. You can have everything from Niles. Someone says: “That’s a boring book.” The response is: “Yes, but the imprint says Niles so that’s why we have to have it.”

Almost all public libraries have local history rooms so if you found something that was socially and politically repellent to a lot of people you can just shelve it there. That’s fine. It doesn’t have to go out on the bookshelf. You don’t have to goad the public and get yourself fired. But you can have those kinds of materials there. And you would be doing everybody a great service because they can count on you to have everything about Niles.

Now, most public libraries do not do this. They don’t think of themselves as a local print archive, and they should. Because in Champaign-Urbana you can’t collect everything produced in Illinois because you won’t even know about it. It’s a big state and all the states are big. You have to depend on local public libraries, the same way that with the Illinois Newspaper Project a lot of titles that have been digitized, that will be digitized, have been collected by other libraries in Illinois.

The mantra for librarians in more recent decades, maybe not today anymore, used to be “access, not ownership,” and the first time I heard that, I said: “Well, that’s great, provided somebody owns it.” There isn’t going to be any access, otherwise.


Heading Graphic: On Diversifying Collections Through Community Awareness


INP: So, this would be to see public libraries as cultural heritage institutions. I’m not sure if public libraries see themselves as playing this sort of role in the community.

Danky: They should. A community is only going to support so many cultural institutions and we want them to support the library because we’re librarians. It’s self-interest. But in most communities, there’ll be a local history society. Public libraries should want to partner with those people. They can share the responsibilities of doing something like that.

But when it comes to the print of the community, I think that it’s best handled in the library. Librarians know what to do. It’s, like, fun and easy, and if you do it you will learn a lot more about your community. Because most of us, oh, even if we were born in the community, we went to school there, or whatever, it turns out that we don’t know very much about the community.

We know about our neighborhood, we know our commute routes, et cetera. But sometimes we don’t even notice the neighborhood changes or the city changes. It happens all the time. And we come up with these preposterous notions that, I don’t know, gosh, that Latinx communities only live in the Southwestern states. They aren’t the dominant group in, say, Pilsen in Chicago. Okay, well, you know, if you get out more, you’ll see that that’s just not true. And if you drive through small towns in Wisconsin and Illinois you will find all kinds of Latinx businesses, you just have to look for them. When you do that, you can also look and see if there are any publications and you pick them up and you put them in your library.

INP: I think what we’re hearing from you is a call to action.

Danky: Absolutely. You’ve heard me correctly.

INP: But, besides information professionals, it seems that community members should also want and advocate for that. Is that right?

Danky: But a lot of community members have—well, the same way: if you go into a store, just any kind of store, and they don’t have what you want. Do you go back to that same store and ask for it again?

INP: [laughs] No.

Danky: [laughs] No. Almost nobody does. So, consequently, community members, even those that produce these said publications, they may have gotten the unmistakable message that their work is not welcome in the public library. It’s important to hold the mirror up to librarians and say: “Okay, who are we?”

You know, I gave a lecture in Champaign-Urbana decades ago and I think the title of the lecture was actually, “Libraries: They Would Have Been a Good Idea.”[3] They need to be different than the ones we have and, by that, I think I want to start with the people who choose to become librarians. It’s not an obvious calling or career path. But the kinds of people that become librarians, let’s ask questions about them, how they’re recruited, and what they think this is all about.

A practical way of answering your question is to start with library education and say: “Okay, what does U of I’s library school teach and what does it advocate for?” Well, it’s not just a series of factoids or something; it’s a whole outlook about what you’re going to do. Because the only thing I know for sure about information is that it has radically changed in all ways, and it will change all over again in your career, the rest of my life, too. I mean, I’ve watched it change. It’s unbelievable.


Heading Graphic: On Promoting Non-Mainstream Materials


INP: Throughout your career, you didn’t just collect these non-mainstream materials, you also promoted these materials to potential users.

Any advice for those currently working in research libraries, or soon to be working in them, on effective ways to promote the use of non-mainstream materials?

Danky: You promote them by constantly giving talks to library school students, or, when you’re on the other side, when you have a professional job, to local library associations, ILA or WLA for Wisconsin, et cetera. I can’t remember how many of those I gave, but it’s tons-aroonio.

I arrived once at the Minnesota Library Association to talk about non-mainstream materials. I’d never been to Rochester, Minnesota, where they were meeting, where the Mayo Clinic is. So, I just went to the public library, which was next to the convention center, and I used the phone book—because it was that long ago—and I talked to a reference librarian that was not very helpful. I picked up things on the free rack when there was an avalanche of print in those racks instead of the thin things they are today. And I used all examples of print in Rochester, Minnesota, a city I had never been to and had known nothing about, besides the Mayo Clinic.

And I remember one of the lines I used was that if I was there, and I was developing community information sources, I noticed there are two or three Hmong churches listed under religion in the yellow pages. I said, “Yea, okay, that’s interesting.” So, you call them up and then you say, “Do you publish anything?” The person that you’re speaking to will say, “Oh, yeah, but all of that’s in Hmong.” And, I’ll say, “Well, that’s okay, we want that too. We want Hmong library materials in our library.”

That’s how you address the Niles hardware store question. You have those materials there. They’re not going to be, like, bestsellers or hot videos, but they can be in your local history collection, so that when someone says, “I wonder who lived in Rochester, Minnesota in the 1980s?” Well, the answer is that it includes Hmong people, and, “see, we have these examples of their church bulletins and they don’t take up very much room and they’re free.”

But you should show the community that you’re interested in them, and then you catalog their materials under appropriate subject headings, as well as getting them to come in and help translate the materials for you, or you might try and use Google Translate, today.

INP: Are you saying the best way to promote these materials is to make them available?

Danky: Yeah, exactly. Your best public information source is the online catalog. I was about to say the card catalog; that’s because I’m old. And if someone comes up and says that this isn’t cataloged well, then you ask, “How can it be better cataloged? How can we improve access?” Because changing those things is pretty easy by comparison to when you had to pull all the cards and retype them.


Heading Graphic: On Usage Statistics and Creative Networking


INP: In the meantime, what if one of these items isn’t getting used? How do we justify keeping it? Should we be making the argument that it’ll get used in the future?

Danky:  I do make that argument, that people will use it in the future, and we don’t even fully understand which ways they might use it. I think the impulse to weed probably comes from a certain kind of perspective.

If you need to create space, then go in the stacks, go in the Z’s and get rid of all the commercially produced indices that have been superseded by electronic ones. Get rid of the New York Times Index. If you do that alone you’ll probably clear dozens and dozens of shelves. It’s a giant thing.

And this can be done in the Niles public library too. You can have obscure materials that, for sure, don’t get used right away. You have to ask some practical questions, like, “How much room are they taking up?” I think that in most cases they don’t take up all that much room. They don’t impair the institution’s ability to do the things that seem more pressing.

Everybody can always do more. That’s what I said.

INP: So, be more creative, and don’t use circulation or usage statistics to measure the value of an item?

Danky: Don’t use them in isolation. It’s an opportunity to take advantage of something libraries do better than most groups, and that’s to network. It’s in our DNA. Every library is part of some various and multiple consortia.

U of I Library has a campus consortium that it’s part of, that’s Main Library and all other libraries on campus. But it’s also part of all the libraries in Illinois. And then it’s, in turn, part of the libraries in the U.S. and around the world. It’s a global institution. So, let’s take advantage of that and let’s not get hung up on how we can’t have our serial collection grow from 20,000 to, I don’t know, 40,000, because it just depends on what those other 20,000 titles would be. Maybe you could. You don’t know. Not until you look into it. So just beware of anyone that tells you that one size fits all.

Everything I’m telling you will only get you in trouble, that’s for sure. But everything that I’m telling you are things I’ve done. So it’s not just theory, it’s practice.


Heading Graphic: On Preserving Diverse Print and Doing Better History


INP: In your introduction to African-American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography, you suggested many periodicals published by historically underrepresented communities suffered from archival neglect and exclusionary collection development patterns favoring “the Great White Man view of history.”[4]

Is it fair to say that only a small fraction of these resources has been identified, located, and made accessible?

Danky: Yes, that was obviously the rationale for doing the African American bibliography and to see it as a start. My late colleague Dick Newman said, “Jim, when you get done, we’ll have a pretty good list to get started with.” I just laughed; I said, “That’s true.” The bibliography is not an endpoint. You can really see that in the work of Randall Burkett and his colleagues at Emory.[5] They have compiled a long list of titles that are NIDs, N-I-Ds (Not in Danky’s).

Randall told me it’s over 800 titles now, and that’s a substantial percentage of the 6,500 or so that I identified, and it will only grow. But that’s a good thing because it does two things: it reminds everyone that there’s a world of black print out there that’s not been identified or collected, and it urges others to go forth and identify and collect it.

INP: Do you think there’s a trend towards including more diverse perspectives in the telling of history?

Danky:  I do think there’s been a giant flowering of African American historical scholarship, that’s for sure. But probably, if you look at an area like Vietnamese or Hmong people in America, a sizable population, that we’re just beginning to understand those communities in our country and we should make sure that we gather all those materials. It can’t just be the job of UC Irvine to do that.

There are other communities, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, Northern California, et cetera, maybe in Illinois. It’s why the most important event for librarians will be the 2020 Census. Not just as citizens, but also to begin to get the numbers about who it is that lives in their service area. I think librarians will be surprised by who lives there, by ethnicity, by race, by economic status, all kinds of things. It will be important for librarians to look at those numbers and figure out how they can, in this case, collect materials to serve those communities.

INP: In your introduction, you also observed that more recent historical scholarship reveals a “drive for more authentic and more particular voices.” Can you speak more to that point?

Danky: Good historians are going to bring out somebody who exemplifies whatever it is that they’re interested in. Because, in fact, people who read history want to read about individuals. Today they won’t all just be presidents and generals, they’ll be other people, which is good because most of us are other people. They used to stop with presidents and generals.

Take, for instance, the postmaster general of the United States. That’s a boring job to read about. They’ll say: “He was an important person that was appointed to that position.” That’s fine. But that’s pretty uninteresting. Let’s talk about what it meant to get mail service across the country, if that’s our interest, and how that was carried out, or, the role of unionization, public employees. There are a zillion different things that can make that interesting.

But the uninteresting way that was presented for decades and decades was that there was a consensus about things in America, when we’re a country where there’s never been a consensus about anything. To show the diversity of opinion and experience within America definitely leads to better history.


Heading Graphic: On Digital Technologies and Print Culture.


INP: Digital preservation initiatives seem to be a promising way to showcase this diversity. But do you see any pitfalls with relying on digital technologies to help the work and mission of research libraries?

Danky: In terms of reliability, no. I don’t think so. I think it is a given that the digital world is so overwhelmingly integrated into our lives. No, I think we’re okay. I think one of the challenges will be for materials that are behind paywalls versus those that are free. The difference between free and paid materials is a very important one. The library’s job is to help make information freely available if they can; to maximize the amount of things that are free. And I’m on both sides of the issue simultaneously. I want things to be free, and when I edit things for ProQuest, I want it to be paid for so I get royalties. How’s that?

INP: Yes, it seems like the funding has to come from somewhere.

Danky: Exactly. There are things I want to see happen, and no public source is providing the money, and ProQuest might, so we pitch it to them. But public initiatives like the National Digital Newspaper Program let you put more Polish, and now Czech and Hungarian, newspapers online. Private companies aren’t going to do it because they don’t think there’s a market. But public initiatives can do things for which there’s not an obvious market, or a large market.

INP: You were cofounder of the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, now known as the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture. What is a central question addressed by the history of print culture that you think we should be asking ourselves in view of the proliferation of online publishing?

Danky: A central question is, “What is the experience of print and the digital for people?” It’s reception theory. There’s a whole group of active scholars interested in how print gets used.

What the center has as one of its hallmarks is that we’ve always been extremely democratic when we considered print. We didn’t say, “It’s enough to read the Declaration of Independence or the book-of-the-month club,” not that there’s anything wrong with those things. But you tell me what kind of print you’re interested in. Polish American newspapers? Cool. Zines? Fine. It doesn’t matter what it is, you make the case for it.

Make the case for your print culture research project and apply for the 2020 James P. Danky Fellowship with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture and the Wisconsin Historical Society.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Other bibliographies edited by Danky:

Danky, J. P. (Ed.). (1974). Undergrounds: A Union List of Alternative Periodicals in Libraries of the US and Canada. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Danky, J.P., Hady, M.E., Strache, N.E., & Noonan, B.C. (Eds.). (1982). Women’s Periodicals and Newspapers from the 18th Century to 1981: A Union List of the Holdings of Madison, Wisconsin Libraries. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall.

Danky, J.P. & Hady, M.E. (Eds.). (1984). Native American Periodicals and Newspapers, 1828-1982: Bibliography, Publishing Record, and Holdings. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.


Further reading:

Baughman, J.L.,  Danky, J.P., & Ratner-Rosenhagen. J. (Eds.). (2015). Protest on the Page: Essays on Print and the Culture of Dissent Since 1865. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Danky, J.P. & Wiegand, W.A. (Eds.) (1998). Print Culture in a Diverse America. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Danky, J.P. & Wiegand, W.A. (Eds.). (2006). Women in Print: Essays on the Print Culture of American Women from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Madison, WI : University of Wisconsin Press.

Danky, J.P. & Kitchen, D. (Eds.). (2009). Underground Classics: The Transformation of Comics into Comix. Harry N. Abrams.

Pawley, C. & Wiegand, W.A. (Eds). (2008). Special Issue: Alternative Print Culture: Social History and Libraries [Special issue]. Library Trends, 56 (3).



[1] Danky, J.P. (2019). “Exploding the Canon of Journalism History.” Historiography in Mass Communication, 5(5), pp. 27-33.

[2] The State Historical Society of Wisconsin changed its name to Wisconsin Historical Society in 2001.

[3] Talk given by Danky April 17, 1997 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Published in Sanford Berman and James Danky (Eds.), Alternative Library Literature 1996-97, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998.

[4] Danky, J.P. (1998). ”Introduction: The Black Press and White Institutions.” In Danky, J.P. & Hady, M.E. (Eds.), African-American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography, pp. xxxi-xxxv. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[5] Burkett, Randall K. (2008).“The Joy of Finding Periodicals ‘Not in Danky’.”Library Trends, 56(3), pp. 601-617.

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