DENTON -- A trip back in time is only a click away at the University of North Texas.
The school operates the Portal to Texas History, a researcher's paradise where historians, genealogists, students -- anyone with a computer -- can browse thousands of books, maps, photographs and newspapers for an endless stream of information, whether an ad showing the price of milk in 1920 or clues about their grandmother's ancestry.
Texas newspapers are among the most popular archived items in the portal and last month the millionth newspaper page was digitized and added to the collection. There are currently 127,604 issues of newspapers in the portal, mostly from small towns. About half the newspapers are publications printed before 1923 -- with some printed as early as the 1820s.
"Newspapers are the archaeological records of a town or city," said Ana Krahmer, supervisor of the digital newspaper unit at UNT Libraries. "A loss of one day -- one issue -- is a loss of that history."
Using the portal, people can click on a file and view or download it -- even "share" the information on Facebook.
"Everybody is looking for something different," Krahmer said.
The collection has items from more than 250 Texas counties, including 268,235 unique items that comprise more than 3 million files, according to UNT. Some items are sent directly to the university for digitizing while others are added to the collection directly by libraries and other institutions.
The portal also works with other universities to provide access to content.
For example, some items from the University of Texas at Arlington digital collection, including maps, photos and illustrations, are shared through the UNT portal.
Mark Phillips, assistant dean for UNT digital libraries, said the portal started with an idea by Cathy Hartman, an associate dean of libraries at the university, who wanted to create a system that allowed digitization of content stored at small institutions such as town libraries. The university began working on the project in 2001.
Phillips said historical societies and small libraries have grassroots information that researchers often want to access, but may not have time or resources to travel to those communities.
"They all have amazing rich collections that are really local," he said.
One example is the Boyce Ditto Public Library in Mineral Wells, which partners with the portal to make the city's local history more widely available.
"It's truly a universal resource," said Palin Bree, manager of the Mineral Wells library. She said the portal allows people to examine items in their homes. "You couldn't get anymore available."
The Mineral Wells library is currently trying to add a collection of military newspapers to the portal. The publications chronicle World War II and various aspects of military activity taking place in and around Mineral Wells, including the evolution of Camp Wolters to Fort Wolters.
Bree said the portal protects history that might otherwise be lost, forgotten or destroyed.
"Nothing is permanent," she said. "It only takes a leak in the roof. It might be a bursting water heater. It might be a fire."
The university initially obtained state funding aimed at helping fund technology projects, said Dreanna Belden, assistant dean for external relations with UNT libraries. Currently, the university is trying to raise about $2 million that can be used to establish an endowment to support the portal.
Belden said the portal is "putting UNT on the map for digital libraries."
"It's constantly growing and getting bigger," Belden said.
The university's digital newspaper work began about six years ago with the National Endowment for the Humanities' National Digital Newspaper Program grant.
That program works with one institution in a state to digitize and preserve early newspapers, said Krahmer.
Many other universities, state archives, state historical societies and state libraries across the nation have similar efforts under way, Krahmer said.
While most of the information comes from small-town newspapers, adding modern major Texas dailies to the project is an ambition that is still evolving and would include working out copyright issues and getting funding to digitize the newspapers, Krahmer said.
"We would really love to work with any dailies who would like to work with us," Krahmer said. "We are very interested in digital preservation of large daily newspapers because they represent such a large body of the population."
One of the biggest challenges facing UNT is finding a way to preserve modern newspapers, which are produced with digital tools. Content that appears on social media sites also might prove important to historians someday, Phillips said.
"Who's preserving that content?" he said