This is awesome. Last year when I went back to school and took some advanced history classes, I found the process of accessing historical newspapers to be painful in the extreme. Holding libraries have to be careful of old newsprint, so if the paper is in a California library and you’e in NY, it used to mean having to go to California to see the article. Also, chances are you won’t be allowed to photograph, photocopy or scan such papers due to their fragility. Microfilm is available in more places, and the NYPL had a good collection, but microfilm is such a pain in the ass… nothing is indexed, and if you are looking for something specific, you find yourself wishing Google managed the microfilm so you could type in a few keywords and go straight to the relevant rolls of film. This is even better.
Having a text based index will make the search for contemporary news content sooo much nicer. I do wonder if Google will create a text index for images and advertisements as well… they make it clear that newspapers will be displayed as they were originally printed with these elements, but as someone who spent 6 months looking for bathing suit advertisements in newspapers from the 1920s, and political cartoons about the Oneida Community in the 1800s, I can attest to how impossible it is to track these kinds of things down. A text index of such images would be invaluable to historians, and to students.
Even without an image index, this is a huge accomplishment. Thanks, Google!
Official Google Blog: Bringing history online, one newspaper at a time.