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English 200P: Introduction to Literature and Culture: Adventures in Reading

A guide to using newspapers for your course assignment.

News in the Library

News is information about a contemporaneous event (something happened), presented with the shortest possible duration between the event itself and the time of report, and also the shortest possible duration between the report and the time of publication or broadcast, and also the shortest possible duration between publication or broadcast and the time of consumption by a reader, listener, or viewer.

News magazines can of course be news sources, but the lags between event and report, report and publication, and publication and consumption are generally longer than the lag times in newspapers or news broadcasts. News magazines tend to publish more highly synthesized, in-depth articles about the news; notable exceptions, however, include include investigative reports, sometimes called exposés. An exposé is an interesting category of news in that it not only reports news, but often itself becomes news--think, for example, of the Pentagon Papers. Investigative journalists in the United States are widely credited with compelling Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Libraries collect news in a materially fixed form, which means newspapers, but broadcast news recordings and newsreels have also been collected. Not all recorded news is published--letters, for example, were a common method of recording and communicating news, but are considered an unpublished source.

The dispatches of news agencies are now becoming available as the archives of those agencies are digitized. These organizations existed to expedite the collecting and distribution of news. News sharing goes back to the earliest newspapers, but news agencies did not become common until the mid-nineteenth century, when technological advances (especially the invention of the telegraph and construction of vast telegraphic networks across the world) made it possible to share news across long distances more rapidly than ever before. Famous news agencies include the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Wolff Telegraph Bureau (Germany), Havas (France), and Agence France-Presse (France). Some of these agencies were cooperative, in the sense that member newspapers shared news with each other through the agency; others were top-down businesses that were susceptible to government manipulation. For an excellent discussion of how news agencies shaped the news, and why it matters for historians who want to use newspapers as primary sources, see the chapter on "News-Collecting and News-Distributing Organizations" in Lucy Maynard Salmon's The Newspaper and the Historian.

Detail from a news agency dispatchTo the right is a detail from an Associate Press dispatch. Note that this is the form in which member agencies would receive this news story (over the telegraph). Member agencies often had considerable freedom to shorten the stories so as to fit space limitations or even editorial prerogatives. Bear in mind also that these dispatches are not presented in the form that actual readers would encounter them: when printed in an actual newspaper, this news acquired context that undoubtedly shaped each reader's perception of the news's meaning. For example, is the news story placed on the front page under a banner headline, or buried deep inside the newspaper? Was it juxtaposed with other news that might alter the reader's interpretation of this particular news story? News agency dispatches are therefore excellent sources of news, but not excellent sources of news as actually experienced by readers.

Because newspaper editors were permitted to write their own headlines, and make other, minor edits in order to make an an article fit into the page layout, editors could still give AP dispatches their own editorial spin. Below, for example, are two different newspapers that published the same article about the Scopes Monkey Trial on the same day. The De Kalb (IL) Daily Chronicle went for a quadruple decked headline, with the top deck forming a full banner headline:

"Countryside People Flock to Court City
Big Trial Underway
Judge Raulston Opens Famous Case with Reading of Chapter in Bible
Scopes Indicted." 

The El Centro (CA) Imperial Valley Press gave the story much less prominence, both in positioning and by using a single deck headline with restrained, factual wording:

"Picking Jury to Hear Evidence in Evolution Trial".

Below are the two front pages side-by-side:

Two newspapers printing same story in Scopes case
On the left is the front page of the De Kalb Daily Chronicle for July 10, 1925; on the right is the Imperial Valley Press for the same day.

Challenges of Research with Newspapers

In libraries, newspapers are treated differently than periodicals (even though newspapers fit the definition of "periodicals" in most respects). The main reason for this difference is that the methods of acquiring, describing, organizing, displaying, preserving, and providing ongoing access to newspapers are very different than the methods used for journals and magazines. Even when newspapers have been digitized, the methods of digitization are very different than the methods of digitizing other periodicals, and digitized newspapers are usually found in specially designed collections with interfaces intended to support the unique demands of searching digitized newspapers.

From the researcher's point of view, a major difference between newspapers and other periodicals is that most newspapers were never indexed, and only one American newspaper (New York Times) was indexed in its entirety. What this meant for researchers was that the only method of discovering articles was by browsing newspapers, issue by issue, page by page, article by article.

Obviously, digitization of newspapers has drastically improved matters for researchers, though even digitized newspapers present challenges that you will probably not encounter with digitized journals and magazines.

Some challenges to expect:

Not all newspapers have been digitized

Although it may seem as though everything is online, the reality is that a very large numbers newspapers are not yet digitized, and many digitized newspapers are behind paywalls. For the United States, digitization of (extant) 19th and 18th century newspapers is much closer to complete than is digitization of 20th century newspapers. For 20th century newspapers, you'll primarily find major metropolitan titles through the Library. Thousands more are available through subscription-based services like, but those titles are not available through the University Library because the companies do not offer institutional subscriptions.

Accuracy of keyword searches varies wildly

Newspapers are notoriously difficult to digitize, due to factors like their large format, multi-column layout, article jump-continuations, variety of fonts and graphical material, lack of standard page layout, sloppy presswork and old type, torn pages, crumbling pages, badly mended tears, stained pages, dirty pages, faded ink, clipped articles, bleed-through, gutter shadow, creases, non-standardized orthography in early newspapers, and more. Any and all of these factors can make keyword searching difficult and even inaccurate.

The concept of news

The most common mistake we see students make when working with historical newspapers is applying a twenty-first century idea about "news" to older newspapers. Before the World Wide Web, and especially before social media, news was very expensive to collect, produce, and disseminate. Most newspapers represented an establishment point of view, which means that, when researching history from below, you might need to approach your topic indirectly. For example, news reports of housing discrimination might not represent those practices as discriminatory, or use language that explicitly reveals discriminatory intent.

Commercial and political intelligence was traditionally a staple of American newspapers, as was news of foreign affairs.1 .


When searching digitized newspapers, you must use the vocabulary of the time period you are researching, not the vocabulary that we use today. If you are using newspapers to research race and ethnicity, expect to use terms that you will find offensive. The Library of Congress has created a Race and Ethnicity Keyword Thesaurus to aid you in identifying historically appropriate vocabulary.

Article indexing

Unlike periodicals and journals, few newspapers were ever indexed. Before newspaper digitization, the main way to find newspaper articles was to sit at a microfilm machine, and browse through issue after issue of newspapers. If you were researching a specific event, and had a date and place associated with that event, then your work would be a little easier.

The few newspapers that were indexed (e.g. the New York Times) were among the very first to be digitized, so with very few exceptions, you will not be using indexes to identify articles from newspapers.

Finding Newspapers in the Library

The Library has an extensive collection of historical newspapers in a variety of formats, including original print, microfilm, and digital reproductions. Not all of them are included in the online catalog, but if you are looking for a particular newspaper title, you should use the UIUC Newspaper Database (see below for link).

Many newspapers are embedded in larger collections of online resources, such as America's Historical Newspapers. They may also be embedded in microfilm collections, such as the American Indian Periodicals in the Princeton University Library (less common for 1920s and 1930s America).

To find a specific newspaper, or to identify newspapers published in a specific year or place, or newspapers published for a specific audience (e.g. African Americans, or socialists), or to identify newspapers that are part of larger collections like the ProQuest Historical Newspapers, use the University of Illinois Library Newspaper Database:


1. Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know about Itself (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2014); Ross Eaman, Historical Dictionary of Journalism (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2009); Bob Franklin, Key Concepts in Journalism Studies (London: SAGE, 2005).

2. Lucy Maynard Salmon, The Newspaper and the Historian (New York: Oxford University Press, 1923).