What are Periodicals?
Periodicals are publications that are issued periodically: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, etc. (A journal was originally a publication that came out daily, jour means day in French.) The periodical as document genre evolved from the book. Before the invention of electronic media, when all publications were print, periodicals filled two main needs that the printed book could not:
There are dozens of types of periodicals. Four important types are described below:
These distinctions are a method for classifying sources; like other classification schemes, this one is intended to help you complete a task. In this case the task is drawing conclusions about the nature of a source. The conclusions you draw should not be your final judgment on the question of the source's value. Classification schemes often obscure as much as they reveal about whatever they are attempting to describe.
Neither source type ("scholarly" or "popular") definitively indicates the value or reliability of a source, but recognizing the difference can sometimes make it easier to predict the probability of a source's value and reliability. You still need to evaluate each source critically.
Many article indexes include citations to articles from non-scholarly periodicals like magazines and trade newspapers.
Why are newspapers different from other periodicals?
In libraries, newspapers are treated differently from 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 from the methods used for journals and magazines. Even when newspapers have been digitized, the methods of digitization are very different from 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 when using newspapers for historical research:
1. 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 time period of this course, a large proportion of extant English-language newspapers have been digitized, but there are large gaps where no copies survive, so nothing could be digitized!
2. 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 typefaces (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. When searching sources from before 1815, be particularly aware of the alternate form used for the letter s, ſ or "long s," which is sometimes, but not always, interpreted by text recognition software as the letter f: so, for example, sold becomes fold.
3. The concept of news. The most common mistake we see students make when working with historical newspapers is applying a twenty-first century concept of news to older newspapers. Prior to the 1830s, "news" was primarily commercial and political intelligence, and even the latter category would be political intelligence for those who held the franchise.2 Life events such as births, deaths, marriages, career advancements, etc, were reported only about individuals in the "upper levels" of society. Crime reporting was one of the only areas in which ordinary people appeared in the news, but before the 1830s or so, pamphlets and ballads were likely to contain more detailed accounts about recent crimes than newspapers did. Some of the most useful information about social history in older newspapers comes from the advertisements.
4. Vocabulary. Vocabulary changes quickly, and you must use vocabulary contemporary to the period you are researching to retrieve articles. Use secondary sources and other primary sources to identify useful terms. If searching for names, bear in mind that first and middle initials were often used in lieu of first names. A married woman was often referred to by her husband's name, e.g. "Mrs. Henry Smith". People could be referred to by their legal first names (e.g. Donald), or by a shortened form (Don, Donny, Donnie), or even by a nickname. You would need to use all forms of the name to make sure you retrieve all relevant articles.
If you have the language skills to work with primary sources in the original languages, consult this detailed guide from Princeton University Library for information about historical European government documents (once you find titles of sources you want to use, consult the University of Illinois Library catalog to access them).
Find more collections of digitized primary sources via our Digital Collections Guide.
Find published collections (in print) of primary sources via our Primary Source Reprints Guide.
To find primary sources in the library catalog, limit your search results by date of publication to find sources that were published during the time period you're researching. Using the subject term description and travel can be a good way to find English-language materials.
You can also use the advanced search option to search by subject and include one or more of these terms:
Consult our Finding Primary Sources page for more tips for finding primary sources.
1. D.E. Davinson, The Periodicals Collection: Its Purpose and Uses in Libraries (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969), 38.
2. 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)..