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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

History 498B: The US in the Bad Neighbor Era


These digital collections can be used to find primary source material in periodicals. The article indexes listed on the Find Journal Articles page, although more often used to find secondary sources, can also be used to find primary sources.

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:

  1. Publication of current information. Periodical publishers and book publishers operate under very different business models, and the former are able to publish new information far more quickly and inexpensively than the latter.
  2. Publication of information that does not lend itself to publication in book format, either because even a full treatment of the subject would be too short to warrant publication as a book, or because the audience for the information is so specialized that publication as a book would represent too great a market risk for a publisher to assume.

There are dozens of types of periodicals. Four important types are described below:

  • Scholarly. Often called journals. Intended for academic audiences. Many scholarly periodicals are published by university presses, learned societies, and other not-for-profit publishers, but others are published by commercial (or "for-profit") publishers like Routledge, Brill, De Gruyter, Springer, Brepols and, Sage. Not all scholarly journals are peer reviewed. Sources for finding scholarly journals are treated on the previous page.
  • Popular. Often called magazines. Almost always published by commercial ("for profit") publishers, and often cease publication when they become unprofitable for the publisher. Intended for popular audiences, but can cater to smaller audiences (like hobbyist magazines) as long as the audience is segmented such that the magazine can still be profitable.
  • Trade. Often called trade journals or trade newspapers. Intended for members of a profession (Chronicle of Higher Education), occupation (Railway Carmen's Journal), or industry (Hollywood Reporter). They often resemble newspapers in frequency of publication (weekly and even daily) and appearance (printed on large format, inexpensive paper, with no cover).
  • Alternative. Have an acknowledged political bias, and are usually not expected to turn a profit. They are intended to motivate readers to action, or form coalitions from like-minded people. They are often low-budget newsletters, but can also be expensively produced magazines or organs of societies and special interest groups. Alternative newspapers and periodicals are sometimes mistakenly referred to as "underground newspapers." Strictly speaking, an underground publication is one that is published secretly--in other words, the place of publication an identity of the publisher are not disclosed. Most alternative newspapers and periodicals in library collections do not meet this criterion.

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.


The Library has access to a very extensive collection of newspapers from the 17th-century to the present. To find specific newspapers or newspapers from specific places, please consult our Newspaper Database and our Guide to Historical Newspapers. The digital collections below contain newspapers of particular relevance to this course.

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.

Alternative Press

Non-mainstream media, often referred to as "alternative" or "underground" press publications, can be difficult to locate. Publications in this category include newspapers, magazines, newsletters, and other types of serial publications. These periodicals tend to be written from an acknowledged political perspective--for example, liberal or conservative--and they often promote a specific agenda, such a labor unionism, socialism, or communism. They might, however, report on news that is of interest to a specific community--often a marginalized one--without endorsing any defined ideology.

The digital collections below provide access to a wide selection of "alternative" publications relevant to this class. Find more alternative press material on our Alternative Press guide.

Thematic collections

Additional resources

For a more comprehensive list of digitized primary source collections, see: