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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

History 498D: U.S. Empire

A guide for history majors completing their senior capstone project. Guide presupposes mastery of basic library skills taught in History 200.

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:

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 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 Newspapers.com, but those titles are not available through the University Library because the companies do not offer institutional subscriptions.

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 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.

3. The concept of news. The most common mistake we see students make when working with historical newspapers is applying a C21 idea about "news" to older newspapers. Prior to the 1830s, "news" was commercial and political intelligence, and remember that the latter category would be political intelligence for those who held the franchise--nothing at all like political news today.1 News of foreign affairs has been a staple of newspapers since their very beginning.

4. Vocabulary. When searching digitized newspapers, you must use the vocabulary of the time period you are researching, not the vocabulary that we use today. For example, prior to the 1960s especially, many Americans would likely not have conceptualized their country's foreign policy as Imperialism, and using keyword terms like "empire" and "imperialism" would only retrieve articles written by the few who actually did.

Finding Newspaper Articles

Unlike periodicals and journals (see introduction to "Article Indexes" on the "Periodicals" page), 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.

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, farmers), use the:

Many newspapers have been digitized, and the University of Illinois Library has a strong collection of digitized newspapers. Below are the best databases to begin with, when researching nineteenth century American history.

Digitized Newspapers

For more information on finding newspapers at the University of Illinois Library, consult our guide:

Listed below are some of the major, digitized newspaper collections that might be especially useful for this class:

Newsreels, T.V. News, Newswires

The Perspective from Abroad

Major Collections

Major Titles

Open Source Intelligence

"Open source intelligence" is news gathered by government intelligence agencies that monitor radio broadcasts, newspaper publications, and other openly available news sources from foreign countries. These agencies then translate the news they monitor for the use by intelligence officers.

Notes

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).