Digitized newspaper collections tend to make rather extravagant claims about the documentary value of newspapers. For example, America's Historical Newspapers claims that it "Chronicles the evolution of American culture and daily life from 1690 to the recent past". Commercial newspaper vendors usually argue that historical newspapers offer some raw view of "daily life" or "social history", or cite the old cliché that newspapers are the "first draft of history", or a "window onto the past", all of which is ironic since, until the past few decades, historians tended to view newspapers as doubtful sources of information.2
The Library's collection of digitized newspapers is strongest for pre-1920 America. Our collection of digitized newspapers from 1960s to the present is comparatively quite weak (largely due to the challenges of digitizing newspapers still protected by copyright). Below are some of the major digitized newspapers and newspaper collections:
Believe it or not, there are many newspapers that have not yet been digitized. For example, if you wanted to use the Windy City Times to study LGBTQ life in Chicago during the 1980s and 1990s, you would not be able to do so using a digitized version, but the Library has this newspaper on microfilm and in print.
To identify newspapers held by the University Library, regardless of format (digitized, print, microfilm), use the UIUC Newspaper Database:
The UIUC Newspaper Database also provides subject access to our newspapers, so you could, for example, filter by newspapers published specifically for the LGBTQ community, or feminist newspapers. Many of these "newspapers" are newsletters and periodical-type publications.
While obviously not an option during a pandemic, it's important for historians to know about collections beyond their own libraries. Within easy traveling distance of Champaign, Northwestern University Library has one of the best collections of LGBTQ newspapers and periodicals in the country.
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 significantly 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 number of newspapers are not yet digitized, and access to many digitized newspapers is restricted by paywalls. For the United States, digitization of (extant) eighteenth and nineteenth century newspapers is much closer to complete than is digitization of twentieth century newspapers. For twentieth century newspapers, you'll primarily find major metropolitan titles through the Library. Tens of thousands more are available through subscription-based services like Newspapers.com, but most of those newspapers are not available through the University Library (at least not the digitized copies) because these companies either do not offer institutional subscriptions, or else the institutional subscriptions are prohibitively expensive (on purpose, because these companies make most of their money by selling subscriptions directly to researchers).
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, 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 (especially in pre-twentieth century newspapers), and other factors, any combination of which will reduce the accuracy of keyword searches.
3. 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. 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.1 Crime reporting came of age in the 1830s, and for about 150 years the crime reports were the newspaper section most likely to include documentation of gay and lesbian experience.
4. Vocabulary. Crime reporters, not surprisingly, used the language of the penal code to describe queer experience, especially in the era before Stonewall, and like the penal code itself the language was morally charged. You will find that words like "lewd conduct", "immorality", "dissolute conduct" frequently reference homosexual acts, and these are the kinds of words you will need to use to retrieve articles. Unfortunately for the researcher, these words were also used to describe any sexual act between unmarried persons. "Sodomy" is another important keyword, though again "sodomy" could also describe criminal sexual acts between members of the opposite sex. 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 referenced by her husband's name, e.g. "Mrs. Henry Smith". People could be referenced 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.
Vocabulary is a challenge not only in retrieving articles, but also in interpreting them. A document is anything that can be used as evidence of something, and a major problem when researching the history of sex and sexuality is determining the evidentiary value of a document. For example, what historical event or phenomenon does the above article supply evidence of? Is it evidence that Don A. Gono was gay? Certainly it is evidence that he was arrested, in a hotel, and charged with practicing immorality. We would need to consult the relevant penal code to find out what acts fell under the umbrella of "practicing immorality". Even then, being charged with practicing immorality does not mean Don A. Gono actually did what he was accused of doing. It also seems likely that Gono possessed an address book with the names of soldiers in it--another important document in Gono's history, but one that is probably no longer extant. And here is yet another document in Gono's history:
This document is an enumeration form from the 14th Decennial Census. This document is evidence that Gono lived with another man at 526 O'Farrell Street. The other man (James Goodwin) is identified on the enumeration form as Gono's "partner". So does this document furnish evidence that Gono was gay?
To understand what is meant by "partner", we would need to consult the Instructions to Enumerators manual for the 14th Census, where this term is defined. To a twenty-first century ear, the word "partner" certainly seems to suggest a romantic relationship, but that is not what the census enumerator meant by the word, even if there was, in fact, such a relationship.
If you were researching Gono's history, you would find that his name sometimes appears in print as "Don A. Gono", and "Don J. Gono", but never as "Ronald" or "Donald". The man's name was actually "Don Juan Alvarado Gono", and he was an immigrant from Cuba.
Image 1: San Francisco Chronicle, Apr 5, 1918.
Image 2: Bureau of the Census, 1920 Federal Population Census, San Francisco County, California, popultion schedule, Assembly District 32, Precinct 58, sheet 217 (stamped), dwelling 54, family 277, Don Alvarado Gono, RG 29.
For the most complete and current information on finding newspapers in the Library, please consult our guide to Finding Newspapers:
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).