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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

History 200C: Queer Sexualities

Introduces history majors to basic research library concepts, both for use in this course and in preparation for History 498. Provides both a broad overview of the source types collected by research libraries, as well as lists of specific sources relevant

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 (see page on Periodicals) 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 the 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is published--letters, for example, were a common method of recording and communicating news, but are considered an unpublished source.

Detail from a news agency dispatchThe 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. To 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.

Challenges of Research with Newspapers

Gono Arrested on Immorality ChargeIn 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, 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. "Amalgamation" and "miscegenation" were commonly used to denominate interracial marriage. 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.

Major Digitized Newspaper Collections

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 privileged 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

Below are some of the major digitized newspapers and newspaper collections:

Beyond Digitized Newspapers

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. Many of these "newspapers" are newsletters and periodical-type publications. Click here to view a list of LGBTQ newspapers, published in the United States, from our collection.

Within easy traveling distance of Champaign, Northwestern Univeristy Library has one of the best collections of LGBTQ newspapers and periodicals in the country. 

Newspapers of same-sex communities might contain evidence of queer history:


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).