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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

History 203A: Reacting to the Past: Days of Rage: Vietnam, 1968, and the Fall of the Presidency

Guide to researching roles for the Reacting to the Past games on the Chicago Democratic National Convention protests in 1968, and the Watergate scandal.

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This page explains how to find news sources in the library. Newspapers are the principal news source collected by libraries, but research libraries increasingly collect broadcast news recordings, newsreels (originally shown in movie theaters), and newswire reports.

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is published--letters, for example, were a common method of recording and communicating news, but are considered an unpublished source.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

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.

5. Article indexing. 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.

UIUC Newspaper Database

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 University of Illinois Library Newspaper Database:

Major Metropolitan Daily Newspapers

For the major metropolitan newspapers of the post-Civil War era, and especially the twentieth century, the best place to begin is ProQuest Historical Newspapers:

The following are some of the major titles in this collection:

African American Newspapers

The first known African American newspaper was Freedom’s Journal (New York, N.Y. : 1827), and since then there has been an active black press in the United States. This page is a guide to finding African American newspapers and periodicals in the Library. Click here to view a complete list of African American newspapers at the University of Illinois Library.

For the major, digitized African American newspapers of the twentieth century, the best place to begin is ProQuest Historical Black Newspapers:

The following are three digital collections also include significant holdings of late-twentieth century black newspapers and periodicals:

Other News Sources

This section lists sources of newsreels, television news, newswires, and public opinion polling services.

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).