Libraries handle newspapers differently than other periodicals (even though newspapers fit the definition of "periodicals" in most respects). The main reason for this difference is that the methods of identifying, 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.
For researchers, 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. This difference meant that the only method of discovering articles in newspapers was by browsing newspapers, issue by issue, page by page, article by article. For this reason, newspaper digitization is transformative for library research in ways that digitization of books, journals, and magazines really is not.
Even digitized newspapers, however, present researchers with challenges that they 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 many digitized newspapers are only available through subscription services. For the United States, digitization of (extant) nineteenth century and eighteenth 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. Thousands more are available through subscription-based services like Newspapers.com, but those titles are not available through the University Library
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 twenty-first century concept of "news" to older newspapers. Prior to the 1830s, newspapers chiefly published commercial and political news. This kind of news included very little interpretive context: editors assumed their readers would be au courant.1 The modern concept of news came of age in the 1830s, as the newspaper market expanded, and news came to include anything novel, sensational, or scandalous. One would not, however, expect to find news of "ordinary" families, or "ordinary" family events. Later in the century, "society" columns emerged and ostensibly reported on "ordinary" life, but it tended to be the ordinary life of upper-middle class whites.
4. Vocabulary. Language changes quickly, and your searches will be more effective if you can familiarize yourself with the common vocabulary of the time period you are researching. For example, an African American person will typically be described as a "negro", or as "colored", even in African American newspapers, prior to the 1950s. 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. Examples:
5. Orthography. For your query to retrieve documents, the spelling of your search terms must match the spelling of the words in the documents you are searching. You should anticipate non-standardized spelling through the mid-nineteenth century (although you can also expect spelling to become increasingly standardized as the century progressed). Examples:
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 that the old the canard 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
There are hundreds of freely available digitized newspaper collections. These collections vary wildly in quality, but to the historian hunting down evidence, quality isn't always a top priority: if a collection has the source a historian needs, then he or she will happily use it, especially if it's freely available online. Many states have their own digital newspaper collections, often developed in tandem with the National Digital Newspaper Program. States that have partnered with the NDNP, but that have not developed their own separate collections, are not included here.
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).