Newspaper archives: a unique research resource

Captivating content sourced from digital newspaper archives is being used by students nationwide to radically transform and enrich the quality of their essays and dissertations.

The first digital archives of historic newspapers appeared in the mid-2000s. Prior to that, most humanities undergraduates would only have studied old newspapers via a microfilm reader, if at all. The luckiest may have been able to make a trip to the British Library to handle the original physical copies, but by and large, historic newspapers were simply inaccessible for classroom use.

Today, digital newspaper archives have transformed the way historic material can be used in teaching. Full-text searching means that students can do more than simply browse the pages; they can delve into the pages of time and pluck out long-forgotten articles on any topic they choose.

Students can become researchers. They can put together dissertations using material their professors have never seen. Historic newspapers are particularly well-suited to this because of their accessibility.

Students understand what a newspaper is, and the stories of everyday life they contain – from murders and court cases to outraged readers' letters and adverts for soap – help them conjure up a world not too distant from their own.

Advertising is particularly engaging for students. Most are astonished when I show them a 1939 advert from the Picture Post Historical Archive for Irvona, a nerve tonic, highlighting how delighted the female model is that she has put on 28lbs in a month "and was transformed from a skinny, underweight weakling to a well-formed being full of energy and vitality".

Studying historic newspapers helps students question today's fads and preconceptions of beauty, using unique content they will not find via a Google search.

The Independent Digital Archive

More recent topics can be brought to life with access to digital newspaper archives. For example, The Independent Digital Archive contains the three personal interviews conducted by Robert Fisk with Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. Fisk is an Arabic speaker and the only western journalist who was ever granted such intimate access to the Al-Qaeda leader.

University students who think terrorism began on 11 September 2001 will see the progress of bin Laden’s ideology through these interviews, from claiming to be a mere “construction engineer and agriculturalist” in 1993, to his outright announcement that he wished to wage holy war on the Americans in 1997.

The archive’s collection runs from 1986-2012 and covers the full run of the newspaper from its first issue until the end of 2012. It comprises approximately 750,000 pages and more than a million individual articles of idiosyncratic journalism, providing students with a major alternative perspective on the events of the last 30 years.

Digital archives vs free online content

Today's students tend to head to Wikipedia for information. I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with using Wikipedia as part of an information-gathering strategy, but students need to regard it critically.

For example, the Wikipedia entry on President Lincoln says that the assassination "made him a national martyr and endowed him with a recognition of mythic proportion". This may be true, but should we take such a statement at face value?

Using Cengage Learning’s 19th Century US Newspapers collection, students can retrieve an article from the Daily Cleveland Herald from 15 April 1865, just after the assassination, which discusses "the most terrible calamity ever visited on a people” and “this hour of the nation's greatest grief".

Which source would we rather students study?

Seth Cayley is head of research publishing at Cengage Learning EMEA. He can be reached at seth.cayley@cengage.com.

Digital newspaper archives

Gale News Vault

Punch: This historical archive from 1841 to 1992 offers an unrivalled resource for researching and teaching 19th and 20th century political and social history.

19th Century UK Periodicals is a multi-part series covering events, lives, values and themes that shaped the 19th century.

19th Century US Newspapers provides access to primary source newspaper content from the 19th century

British Newspapers 1600-1950: This has the most comprehensive range of national, regional and local newspapers in Britain between the 17th and early 20th centuries ever made available online.

The Daily Mail Historical Archive runs from 1896-2004 and provides more than 100 years of the Daily Mail newspaper online.

The Financial Times Historical Archive covers the period 1888-2010 and contains 122 years of the world’s daily business newspaper – an essential resource for studying history, business, management, finance and politics.

The Liberty Magazine Historical Archive runs from 1924-1950 and offers researchers and students of 20th century studies digital access to one of the most popular American illustrated weekly magazines of the 1920s-1950s.

Other archives include collections from The Picture Post, The Economist, The Illustrated London News, The Listener and The Sunday Times and can be found here.