Monthly Archives: June 2009

on newspapers as sources

The PhD ate me again, but I’m recovering.

I’ve been working with newspapers lately, and have gotten to thinking about them as historical sources. My supervisor warned me early on that newspapers should only be used when you have a very good sense of what you’re looking for, or you’re liable to get lost in them. Having vanished thusly on several occasions in the past month or so, I’ll endorse that view, and supply a few of my own running thoughts on them; as usual, things I wish someone had told me before I started.

Warning: history geeking ahead. The uninitiated may gawk at the bookporn instead.

  • Have a list – a list of articles you want to look at, or failing that, a list of specific themes or questions you want the newspaper reading to address – anything you can use to keep yourself disciplined. Stick it on your laptop screen if nothing else, and every time you read an article, look at your list and think: will this article answer any of my questions? If not, move on; life is too short. PS: This applies to archive work more generally.
  • Even if you’re reading for impressionistic feelings of a period, try and find a thread of some kind. Perhaps you could read fuzzily around a momentous event – read articles leading up to the event, and read articles covering its aftermath. Perhaps you can follow a certain column or feature over time. Newspapers are periodicals, so they are beasts of habit; remember you can exploit their predictability. They often feature similar categories of information in the same place in a newspaper, often even the same page, and they don’t change their formats that often, so you can often jump straight to the information you want.
  • If you’re looking at event-based coverage, don’t just use one newspaper – find the same event in other newspapers, even in other languages if you can. In many cases, I’ve found, the differences in their coverage will probably be revealing and interesting.
  • If you’re lucky enough to have recourse to full search of a digitized newspaper, don’t fall into the trap of only reading articles that your keywords throw up. Let the contents of one article lead you naturally to another; it will yield a fuller, more nuanced picture of things.
  • Use existing secondary literature to point you in the direction of interesting articles, veins of discussion, exchanges or features. Smart fuzzy reading around them can yield a lot of gems and insights.
  • Keep really, really scrupulous notes. Newspaper, date, page and author are the staples, but get the metadata too. Remember that you want to be able to find any given article again in the future. If you’re looking at the newspapers on microfilm, note the archive and the reel call number. If you’re looking at hard copies in a library, make a note of which library. It’s part of a wider principle I’ve found essential in long-term research: always, always cater for your stupid, forgetful, future self.
  • Don’t neglect the letters and the advertisements – the two most human parts of newspapers! Keep an idle eye on them as you browse; they can give you a real feel for the period. If you’re following a run of papers over a time period, be mindful of familiar names popping up in letters columns; after a while you can come to get to know them as people – the way they write, the issues they raise, their idiosyncrasies. And advertisements are particularly prone to remind me, on small, amusing scales, in what radical ways a world can change. Behold, in 1939: men and women, clamouring to gain 5lbs in 7 days; in 2009, men and women, clamouring to lose 10lbs in 5 days.
  • In sum: Be open to serendipity, but not to the point of distraction.

I’m still trying to get better at taking notes on things I find in newspapers. How much should one quote of an article? How much is too much? Perhaps more difficult a question: how does one take good notes of trends over time, which is what newspapers are really about? Sometimes I’ve taken scrupulous and plentiful notes on articles over a period of time, and found at the end of all the reading and note-taking that the general idea behind all of them can be summarized in a few sentences. But I wouldn’t necessarily be able to have grasped that summary from the beginning. Is there a more time-efficient way to do this?

NB: If I get enough cool tips in the comments, I’ll re-write this list as a proper piece of source advice, for the benefit of researchers/historians-to-come.