The Global Challenges of Digital Newspapers


David Thackeray
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @d_thackeray

Among the most frustrating experiences of my PhD were days spent scouring local newspapers at the ramshackle (and now closed) British Library Newspaper Reading Room at Colindale, and the inexplicably dark microfilm room at Cambridge University Library. Spending a few weeks working at the latter in the winter would provide good training for life at an Antarctic research base. With these experiences in mind I have been surprised at how large a part newspapers have played in my current research on the history of British trade identities in the UK and wider Empire/Commonwealth.

Recent years have seen a worldwide explosion in access to digitised newspapers, which obviously opens up a range of exciting new opportunities to researchers in imperial and global history. Having never previously conducted research in Australian archives, I was able to access thousands of articles from the National Library of Australia from the comfort of my home, significantly shaping both my post-doctoral funding application and the issues I was to explore in the archive itself. Yet the ever-growing range of newspaper material available also offers significant challenges to how we do research and train our students.

Wikipedia (where else) provides a good introduction to the range of digitised historical newspaper archives available and the bewildering number of different national practices that exist in terms of their promotion. A historian undertaking a project on the ‘old’ Commonwealth c. 1900 currently has access to freely available national newspaper databases for Australia (Trove) and New Zealand (PapersPast), a variety of sites for Britain (many of which are behind paywalls, and which UK universities often have patchy access to due to high costs of institutional subscriptions), various provincial and local sites for Canada, and little digital content for South Africa. In addition, a slew of historical newspaper resources are offered by Google News Search.

In many ways, Trove serves as a benchmark for what can be done, storing over 100 million articles from newspapers (usually up to 1955) and other important publications such as the Australian Women’s Weekly (1933-82). But what makes Trove’s database invaluable is that it provides a one-stop shop for researchers, including a search engine for Australian archives, digitised images, and an increasing amount of archive content from important sources such as the University of Melbourne Special Collections. In addition, the ambitious digitisation plans of Australian institutions such as the State Library of New South Wales is to be applauded.

However, the increasing availability of digitised newspaper material also raises a number of challenges for current and future researchers….

Contextualising material. While spending long hours waiting for large volumes of newspapers in Colindale could be painful, handling the original print can significantly widen your understanding of a newspaper and its likely readership. You are forced to trawl through the whole content of the publication, which gives you a wider understanding of how the themes you are interested in fit in with the broader coverage of the paper. This is something that is lost if you confine your research to keyword searches.

While my students have often used digital newspaper archives to great effect they sometimes have difficulty in understanding the context in which newspapers were produced. The well-established Times Digital Archive is the most widely used historical newspaper source in the UK, but it is important to remember that the high-circulation Times of the Murdoch years is quite a different creature from the ‘establishment paper’ of previous decades. The Hancock’s Half Hour audience of 1959 was clearly meant to assume that the working-class Tony’s readership of the Times in the opening scene of the classic ‘Poison Pen Letters’ was a contrived effort at emulating the upper ranks of society.

What gets missed. In addition, it is important to emphasise that a great deal of material does not get digitised. As already mentioned, current digitisation of newspapers varies widely by locality, and its scope is also affected by varying national copyright practices. Some of the largest circulation UK publications of the early twentieth century, which were discontinued, such as the Sunday Pictorial currently have no digital presence. Multiple daily editions of papers were often produced, so the example that we see in the digital archive is not necessarily fully representative of the newspaper’s output. Furthermore, an archive such as the Times Digital Archive does not contain many of the supplements associated with the Times. Amongst the most important of these are the Times Imperial and Foreign Trade Supplement (later the Times Engineering Supplement), a long-running publication with a large international business readership. Finally, it is easy to miss material due to the limited effectiveness of keyword searches and text detection software.

The future position of the (material) archive. It is important to consider how the growth of digitised material will affect our future understandings of what archives are for. The recent controversy over the potential destruction of the Barnardo’s photo archive following the digitisation of these materials offers a worrying precedent here. In Australia, the planned redevelopment of the Mitchell Library in Sydney led to a major debate about the position of the academic researcher in public state libraries.

Having become accustomed to working in ‘research libraries’ in Britain where access is largely restricted to card-holders with an academic affiliation, it has been an eye-opening experience working in Australian state libraries with unrestricted public access, where researchers are often significantly outnumbered by schoolchildren doing their homework and people making use of fast wi-fi and decent air-conditioning (obviously the latter is not such a major concern in the UK). I even heard the tour-guide at one centrally-located state library refer to the luggage room of their building as the ‘backpacker area’ as it seemed to be largely used by tourists as a luggage storage facility for those en-route to the nearby train station and airport bus. Fortunately the Mitchell Library has been reprieved and will be not be turning into another bijou Sydney coffee-spot any time soon.

Initiatives like Trove and PapersPast are clearly invaluable and make possible research avenues that would clearly not have been possible only a few years ago, providing an invaluable supplement to the traditional archival trawl and offering us new opportunities to understand transnational connections. However, it is important that a generation of digitally native students (and perhaps more importantly a generation of austerity-era politicians) do not see research as something that is done chiefly on a laptop. Sydney has enough good cafes (although Colindale could do with one).

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