This is the first of three posts, dedicated to understanding better digitised historic newspapers. This post offers an introduction to digitised newspapers, as a hybrid between two more familiar objects: printed newspapers and online news sites.

When we talk about a digitised printed newspaper, we are before a mutant. In front of us is an apparently old fashion, printed newspaper, it has pages, which one can flip through or scroll down. However, as it is presented to us in digital format, we don’t necessarily have to approach it page by page, as we would, if we grab the newspaper in our hands. Somewhere in our screen, we find a “toolbox” that allows us to read differently than starting by the front page. This toolbox changes our perception of that newspaper, turning this familiar object, into a mutant between the digital and the printed world.

But, digitised printed newspapers are not like online newspapers. In an online edition of a newspaper, on its’ front page anyway, one sees an overview of “stories”, as journalists like to call articles. The singularity of stories in an online edition as opposed to stories in a newspaper (and in this case, printed or digitised) is that digital stories will maintain their independence throughout their life, and will not be merged with other stories or other type of content in a layout on a page.

Wait a minute, you might think, when I read an article online I see on the same page ads, the navigation menu of the newspaper, headlines of other articles that might relate, or content that has nothing to do with what I am reading! Sure, the disposition of content, or layout, on a digital page, resembles a printed one. What I am getting at with this comparison is best understood by an example.

Image: Results from searching peace and Versailles in 1919 newspapers    Image: Searched term
Differences between searching digital editions and digitised historic newspapers. Images: Kansalliskirjasto digitoidut ainestot / Helsingin Sanomat

When we use the search tool to look for a story in digital editions of newspapers, what we get in return for our query, is a list of articles relating to our search. Usually, these lists include headlines and summaries (or standfirsts [1]) that help us navigate and select the most adequate article. Though as said before, digitised newspapers are equipped with similar search tools, the main difference is that if we are expecting to find such detailed lists, we are up for a disappointment. Instead, what we find are fragments of text, containing the words we are looking for, with little information of what is the main theme of the article. This can be confusing for the inexperienced visitor.

In the next article, I explain what processes lay behind these search results (read next article in the series).


Head image: National Library of Finland. Digital portal of digitized newspapers and journals open to the public from 1777-1920

[1] Standfirst: A short section of text between a headline and the text that follows. Often in a different type size to the body type, it gives a brief summary of the article that follows. Called a kicker in the US. Source: