This is the last post of a series dedicated to historic newspapers. Here, I offer a three-step guide to find more relevant content and make the most of using historic newspaper databases.

An important thing when using newspapers (modern digital editions or digitised historical newspapers) is to acknowledge them as a medium that responds to their place, time, social and economic contexts. That in certain periods of history, political discourse was prohibited in newspapers; or that newspapers have been used as a means for spreading ideologies, can initially discourage to use them as “study material”. On the other hand, learning to identify censorship and propaganda is a key to learn about these contexts in which newspapers exist.

As important, is to acknowledge the diversity of newspapers as a medium. News, politics, but also culture, sport, society, what is going on in the world, opinion columns, photography, illustrations, comics or satire, ads… National newspapers and regional or local newspapers, foreign newspapers, or minority newspapers… the content of newspapers is varied and allows students to find something that will connect with their personal interests. Many teachers interviewed so far, at least in upper secondary school, encourage students, through their assignments to express their own opinion and interests. The diversity in content of newspapers can be also key to allow students individually or in group to find a unique approach to these materials.

Lastly, if you look at newspapers from different historical periods until today, there is a certain uniformity to them, in fact printed newspapers have not changed radically in the past two hundred years. To understand the structure of a newspaper, its’ sections, but also, its reason for being, its publisher’s philosophy and political orientation is important today for two reasons. First and foremost, the habit of learning about the background of a newspaper can be used today for evaluating a source and the trustfulness of a piece of information. Secondly, when using newspapers regularly, one starts recognising clues to finding more relevant content. If we access them from a digital library, we see similarities with other digital libraries (that contain other historical documents); and maybe, even, it can contribute to explore as well digital editions of modern newspapers.

Image: Information about newspaper titles Image: Information on newspaper titles
Where to find information about the newspaper publisher, precedence and more.

Here are three ideas that surfaced during my first visit to a class using historical digital newspapers, which can help start working more regularly with these materials.

  1. Contrast information from diverse sources. When reading news that apparently look ‘objective’, one of the most important things to have in mind is best summarised in a phrase we all know: “there is always two sides to one story”. In order to gain a better understanding of what is reported on an article, it is best to consult several sources. A good idea a teacher had, is to compare differences in how a national and a local newspaper report on new laws and regulations. In Finland, or in other multilingual countries, an interesting way to diversify sources, would be to compare newspapers in the different national languages.
  2. Use of advanced operators (often called Booleans). Booleans are ways to give instructions to a search engine to influence the results. These are useful, if a first attempt typing a word or a couple of words (simple search) returns pages and pages of results. Endless lists difficult finding relevant stories. The most common and useful operators consist on placing AND or OR in between keywords; AND forces all keywords to appear on the same page, OR finds content containing at least one of the keywords. Also, a tilde (~) right after a word, or quotation marks (” “) around a phrase might help; the tilde includes spelling variations of the word, quotations keep the exact phrase you search for, this is most useful to find a famous speech, slogans or a family member. Digital libraries usually offer tips or instructions on how to apply these and other useful operators.
  3. Keeping stories organised. Collecting articles can become a habit that, at first, we might not foresee. After a while, finding articles within our own collection turns difficult. A scrapping or clipping tool, usually available in any digital library (see top image), is a way of keeping track of articles. Like any other method for digital bookmarking, there is a way to label each clipping with a title, keywords and other information (metadata) that can help us finding them again. Much better than taking a screen-shot, a built-in tool is the easiest way to save individual articles in the computer. Plus, it contributes to make articles more accessible to others, as clippings and the metadata done by users becomes visible to all.
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