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History: Newspapers

Finding newspaper content at Queen's: getting started

Newspapers have been regarded by some as the ultimate primary source. Recording social and political views of the day, they provide a valuable window into history and politics as events unfolded at the time. As with any primary source however, care needs to be taken when using newspaper sources. As John Tosh has pointed out, "[most] publications are issues with little thought for posterity; they are rather intended to inform, influence, mislead or entertain contemporaries" (Tosh, J, The pursuit of history. Oxford, Routledge, 2015, pp. 78-9).

The growing availability of digital collections has revolutionised access to newspapers online. However finding the results you need can seem overwhelming when there is so much content from different sources. It can help to keep in mind that newspaper databases are made up of scanned copies of original newspapers and not all content is available online. 

Access to newspaper content depends mainly on three factors:

  • Availability of original newspapers: the existence of archived hard-copy print collections depends upon the history of newspaper production and archival practices in the country of origin.
  • Funding: making digital copies of newspaper content available costs money so much will depend on financing of scanning and making this available on a platform for users to access.
  • Copyright: cut off dates for public domain content mean that more recent content may not be available.

Before you start searching, look through the guide below. This will help you contextualise your search and avoid common pitfalls to make best use out of these resources.


1. Select a newspaper database

First, decide which database best suits your research needs. Look for a description of the content, date range, geography etc. You will find this by clicking on resource information in a library catalogue, on a list, such as the one on this page, or in the About section of a database you have found online.

At this stage take a few minutes to evaluate the database. Is it an academically credible resource? Who is behind it? Check the About section.

When you have selected your database, consider your search strategy.

2. Searching: your strategy to get best results

Before you start, take some time to think about what you are looking for. Can you write out your topic in a sentence? If you do this it will help you to identify possible sources and the key elements in your search, such as keywords, date, place.

For example, a search for information on Press responses to the Spanish Civil War in Ireland would look like this: 

  • Press responses: search historic Irish newspaper databases such as Irish Newspaper Archive or the Irish Times
  • Spanish Civil War - use keywords (individually or together): Spain, civil war, conflict, army, refugees
  • Date range - use: 17 July 1936 -1 April 1939

3. Searching: keywords and browsing

When searching a database, your goal is to enter enough information so that you retrieve some useful and relevant material. However, at the same time, you do not want to be so overwhelmed with results that you are unable to review what you have found.

There are two ways to search newspaper databases: keyword searching and browsing. Both are useful in different ways. 

1. Keyword searching

As with all primary source material, the keywords you use should be historically accurate: think about the context of the time – how would people have written about the topic?​

For example, the Spanish Civil War was not always known as such during this conflict. So it will retrieve more results to use other keywords, such as civil war; war ; conflict​

Think carefully about what aspects of the event you are particularly interested in? Can you add different words here to refine your search, such as refugees, or children

Think about particular events, such as Guernica in this search example. Remember, news was regularly produced, increasingly daily. 

Use the date range you have, 1936-1939 in this example.​

2. Browsing

Many archival discoveries are fortuitous rather than planned discoveries. Furthermore, in addition to what may be found, what is missing also tells a crucial story.​

To get the best use out of digital archives another way to access content is by browsing using a broad keyword with a particular date range. For example, for content on the Spanish Civil War you could search Spain within the date range 1936-1939. ​

As there is a lot of content for daily newspapers for these years “chunking” your searches by running multiple searches over shorter time lines to return more manageable results can be useful. ​So in this search example you could start searching for Spain and refugees using the date range 1936, followed by another search for Spain using the date range 1937 and so on. 


4. Context, bias and fake news: key tips

1. Context

Historical context is lost on digital platforms as keyword searching returns results from disparate publications, dates, places, all isolated from their particular context. ​As the researcher, you need to provide the context of the document:​

  • Be mindful of the source publication an where the piece you are using was situated within in. Front page news, or mid-way through? Editorial.​
  • Secondary readings and other primary sources can help you to provide historical context.

2. Press bias

Remember that newspapers are inherently biased. Their function is to sell content to a particular readership on a daily basis. ​

  • Be aware of propaganda as a tool of war (truth as a casualty of war) . Backing up reports with other sources. Use such sources with caution, note reservations, cite correctly and refer to other sources​
  • Be mindful of the source publication an where the piece you are using was situated within in. Front page news, or mid-way through? Editorial.​

Secondary readings and other primary sources can help you to provide historical context.

3. Fake news?

Can you trust what you are reading?​ Can you cite with confidence?​ Can you find out easily where the original of scanned images in your results are held? 

Check the following:

  • The About section of the database. Who is behind it? Do they have academic credentials? Is this a well-known academic platform?​
  • Provenance. You should be able to check the source publication and from where the original was scanned​
  • Context. you should be able to find out more about your results: it is important to see an image of the full page of a newspaper from which a report was taken and the page upon which it was printed, as this helps you contextualise the report. 


Online newspapers and periodicals at Queen's

19th Century British Newspapers 19th Century British Library Newspapers contains full runs of influential national and regional newspapers representing different political and cultural segments of 19th century British society.

19th Century UK Periodicals : 19th Century UK Periodicals is a major multi-part series which covers the events, lives, values and themes that shaped the 19th century world. It is mainly based on the repositories of the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of South Africa, the National Library of Australia, and many others.

America's Historical Newspapers : America's Historical Newspapers allows users to search more than 1,000 U.S. historical newspapers published between 1690 and 1922, including titles from all 50 states.

British Periodicals : British Periodicals Collection I consists of more than 160 journals that comprise the UMI microfilm collection Early British Periodicals, the equivalent of 5,238 printed volumes containing approximately 3.1 million pages. Topics covered include literature, philosophy, history, science, the fine arts and the social sciences.

Burney Collection Newspapers : The newspapers and news pamphlets gathered by the Reverend Charles Burney (1757 - 1817) represent the largest single collection of 17th and 18th century English news media. The 700 or so bound volumes of newspapers and news pamphlets were published mostly in London, however there are also some English provincial, Irish and Scottish papers, and a few examples from the American colonies, Europe and India.

Financial Times Historical Archive : The Financial Times Historical Archive is the complete searchable facsimile run of the world's most authoritative daily business newspaper. Every article and advertisement ever printed in the paper, since it was first published in 1888, can be searched and browsed individually and page by page. This is an essential, comprehensive and unbiased research tool for everyone studying public affairs, and economic and financial history of the last 120 years.

Irish Newspaper Archives : Database of regional Irish newspapers ranging in date from 1800 - 2020.

Irish Times, The Contains exact reproductions of all articles published by the Irish Times from 1859 to pre-current access

NewsVault (Gale) : NewsVault cross-searches QUB's collection of Gale historical newspapers and newspaper collections.

Nexis UK : LexisNexis provides access to a wide range of news and business sources.

Nineteenth Century Collections Online: British Politics and Society : A resource for 19th century studies, NCCO is a multi-year global digitization and publishing program focused on primary source collections of the “long” nineteenth century. Collections for this program are sourced through partnerships with major world libraries as well as specialist libraries, and content includes monographs, newspapers, pamphlets, manuscripts, ephemera, maps, statistics, and more.

North China Herald Online : The official journal for British consular notifications and announcements of the Shanghai Municipal Council - a reference source for information and comment on a range of foreign and Chinese activities from around 1850 to the 1940s. The journal includes news items, company information, trade statistics and advertisments the reflecting the social, cultural and political life of foreign settlements in China during the so called 'treaty century'. Chinese news in English, essays on Chinese culture and language and translations of Chinese official notifications are also included.

Peking Gazette Online - Translations of A comprehensive database of approximately 8,500 pages of English-language renderings of official edicts and memorials from the Qing dynasty that cover China’s long nineteenth century from the Macartney Mission in 1793 to the abdication of the last emperor in 1912. As the mouthpiece of the government, the Peking Gazette is the authoritative source for information about the Manchu state and its Han subjects as they collectively grappled with imperial decline, re-engaged with the wider world, and began mapping the path to China’s contemporary rise.

Times Digital Archive (1785-2011) : The Times Digital Archive 1785-2012 provides access to back issues of The Times and its predecessor, the Daily Universal Register (1785-1787).

The Vogue Archive : The Vogue Archive contains the full run of past issues (400,000 pages) and is updated monthly with the current issue.

Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals : Wellesley is an index to the authorship of articles, and a bibliography of articles written by each contributor, and using each pseudonym. Citations of evidence are provided to support attributions of authorship, along with brief biographical and vocational details. 45 important monthly and quarterly titles are included, covering the period from the beginning of the Westminster Review in 1824 to the end of the century. The exception to this is the Edinburgh Review, which is indexed from first issue, in 1802. Wellesley does not index poetry

Free newspaper content online

Kildare Archaeological Society Journal 1891-2006 and Kildare Observer 1880-1935 are now available free online. This had been made possible courtesy of the Co. Kildare Archaeological Society and Kildare Library Services and is hosted by Irish Newspaper Archive.  Both can be search separately or together, offering great access for researchers to an amazing treasure trove of Co. Kildare based information.

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