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:
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.
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.
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:
When searching a database your goal is to enter enough information so that you retrieve some useful material. However 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.
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.
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:
2. Press bias
Remember that newspapers are inherently biased. Their function is to sell content to a particular readership on a daily basis.
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: