Finding Treasures in an Archive of Historical Newspapers: Chronicling America

This post comes to us from Cheryl Lederle of the Library of Congress.

A page from the Valentine, Nebraska "Democrat", May 14, 1908.

“Fifteen Victims Die in Big Murder Plot;” “Frisco Greets Fleet; 46 Warships in Line;” “Oh! Spring, Spring, the Beautiful Springtime;” “Protest Meeting Unmolested.”

Each of these headlines sounds like it could lead to a research paper, or at least a literary analysis. They can all be found on one page of a single newspaper, though: the Democrat of Valentine, Nebraska, on May 14, 1908.

On the Library of Congress Web site, Chronicling America provides free access to millions of historic American newspaper pages from 1836-1922. Although the sheer volume of stories might seem daunting, Chronicling America makes it easy to explore the pages.

Topic guides, compiled by staff at the Library of Congress, can help readers quickly find treasure in the millions of pages. Each guide includes a list of important dates and search terms. But you don’t have to search to locate articles of interest–the guides also include links to sample pages. Topics range from the sensational (Belle Gunness of the “big murder plot” and Lizzie Borden) and whimsical (roller skating and ping pong) to the historically significant (Ellis Island, Civil War maps, and the Spanish-American War).

It’s easy to explore the newspapers by date, too. The Chronicling America home page features a selection of pages from “100 years ago today.” Encourage your students look at these pages for a twist on the familiar practice of looking at daily historical events. Have your students look at these pages daily to learn about the past from primary sources.

Each newspaper page also links to an “About” page providing information on when and where the paper was published and editorial policies of the paper. The “About” pages can be invaluable for helping students to identify the bias or perspective of a newspaper. For example, the discussion of the New York “Evening World” describes its rivalry with another paper, noting that “Such intense competition for readers led the two publishers to embrace ‘yellow journalism,’ and they competed over which evening paper would be the most strident, shrill, and loose with the facts.”

Teaching Ideas

Choose newspapers with differing perspectives and ask students to study and compare how each paper reported about a particular event. Students might begin by scanning the headlines and images, if any, attached to an article. To deepen their analysis, they might focus on word choice, which facts or details are included or omitted, and the order in which the facts are presented. They might even find that the papers report different sets of “facts.”

Students might select a news story they find in “100 Years Ago Today” and track it for a few days to see if the reporting changes. They might consider how information changes, but they might also analyze the placement of the story within the paper – when does it move from the front page to the inside pages? Is it “above the fold” or below, and does the placement change?

After analyzing perspectives or tracking changes in reporting about an event over a few days, students might compare the news report of the event to how (or if) their textbooks record the event. Ask them to speculate on why the historical account might differ from the textbook account.

Additional Library of Congress Resources

To learn more about Chronicling America, read the recent blog post Historic Newspapers: Paper, Paper….Get Your Paper Here!

From the “Unsinkable” to the Unthinkable: Analyzing Historic News Coverage of the Titanic gives instructions for a learning activity focused on analyzing how historical context shapes news reporting.

 

What newspaper stories have you used to prompt student investigations. Do you have any ideas for the future?

Practicing Close Observation: Spying on the Past

This post comes to us courtesy of Cheryl Lederle of the Library of Congress. Primary sources from the online collections of the Library of Congress can be powerful instructional tools. Analyzing these photos, films, maps, and audio recordings can help students engage with content, build their critical thinking skills, and construct knowledge. Observation skills are […]