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?

One Comment

  1. David Hicks
    October 4, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Thanks for your introduction to the Chronicling America Archive. It really is a great site for facilitating historical inquiry with students. My colleague Tom Ewing and I are currently working on a TPS grant to use the Chronicling America Database to help students examine how newspapers of the time reported on / reacted to President Theodore Roosevelt’s dinner with Booker T. Washington at the White House on October 16th 1901. In the era of Jim Crow the White House dinner was unprecedented and the social media of the time- newspapers- made it a front page national controversy. The Chronicling American Collection provides access to multiple perspectives on this one event from a range of articles, editorials and letters. Specifically students can compare and contrast how Southern, Northern, and African American newspapers reported on the event. In doing so it becomes possible to identify regional and racial patterns of response to the event while also offering up more broader insights into race relations in the era of Jim Crow writ large.

    In terms of using the data base, while students can explore the newspapers online and magnify the pages within the database, we have found that downloading the PDF of the newspaper page works well. Students can then zoom in on specific news reports and also use Adobe reader to highlight key sections of an article. Our favorite way of working with the newspapers is to print off the PDF document and blow it up to full size (e.g. 17 by 28). We then laminate a class set for safe keeping. Working with large laminated copies allows students to literally “get to grips” with the newspaper and clearly read the articles while highlighting key sections and words with a non-permanent marker. Students can then begin to compare and contrast how the press reported on the events. What we have also learned in working with these newspaper editorials, letters, articles, and political cartoons is that students need to be explicitly taught that these sources are traces of the past- they come from a different time and space. Taken as a collection, newspapers provide a portal through which to examine the social, political, cultural, economic and ideological contexts of the day. This includes preparing students to understand the shifting nature of language and discourse over time. In using newspapers as a way to teach and learn about race relations in the early 20th century, it is important to be ready, willing, and able to model and teach how to thoughtfully talk about how language regarding race, that today is highly inappropriate, was freely used in the newspapers during this period.

    In working with these newspapers, we also recognize that inquiry does not end with the newspapers themselves; while working with them we have generated more questions about the events and aftermath surrounding Booker T. Washington’s dinner with Theodore Roosevelt. This has led to email inquiries and exchanges with both the White House Historical Association and the curatorial staff at the White House and also explorations of the papers of Booker T. Washington and Roosevelt.

    The database is a flexible and accessible resource that can be used in multiple ways from simply locating or sharing one article or a pairing of articles to providing a platform for a deeper and broader exploration of past events.

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