Captivating content

Seth Cayley, Head of Research Publishing, Cengage Learning EMEA, looks at digital newspaper archives and the benefits to students

Captivating content sourced from digital newspaper archives is being used by students nationwide to radically transform and enrich the quality of their essays and dissertations. 

The first digital archives of historic newspapers appeared in the mid-2000s. Prior to that, most humanities undergraduates would only have studied old newspapers via a microfilm reader, if at all. The luckiest may have been able to make a trip to the British Library to handle the original physical copies, but by and large, historic newspapers were simply inaccessible for classroom use.

A unique source for research

Digital newspaper archives have transformed the ways in which historic material can be used in teaching. Full-text searching means that students can do more than simply browse the pages; they can delve into the pages of time and pluck out long-forgotten articles on any topic they choose.Students can become researchers. They can put together dissertations using material their professors have never seen. Historic newspapers are particularly well-suited to this because of their accessibility. Students understand what a newspaper is, and the stories of everyday life they contain – from murders and court cases to outraged readers’ letters and adverts for soap – help them conjure up a world not too distant from their own.

Advertising is particularly engaging for students. Most are astonished when I show them a 1939 advert from the Picture Post Historical Archive for Irvona, a nerve tonic, highlighting how delighted the female model is that she has put on 28lbs in a month ‘and was transformed from a skinny, underweight weakling to a well-formed being full of energy and vitality’. Studying historic newspapers helps students question today’s fads and preconceptions of beauty, using unique content they will not find via a Google search. 

The Independent Digital Archive, 1986-2012

More recent topics can be brought to life with access to digital newspaper archives. For example, The Independent Digital Archivecontains the three personal interviews conducted by Robert Fisk with Osama bin Laden in the 1990s. Fisk is an Arabic speaker and the only western journalist who was ever granted such intimate access to the Al-Qaida leader. University students who think terrorism began on 11th September 2001 will see the progress of bin Laden’s ideology through these interviews, from claiming to be a mere “construction engineer and agriculturalist” in 1993, to his outright announcement that he wished to wage holy war on the Americans in 1997. 

The Independent Digital Archive comprises approximately 750,000 pages and more than a million individual articles of idiosyncratic journalism, providing students with a major alternative perspective on the events of the last 30 years.

Digital archives vs free online content

Today’s students tend to head to Wikipedia for information. Personally, I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with using Wikipedia as part of an information-gathering strategy, but students need to regard it critically. For example, the Wikipedia entry on President Lincoln says that the assassination ‘made him a national martyr and endowed him with a recognition of mythic proportion’. This may be true, but should we take such a statement at face value? Using Cengage Learning’s 19th Century US Newspapers collection, students can retrieve an article from the Daily Cleveland Herald from 15 April 1865, just after the assassination, which discusses ‘the most terrible calamity ever visited on a people” and “this hour of the nation’s greatest grief’. 

Which source would we rather students study? 

A list of related archives can be found here: