Historical newspapers are not always easy to digest. Mostly without illustrations or photography, the ‘wall of text’ of a nineteenth-century newspaper can be intimidating or difficult to engage with, and we’ve been thinking about how we can solve this.
Last Wednesday evening we ran an experimental workshop in conjunction with lecturers in design from London College of Communication. Our aim was to learn how techniques from design could help the understanding of nineteenth-century newspaper articles, and we hoped to learn how we could make the information within our newspapers more accessible to Library users. We were very lucky to have a diverse group of historical newspaper users to help us out in our experiment.
We gathered historians, general library users with a passing interest in newspapers and newspaper data, artists, and designers together and asked them to take part in a workshop where they would ‘visualise’ a newspaper in an innovative way, using art materials rather than computer software.
The evening started with a brief overview of The British Library’s newspaper resources, an outline of our Heritage Made Digital programme (which will result in a set of openly available historical newspaper resources and the underlying data), and some pointers for those looking to learn how to do data analysis. We gave a very quick description of some of the tools we use, including R, Python, Jupyter Notebooks, https://voyant-tools.org/, and Palladio, and where to learn how to use them: we recommend checking out https://programminghistorian.org/ and https://software-carpentry.org/.
Participants then worked with art materials, including hand-printed riso paper, to visually communicate an aspect of a newspaper article they found interesting. We gave several articles to choose from: one on the ‘Trial of Queen Caroline’, one about the burglar and murderer Charles Peace, one about the first commercial passenger railway journey (which also includes the first railway fatality), as well as a page of advertisements and a page of letters to the editor.
Participant showing their visual representation of categorical information found in a newspaper article
Participants took a range of approaches and styles: some took to chopping up paper straight away, whereas others were more cautious. Some chose to focus on the content of the article, and others looked at the visual or structural elements of the page. One participant color-coded their article according to gender. Another noticed a faint outline of an illustration on a page and based their work around this. Several attendees picked up on the significance of the advertisements, and the potential historical information within. By the end we had an impressive array of visualisations, including an entire three dimensional dolls’ house.
A dolls’ house based on the details of the ‘Trial of Queen Caroline’
There’s definitely more work to do. The workshop was exploratory and we already have some ideas on how to improve our next iteration. But it was an interesting, stimulating experiment, and we think a good stepping-point in the goal of making historic newspapers more accessible.
The introductory slides from the workshop are available at https://www.slideshare.net/lukemckernan/data-visualisation-workshop
We are organising a second newspaper data visualisation workshop for October 30, between 17:00 and 19:00, at the British Library in London. If you’re interested to participate, please contact Yann.Ryan@bl.uk for more information.
Yann Ryan, Curator Newspaper Data