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101 posts categorized "Newspapers"

20 May 2020

Three favourite newspaper books - chosen by Steve Tate

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We are publishing a series of posts on favourite books about newspapers. We have asked members of the British Library's news collection team and some outside experts each to name three books about newspapers that they treasure and would recommend to others. The books can be wholly or partly about newspapers, they can be fact or fiction, they can be familiar or unfamiliar. No book can be picked twice, and no one taking part can choose one of their own books.

We hope readers will enjoy the series and seek out some of the recommendations. The choices below have been made by Dr Stephen Tate, Blackburn College University Centre.

Catling200My Life’s Pilgrimage, Thomas Catling. London. John Murray, 1911.

The recollections of Thomas Catling provide a welcome insight regarding the practicalities of nineteenth-century newspaper journalism. Catling spent most of his working life on Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in London, rising from compositor to editor. He joined the Sunday newspaper in 1854 and retired in 1906. It is a book with a rich seam of enlightening anecdote and opinion.

All three books in my selection are memoirs of newspaper journalists. They would not have been published had the authors not tasted success. But all three experienced work at the humdrum level of journalism before talent and luck saw their careers advance. In my endeavour to rescue the world of the workaday reporter from a surprising neglect in contemporary press historiography, books like Catling’s have opened up avenues of research and moments of understanding.

The author touches upon the pounds, shillings and pence of his trade; the career path from composing case to the editorial room; the role of the sub-editor; the interaction of the press with the worlds of theatre, fiction-writing, the law and politics; the mechanics of production; the practicalities of reporting crime; edition structures. The narrative is piecemeal, discursive, meandering . . . but there are dates, names, events and situations. What a feast!

Watson200Memoirs of Robert Patrick Watson: A Journalist’s Experience of Mixed Society, Robert P Watson. London. Smith, Ainslie and Co, 1899.

For a historian researching the trade of the sporting journalist, the above title offers few clues as to its worth. But its 500 pages are packed with detail outlining the at times rambunctious, disorderly world of sport in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Watson was born in 1848 and the book covers his reporting assignments for Sporting Life, Bell’s Life in London, Sportsman and Sunday Referee, covering pugilism, pedestrianism, water sports, wrestling, cycling, billiards, endurance feats and much else besides. His dalliance with sports periodical proprietorship is also covered.

Watson worked at a time when the reporter was often called upon to act as referee and stake-money holder in prize contests and he foregrounds his role as event judge and occasional organiser, nowhere hinting at any pride in writing style or journalistic prestige. For the author and his paymasters the role of reporter is subsidiary. It is an unwitting testimony to the uncertain status of the sports reporter before the adoption by the cheap popular press of codified team games as part of its editorial agenda.

Macadam200The Macadam Road, John Macadam. London. Sportsmans Book Club, 1957 (originally published London. Jarrolds, 1955.)

This is a fragmented, anecdotal stroll through the author’s career as Greenock shipyard apprentice, provincial newspaper telephone boy, drama critic, sub-editor and, eventually, leading Fleet Street sports reporter. Its leitmotif is perhaps best summed up in a sense of drift through the 1920s to the 1950s and that drift captures, I think, the essence of the stories of many journalists’ working lives.

Macadam suggests his book, and thereby his career, ‘. . . goes nowhere in particular from nowhere very important’, with ‘. . . accidents and divergencies along that road’. But (despite a concluding element of whimsy) it provides a valuable understanding of how some careers take shape, together with the pinched circumstances of weekly paper existence, the happenstance of job moves and the excitement and pressure associated with the quest for sports story exclusives to fuel the national newspaper juggernaut. He describes the ‘harrowing experience’ of being among the press pack on an England football international tour, the newsmen ‘. . . watching each other like cats for fear of the unconsidered trifles of news that might have escaped their own eyes’.

Steve Tate

29 April 2020

In search of the sports reporter

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This is a guest post by Dr Stephen Tate, who teaches at Blackburn College University Centre. A former journalist, he worked on the provincial daily press across the north of England for 30 years. He introduces us to James Catton, the lead character in his newly-published book on the sports journalist 1850s-1930s, rescuing a little-known figure from the shadows of newspaper history.

Catton portrait 1908

James Catton in 1908

The sporting past and the newspaper fit hand in glove. There can be few other areas of research relying as heavily on the news columns of the press for information as sports history.

For the Victorian and Edwardian periods, in particular, when much of our modern sporting panorama began to take shape, the tightly-packed columns of print offer up material rarely found elsewhere. They provide insight and comment regarding the formation of clubs, the development of rules, the slow progress towards a rational sporting calendar. The first stirrings of sporting celebrity can be traced alongside the advent of the administrator and the birth of fan culture.

The whole panoply of the Victorian sporting revolution in action is laid bare.

But who wrote the word deluge that constitutes the hallmark of the newspaper sports pages of the day?

For the most part, the industry-standard expectation of unsigned reports and the use of the nom de plume risk leaving generations of sports reporters unknown to the historical record. In the train of that anonymity comes uncertainty over their working environment, career paths, status and aspirations.

Career longevity, talent and exceptional circumstances can save some from undeserved obscurity. So, too, can chance. For James Catton all four factors serve to rescue him from the shadows.

Catton’s career began as an apprentice reporter on the bi-weekly Preston Herald in 1870s Lancashire. It was there that he became aware of the growing popularity of association football and where he took his first, tentative steps in part-time sports journalism. “The county went frantic on football,” was his considered opinion. He was then off to the East Midlands in the 1880s as a fully-fledged sports reporter on the Nottingham Daily Guardian. Both areas were hotbeds in the recasting of late-century sport as games became codified and commercialised as a fit for the industrial age.

Catton later joined the Hulton group of newspapers in Manchester where his passion for the games of the day was given free rein on the Sunday Chronicle, Sporting Chronicle and Athletic News, all papers with claimed national circulations. For 25 years from 1900 Catton worked as editor and chief reporter of the weekly Athletic News, a significant position on a widely influential title. He spent the last 10 years of his career on Fleet Street, capitalising on his reputation as the doyen of sporting journalism.

There was a particular irony attached to his role as chronicler and arbiter of Britain’s diverse sporting constituency. It was an irony Catton was acutely aware of. He was less than 5ft tall and worked in an age that was only slowly accepting the idea that in order to write with authority and insight on sport one did not necessarily need to have been a master of games-playing, to have excelled physically in the sports arena. His two predecessors as Athletic News editor had been noted sportsmen, as had a high proportion of journalists on the specialist sporting press in the closing decades of the 1800s. Catton’s small stature denied him that opportunity. His predecessors had been prominent in sports administration, too. Again, Catton had not.

But he represented something different. A new sense of professionalism within the press. A new treatment of sport. A new sense of order and regimen. Just as sport was adapted to fit within the confines of urban society so too was the reporting of sport adapted to fit within the needs of the new, cheap daily penny press of the turn of the century.

Catton was well versed in the lengthy and, to modern tastes, rather dull timetable-style reporting of sporting fixtures, with formatted and clichéd writing styles. Wasn’t it Catton who first sent “the crimson rambler” to the “confines” of the cricket field? But he had the opportunity and talent to develop his reporting repertoire on the Hulton newspapers, to embrace a lighter, chattier and more inclusive approach. His status as Athletic News editor allowed easy access to sports legislators and decision-makers. His early days in Lancashire and Notts amid the pioneers of professional football, and his subsequent career longevity – 60 years a reporter – provided him with a ready store of anecdote and insight, grist to the journalistic mill. He witnessed the elevation of the reporter from a roving brief on the touchlines to purpose-built grandstand press seats. He saw the eclipse of the homing pigeon as report carrier and the adoption of telegraph and telephone. He felt the full brunt of the increasing demand for speed of composition and action associated with the industry’s remarkable Saturday evening football results specials. He adored cricket and respected football and appreciated all manner of other games.

Catton’s career began in an age when the sports reporter might well act as match promoter, ready-money stakeholder and judge in the harum-scarum world of pugilism, blood sports and pedestrianism, and it would end with the advent of the professional controversialist embodied by the Fleet Street sports columnist. Catton’s story opens a window with a panoramic view of the world of the sports reporter.

Stephen Tate

A History of the British Sporting Journalist c1850-1939. James Catton, Sports Reporter (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020), by Dr Stephen Tate, is a history of the trade of the sporting journalist and the career of James Catton. Much of The Athletic News (1875-1931) has been digitised and its available on the British Newspaper Archive

23 April 2020

Three favourite newspaper books - chosen by Luke McKernan

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We are publishing a series of posts on favourite books about newspapers. We have asked members of the British Library's news collection team and some outside experts each to name three books about newspapers that they treasure and would recommend to others. The books can be wholly or partly about newspapers, they can be fact or fiction, they can be familiar or unfamiliar. No book can be picked twice, and no one taking part can choose one of their own books.

We hope readers will enjoy the series and seek out some of the recommendations.  The choices below have been made by Luke McKernan, Lead Curator News and Moving Image at the British Library. 

 

CitizenhearstCitizen Hearst: A Biography of William Randolph Hearst. W.A. Swanberg. London: Longmans, 1962 [orig. pub. 1961]

This was the first book about newspapers that I read. It is still one of the best. William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was the terrifying titan of American newspapers, whose eye for sensationalism and lurid headlines, concocted with a sometimes cavalier sense of ethical responsibility, had a profound effect on the modern era of news. He was among the most powerful men of his age, stood for President (unsuccessfully) and built up a vast, multi-media news empire that continues to this day as Hearst Communications. For many he lives on as the model for Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' 1941 classic film Citizen Kane.

American biographer W.A. Swanberg's life of Hearst matches up to the man. Scrupulously researched but dramatically expressed, it reads like the Great American Novel. The man, his times, and the media he controlled interweave in a compelling narrative. He is able to view Hearst sympathetically while at the same type making us shudder at his vanity, his greed and his cruelty. As Swanberg astutely concludes, "He was ... a Prospero and a Caliban, and the lucky ones were those who saw only his angelic side".

Notoriously, Swanberg's book was denied a Pulitzer prize, despite the recommendation of the advisory panel, supposedly because the trustees of the award did not consider Hearst a worthy subject for such a prize.  To read just one page of Citizen Hearst would prove how very wrong that judgement was.

 

PressanditsreadersThe Press and Its Readers: A Report Prepared by Mass-Observation for The Advertising Service Guild. London: Art & Technics Ltd, 1949

"There's something I dislike about newspapers, and that is that they don't tell the truth ... There's so much stuff not worth looking at, adverts, scandal, and all that stuff that isn't news"."

"Reading passes the morning, to tell the truth."

It is extraordinary how little attention most books on newspapers give to their readers. We learn about how the news has been written, financed, its personalities, its political influence and its ideology, but we seldom see newspaper history from the point of view of those at whom all this effort was directed. The Press and Its Readers is a marvellous corrective to such an attitude. Produced by the social research organisation Mass-Observation, it asks some basic, sensible questions: What kind of newspapers do people want to read? Do they believe what they read? Do they remember what they read?

The result is a bracing challenge to any belief that what is published is the same as what is read. Evidence is provided of indifference, scepticism, ignorance and sharp understanding, ranging from readers who cannot be bothered with the news to those who find their lives governed by it. It covers popular and 'quality' newspapers, dailies and weeklies, national and regional press, combining snippets from frank reader interviews with useful statistics and some striking statements that make it clear just how pervasive the newspaper was in the 1940s ("The Daily Express is read by one adult in every four ... The News of the World ... is read by every second adult").

The report is filled with entertaining nuggets alongside much practical information. It is of as much value to the researcher today as it was to the advertisers, politicians and publishers at whom it was originally aimed. It tells us that without an understanding of readers, we cannot understand the news at all.

 

PicturesonapagePictures on a Page: Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing.  Harold Evans, in association with Edwin Taylor. London: Pimlico, 1997 [orig. pub.  1978]

Pictures on a Page was one of a series of books written in the 1970s by Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times, on the practical business of producing newspapers. Titles such as Editing and Design, Handling Newspaper Text and News Headlines were to be found (and can still be found) on many a newsroom desk, but Pictures on a Page broke through to popular acclaim. It is simply the best-looking book on newspapers yet published. Evans's theme is the practices and principles of photo-journalism. He shows how news photographs are made, what makes a news photograph, and how presentation and context are everything. Over 500 classic photographs and newspaper pages make the book compellingly browsable.

What is particularly thrilling about Pictures on a Page is its demonstration of the expert editorial eye. Evans illustrates through a series of marvellous examples how selection, enlargement, cropping, arrangement alongside text and layout have bought out the drama in a news story, to the extent that the news history of our times is one that might be told more readily through images that text, because it is pictures that have captured the moment and the meaning.

Evans steers us wisely through the ethical issues and the troubled relationship between the photograph and reality. It is a book to make us realise just how selective and manufactured this thing called news really is. Yet at the same time we see how compelling the news image can be, what deep feelings it stirs within us. To make us both question and yet cherish photo-journalism is the book's great achievement.

20 April 2020

Three favourite newspaper books - chosen by Beth Gaskell

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We're starting up a series of posts on favourite books about newspapers. We have asked members of the British Library's news collection team and some outside experts each to name three books about newspapers that they treasure and would recommend to others. The books can be wholly or partly about newspapers, they can be fact or fiction, they can be familiar or unfamiliar. No book can be picked twice, and no one taking part can choose one of their own books.

We hope readers will enjoy the series and seek out some of the recommendations. We start with the choices of Beth Gaskell, Curator Newspaper Digitisation for the British Library's Heritage Made Digital programme.


DNCJThe Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism.
Laurel Brake and Marysa Demoor (General Editors). Ghent: Academia Press and London: British Library, 2009.

For anyone researching the nineteenth-century press, the Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism (DNCJ) is the go-to reference work. It defines key concepts, introduces numerous important people and titles, and uncovers some of the connections that underpinned the media environment of the time.

It describes itself as providing a ‘snapshot of British and Irish journalism in the nineteenth century’, acknowledging that the scale of media production at the time makes it impossible to cover everything in one volume. However, the examples that have been chosen for inclusion cover a huge range of formats, frequencies, readerships, economic and ownership models, and political alignments; important sub-categories of the press such as trade publications, and the religious press; as well as concepts such as distribution, ‘class publications’, and anonymity and signature. The result is that the volume’s sum total paints a fairly comprehensive picture of the nineteenth-century press.

The DNCJ’s dictionary format means that this is not a reference work to be read cover-to-cover, but something to be dipped into frequently. I have a copy of my desk that I refer to almost every day.

 

FirstcasualtyThe First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to IraqPhillip Knightley. 3rd Edition. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004 [orig. pub. 1975]

This incredibly readable book by Phillip Knightley charts the history of war correspondents, exploring their origins, investigating their experiences in various nineteenth and twentieth-century conflicts, and analysing the often conflicting roles they play in providing true accounts, boosting morale and negotiating censorship.

The Firsts Casualty has been a particularly significant book for me. Reading it sparked my interest in news and war reporting, inspiring me to undertake a project on the reporting of the Vietnam War during my A levels. Then, when I started my PhD, researching military newspapers and periodicals, it was the first thing I was suggested to read by my supervisors. I felt like I had come full circle.

It is a great resource for anyone interested in the history of war correspondents, war reporting, and the interaction between the media, the military, and civil society during conflicts. It also has useful notes and a great bibliography of further reading.

 




CheappressThe Dawn of the Cheap Press in Victorian Britain: The End of the ‘Taxes on Knowledge’, 1849-1869.
Martin Hewitt. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

While this book would appear to focus on a very limited twenty-year period in the mid-nineteenth century, its coverage and its implications are actually much wider. It gives a thorough background to the taxes and censorship that were imposed upon newspapers by the government, from the invention of the printing press through to the late nineteenth century. It is an essential read for anyone interested in the financing of newspapers and in the history of press freedom.

It is also a great read for anyone interested in the wider political landscape of the nineteenth century, in industrialisation and trade history, and in shifting historical ideas about reading, education, and the dangers and benefits of cheaply available information.

 

Beth Gaskell

Curator, Newspaper Digitisation

07 April 2020

Writing a 'mini-history' of a newspaper

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While a great deal is known about a few nineteenth-century newspapers, such as the Times (1788-), the Telegraph (1855-) and the (Manchester) Guardian (1821-), there are a large number of newspapers produced during the period about which we know very little. One of the key aims of the Heritage Made Digital Newspapers project is to provide information about many of the neglected and forgotten nineteenth-century newspapers held by the British Library.

The aim is to produce a ‘mini-history’ for each of the titles being digitised as part of the project, providing bibliographic and contextual information, including details of dates, title changes, publishers, printers, proprietors and editors; size and cost; political leaning; information about content; and reference sources. For each title we are collecting the details using a template, which was designed for this project, but is already being used for wider purposes across the News collection, and which we hope may be useful to other newspaper digitisation projects. A blank copy of the template and a nearly complete template here showing details of the Lady’s Newspaper (1847-1863) are given at the end of this post. 

Finding the data to populate the template can be challenging. In some cases some of this information is available in press directories of the period, starting with Mitchell's Newspaper Press Directory in 1846, though there is nothing so useful to researcher before then. Valuable information has been collected in modern  secondary sources, such as the Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism or the Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals:1800-1900, or in books and articles written about specific titles. Useful information has also been found by searching other newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive, by looking at Dictionary of National Biography entries, and by reading the biographies and autobiographies of those involved with specific titles or the nineteenth-century media more generally. However, in quite a few cases, there is little or no information easily available.

TheExpress

Below the masthead on most newspapers you can find details of the issue number, date and price of the newspaper. The Express, no. 9, 10th September 1846, p. 1.

For every title it has also been important to return to the hard-copy originals, to check details, spot-check for consistency over time, and to search for illusive pieces of information. For short runs it can be helpful to check every volume, to see if anything changed over time, while for longer run spot-checking has been used. Volumes have been measured. The front pages of each paper checked for title, price, numbering patterns, and the prevalence of adverts.

Useful sections to check for information have been the ‘Notices’ that often appear above the editorial on one of the inside pages of the newspaper, as this is usually where any details of changes to the publication appear.

Cobbett

Cobbett’s Evening Post gives notice that it will be ceasing publication. This appears in a notice above the Editorial. Cobbett’s Evening Post, no. 52, 28th March 1820, p. 3

The printing and publishing information that usually appears at the bottom of the final column on the last page has also proved to be a useful place to look, as changes in production often indicated bigger changes behind the scenes.

SunExamples

These two publication notices are from consecutive issues of the Sun from 1826, but illustrate a significant change of publisher and printer. The Sun, nos. 10494 and 10495, 30 April and 1 May 1826, p. 4.

First issues have been checked for any statements of intent, and the last several issues are looked at to see if any indication is given regarding the reason the publication ceased.

In some cases a wealth of information has been uncovered, while other publications remain shrouded in mystery. One key pieces of information that we often struggle to discover are the name(s) of the proprietor(s), which is generally less outwardly linked to a newspaper than that of the editor, the printer, or the publisher, although often only one or two people embodied all of these roles. The reason for a title discontinuing publication is also often opaque, with no mention made of an impending end, and frequently signs that such titles intended to continue, such as requests for future adverts and mentions of up-coming articles.

We hope to use these mini-histories in a variety of ways. A few have already been adapted to appear as short histories of titles on the British Newspaper Archive. We plan to make them all available on the British Library website. And we are using some of the details uncovered to enhance the entries on the British Library catalogue. We are also hoping to use the data collected to do lots of fun things, such as map networks of connected titles and people in the nineteenth-century media landscape, to show patterns of production and distribution, and to enrich our understanding of both the world of the nineteenth-century newspaper, and of the British Library collecting policies through the ages.

Beth Gaskell

Curator, Newspaper Digitsiation

01 April 2020

Accessing News content during the temporary closure

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At the present time  the British Library's Reading Rooms and public spaces are closed. This includes the Newsroom, our Reading Room for news, where researchers have been able to gain access not only to the physical news collections but a wide range of electronic resources, as well as reference literature and staff expertise. In keeping with the other Reading Rooms, though we may be closed for the time being  we will continue to offer as many online services as we possibly can, for users anywhere. Stewart Gillies, our News Reference Team Leader, explains what is available.

Newsroom

The Newsroom

Owing to licence restrictions, many of our news-related e-resource subscriptions can only be viewed onsite at our Reading Rooms at St Pancras or Boston Spa. There are several, however, that are available to registered British Library Readers. If you’re a registered Reader you can access a number of Library-subscribed resources on your own device, from any location, by logging in to our Remote E-resources service. These e-resources include the following fully keyword searchable facsimile newspaper archives provided by Readex:

  • African Newspapers Series 1 and 2, 1800-1922
  • African American Newspapers Series 1 and 2, 1827-1998
  • American Broadsides and Ephemera
  • Caribbean Newspapers, 1718-1876
  • Early American Newspapers Series 1
  • Latin American Newspapers Series 1 and 2, 1805-1922
  • Rand Daily Mail 1902 – 1985
  • South Asian Newspapers 1864-1922

In addition, you can also access Readex’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service 1941-60, 1974-1996. This resource provides access to US Government translations of the text of daily broadcasts, government statements, and select news stories from non-English sources. Covers: all regions, 1941-1960; Middle East & [North] Africa, 1974-1987; Near East & South Asia, 1987-1996; South Asia, 1980-1987; Sub-Saharan Africa, 1974-1996; China,1974-1996; Asia & the Pacific, 1974-1987; East Asia, 1987-1996; Eastern Europe, 1974-1996, Soviet Union, 1974-1996.

Another news-related e-resource available to remote Readers is EBSCO’s Regional Business News Plus. This resource provides full text coverage from several hundred U.S. and International newspapers as well as regional business publications, providing more than 60 million full text articles. Major UK titles available include The Times Oct 2000 to date, the Daily / Sunday Telegraph Feb 2010 to date, the Daily Mail / Mail on Sunday Sept 2004 to date and the Daily Mirror 2004 – 2007.

It is possible that we may be able to add further e-resources to our Remote Resources list in the coming weeks, so please check our Accessing British Library Content and Services page occasionally for updates.

Planning for future research

To help you plan future visits to the British Library, our website provides an overview of our News Media Collections, help guides to Researching Newspapers and Researching Television & Radio News , and practical guides to Using our Reading Rooms at both St Pancras and Boston Spa.

We look forward to hearing from you online but most of all, of course, look forward to seeing you in our Reading Rooms in the, hopefully, not too distant future.

Stewart Gillies
News Reference Team Leader

01 November 2019

Picture this

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What are newspapers made of?

One could say that they are made of accounts of current events, collected in the form of a document for the interest of a particular readership. One could equally say that they are made of assumptions that covertly or overtly express an ideology of one kind or another. One could be literal and say that newspapers are made of paper, generally derived from a rag or wood pulp confection, cut to a set shape and overlaid with ink in the form of recognisable objects. Newspapers are, most simply, made of words, numbers and pictures - but mostly words.

Volunteers

Participants at British Library newspaper data visualisation workshop, 30 October 2019

Newspapers are also made of data. Data is a newspaper's underlying code. Beyond the plain text there exist underlying collections of terms from which we may discovers ideas, clues, connections and patterns which may reveal all the more for us what a set of newspapers has to say.

The digitisation of historic newspapers is creating not just a digital simulacrum of our physical newspaper archives, but a vast collection of data that can be derived from the digitisation process. Most users of digitised historic newspapers will be aware of optical character recognition, or OCR, the process by which the text on an old newspaper page, which we see as words but which a machine understands to be images, is converted by that machine into words that it can recognise. Some will also know that older type, or poor quality microfilmed newspapers, can lead to inaccurate OCR, as the machine struggles to interpret the muddy images it sees into words that we will recognise. Some may also know that specialist software enables a digitised newspaper page to be broken down into its constituent parts, such as article, illustrations or advertisements.

But there is much more than can be done when we digitally analyse this initial layer of information still further. Software programmes can highlights proper names (people, places, organisations), word frequencies, patterns of words and recurrent phrases. It is a form of indexing, as though someone had read through an entire run of a newspaper and produced an index. Indexes to annual volumes of newspapers were not uncommon in the nineteenth century, when  people would visits clubs or newspaper reading rooms to leaf their way through past newspapers, the best known being Palmer's Index to The Times. Now software can do this basic work but also much more. It can reveal those patterns which may reveal an underlying history; hidden truths just waiting for the right software programme to bring them to the surface.

The opportunities created by derived data are exciting a growing number of data science and digital humanities scholars, who find newspapers an especially fruitful source of enquiry for their large numbers, their consistency of form and their geographical, social or political identity. Digitised newspapers reflect the flow of time, turning news into history.

Illustratedpolicenews

So the specialists are being well catered for, but what about the rest of us? Here at the British Library, as we digitise more and more newspapers and so create an ever greater reservoir of re-usable data, we are interested in opening up newspaper data to other kinds of users. We shouldn't all have to be experts in specialist file formats or programming languages to get something out of newspaper data. We should be thinking equally of those who would just like to have a spreadsheet with a clear set of fields that they can sort (by place, date, title etc.), and maybe some guidance on easy-to-use visualisation tools that enable anyone to produce a graph, pie-chart or stylish map.

All of this we are going to do. We will have news about what we are going to be making available to all soon. But we are also looking at ways in which such data might inspire creativity. In partnership with the London College of Communication, we have organised some trial workshop in newspaper data visualisation. 

The first of these took place early in October, a report on which was published on this blog. For this workshop we had a mixed group of volunteers, though several were newspaper history specialists. We gave them some sample nineteenth century British newspaper stories and invited them to rethink what they saw in visual terms, with reference to the data that could be derived from the stories, either by machine or human.

String

The results were fascinating, at times inspiring (we now know that inside some newspaper historians lies an artist just waiting to be set free). However, for a second workshop at the end of October we changed tack. Instead of giving the volunteers stories we gave them one of four sample newspapers from the nineteenth century but asked them to concentrate on sets of terms, phrases and story headlines that we had generated from an entire year of the newspaper (we chose 1880 and the newspapers the Illustrated Police News, Hull Packet, Newcastle Courant and Manchester Weekly Times). Analysing an entire year yielded more meaningful results from which we expected the volunteers to be able to create their own visual impressions, rough sketches inevitably, but with the hope showing the potential.

Our volunteers were another mixed group, this time with more people from the creative side of things (including some art and design students), but again some with expertise in newspapers. What we saw were a rich set of different responses to the data. Some worked with the terms as presented. One create an idea for a headline generator, focussing on disturbing stories reporting on violence towards women, from the Illustrated Police News. Another, who was a poet, uncovered patterns within the terms that revealed found poetry.

Entities

Named entities from the Hull Packet for 1880 (names and organisations)

Others worked with the data to visualise the newspaper form differently, one that made its underlying messages more apparent, or at least arranged in a new light. One design student reinvented her newspaper as an unfolding square, with its messages on the outside leading to greater discovery within. One group extracted the major components of their newspaper (advertising, law reports, local news, entertainments) which they laid out on the floor, with lengths of string indicating which kinds of newspaper component were most prominent (advertising had by far the longest string). 

Labels

Another group started with an academic research question (they wanted to know how they could find out how much advertising space was being paid for different products) and imagined a form of digital analysis which measured space alongside subject, extrapolating the potential for visual analysis in a most interesting way. Another participant saw the opportunity for presenting nineteenth century newspapers in a twenty-first century format, and likewise twenty-first century subjects in a nineteenth century newspaper format, to make that which could appear alien to a young audience of today more meaningful, and revelatory.

48988278162_ec64a4639e_k

I noted three things in particular. The first was that data on its own was not helpful. It appeared to lack meaning. A set of terms only became meaningful to the volunteers when they could see it in the context of the newspaper from which the data was generated. To understand and value derived data, we need knowledge of its roots.

Secondly, it is noticeable how much people did not so much work with the data as use it as a springboard for their own analyses of what was significant about the newspaper before them. The data encouraged creative thinking without necessarily being used directly as the basis of the creative object. Derived data can form the building blocks of a new kind of historical enquiry, but it can also - quite literally - inspire. It encourages to think, and to visualise, analytically.

Lastly, people see things differently because they are different, and in this variety lies such opportunity. A newspaper historian see the patterns of news. A designer sees how a raw idea may be made both beautiful and practical. A poet sees poetry. 

Workshop

We will be exploring this area further. Although our primary goal in making more historical newspaper data available is to assist academic, as well as general researchers, we want to see where the creative impulse may take us. It could lead to different kinds of newspapers being digitised, or derived data being made in forms most suitable for creative inspiration. It could lead to beautiful things.

 

 

07 October 2019

Visualisation workshop report

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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.

Workshop1

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.

Workshop2

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

12 September 2019

Visualising newspaper data

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Regional

Interested in data visualisation, information design or historic newspapers? We’re looking for a small group of volunteers to take part in some trial workshops in October, being run in collaboration with London College of Communication. You’ll learn how to work with data in a creative, hands-on way, while getting an overview of the Library’s digital newspaper collection and how you might use its data.

Volunteers from any background are welcome: you don't need to have expertise in working with data. All you need is some enthusiasm, ideas, and an interest in learning more about one of the areas above. We’ll provide all the necessary supplies, including the tea and biscuits.

The workshops will be held at The British Library in London on October 2 and October 30, between 17:00 and 19:00. 

If you’re interested and can make one or other of these dates, please contact Yann.Ryan@bl.uk for more information.

17 July 2019

Moving from a newspaper collection to a news collection

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The world of news is changing, and at the British Library we are responding to that change - in how we collect, preserve, describe and present our news collections. Our goal is to transform what we hope is a world-class newspaper service into a world-class news service. This post outlines the Library's News Content Strategy for 2019-2023 with our plans for the next five years.

British Library's National Newspaper Building, interior

Inside the National Newspaper Building at Boston Spa

The British Library holds many millions of newspaper issues, and thousands of news websites, radio broadcasts and television programmes. Because it is a legal deposit library, it regularly collects thousands of news-related UK websites for its web archive and continues to receive the range of UK newspapers in print, including foreign language news published in the UK. It also subscribes to news services from across the world, providing a first class research experience for its readers. Together these form one of the greatest historical collections in the world, underpinning research into centuries of UK life and events, and to those of further afield.

In the last decade the Library has transformed its preservation of news, building state of the art facilities to store its historical newspapers collection in excellent environmental conditions and putting in place the first key elements of digital storage for ‘born digital’ news. It has greatly upgraded its service offer for news, making its content available in its reading rooms in London and Yorkshire, including a specially dedicated Newsroom at St Pancras. But there is much more to be done for the discovery of news onsite and online.

Medium

Size of collection

Weekly intake

Newspapers

60 million issues

1,200 issues

Web news

500,000 captures

2,000 websites

TV news

90,000 programmes

200 programmes

Radio news

50,000 programmes

170 programmes

Figures for the current news collection at the British Library

The Library works in partnership with other bodies to develop in-depth understanding of news and the events it describes. Working with family history company Findmypast the Library has provided most of the digitised newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive website, helping researchers and the general public to view rare newspapers from the comfort of their home or workplace.  With over 30 million pages digitised, many online readers exploring their family history will already be familiar with the resource. It is proving invaluable for a huge range of academic research topics as well.

That said, there is still so much to do. The digitisation challenge is vast: 93% of our newspaper content remains undigitised

One key to transforming our news offer is through data. News data is of particular value to researchers for its range across so many subjects and time periods, and for the regularity of its published outputs. It has huge potential for furthering our expertise in the data sciences. Our digitised newspaper archives are already being used by several ‘big data’ projects; in particular our historical archives underpin the major UKRI-funded ‘Living with Machines’ collaboration between the British Library and the Alan Turing Institute. Through the Heritage Made Digital programme we are building up a substantial body of out-of-copyright newspaper data which will greatly improve the service we offer to digital scholarship.

Finally, data forms the building blocks by which we will bring together the different news media to deliver an integrated news service that best serves future needs. 

Our commitment is to the news, not to the newspaper. This shift in thinking follows the direction in which the news media themselves have gone, and will trigger great changes in storage, access and use. It will ensure that the British Library continues to offer the best news research service, for researchers now and in the future.

Over the next five years, the Library will concentrate on four areas of its news collections:

Transforming discovery of news 

We will greatly improve the ease with which readers and the wider public can access our news offer, and respond fully to the big data opportunities of our historic news collections.

Collecting contemporary news 

We will collect UK contemporary news digitally as a matter of course and regularly review our selective approach to overseas news.

Protecting at-risk historical news

We will greatly increase our preservation of historical newspapers, digitising to rebalanced priorities, including at-risk titles.

Planning the next major phase of our strategic storage of news

Our large secure digital store will take audiovisual and digital news as business as usual, and save on physical storage space by switching to digital versions for a majority current UK newspapers; but we will still need to plan for new physical storage.

British Library's National Newspaper Building, interior

Masthead for The News and Sunday Globe, 2 July 1837, one of the titles being digitised by the Heritage Made Digital programme

Many activities relevant to the News Content Strategy are already underway. As we approach the 400th anniversary of the first newspaper available in Britain (1620) and the first newspaper published in Britain (1621), the British Library is responding to the profound changes taking place in the world of news today. At the same time we aim to revitalise how researchers may use and understand the news of yesterday. Look out for some significant announcements over the next year. Good news is on its way.