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88 posts categorized "Newspapers"

12 March 2019

News counts

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How do I love thee? Let me %>% group_by (ways) %>% count()

Counting is very simple. We’ve been doing it for 50,000 years. One of the first things we learn as a child is how to count: before or at the same time we learn the alphabet, we learn to count to ten. First we learn to count on our fingers, perhaps next we count on an abacus. Eventually we graduate to counting on a calculator or a computer. Computers are very good at it, too, which is useful. Give a computer some text, and it can really quickly count lots of things for you: things like the total number of words, the total number of characters or the number of unique words. Counting helps us do lots of useful things. Counting can help us to break codes or compress data. Samuel Morse counted the average frequency of letters in the English language and assigned the most frequent ones to shorter dot-dash combinations. Your computer is doing the same thing when it zips or unzips a file.

Words

Corpus analysis is the study of lots and lots of words of a particular type. Google N-Gram browser finds words or short phrases in millions of digitised books. EEBO N-Gram browser does the same for millions of transcribed texts from the 17th and 18th century. At this scale, simple counting becomes really powerful. Using these tools, researchers can count the frequency of words, which can be the starting point for understanding how words were used and how ideas gained or lost momentum over time. These tools count the relative frequency of words: how unusual is it to have this word here? Are there many more instances of a word appearing than one would expect from the usual frequency? Simply counting can tell us the importance of terms, ideas, concepts in particular texts, or at particular times.

We can divide things up and then count them: How many times did a particular phrase appear in a particular location? At a particular time? In a particular title?

We can count counts: How many titles were printed in a particular year, and how many words did each of those titles contain?

What else can we count? How about whole documents: how many newspapers were printed in the 19th century? How many titles? How many times was the word ‘Gladstone’ mentioned, vs ‘Disraeli’? Did mentions of ‘steam’ overtake mentions of ‘horse’? Counting can be a blunt tool, but it’s a starting point.

Gladstone_disraeli

Horse_steam

A couple of crude word searches using millions of pages of text from selected 19th century British newspapers

To take a concrete example: let’s do some counting on a single issue of one of the newspapers we’re digitising as part of our Heritage Made Digital project. We’ve taken the text of this issue and uploaded it to a web app called Voyant Tools. Voyant Tools takes text files and gives statistics and visualisations of the words within. What are the counts in this issue? This single issue has 29,734 words. It has 7,793 unique words, which could tell us something about the type of audience, or the ‘footprint’ of the author or title. What are the most common words?

Wordfrequency1

Let’s quickly think about some of these words and their implications.

Mr tells us that news is, unsurprisingly bias towards reporting about one gender.

Street, house and place are intriguing, if not surprising. News is so much about space and place. Without a sense of time, news ceases, really, to be news. Perhaps the same can be said about news and space? 

Which leads into the next word: Jan (the abbreviated version of January). This is a newspaper from 6 January 1821. This, alongside Dec (December shortened) tell us something about the age of news. Would you expect more or less mentions of December once news is transmitted via telegraph? There’s also day and time. It’s unlikely these words would be so common in, say, a novel, or a scientific paper. Can counting tell us something about genre?

We can count the counts: Can the words be divided into categories and counted?

Word_type

What does this tell us? Well, it probably tells us more about the makeup of each individual page than anything else. We could probably guess the front page by looking its unique words. The front page was often mostly advertisements, and contact details would include words like street and Mr. It also confirms our belief that news is about information in space and time: clearly there’s a focus on place, time and people, in a way that would presumably not be so apparent in, say, a novel. If we counted the change in common words over time, we could get a picture of the changing makeup of the front page, as it moved from advertisements to headline news.

Counting is a most natural human urge and one that can have very interesting outcomes. It’s a start for all sorts of interesting research: a way to make all sorts of (often wrong) assumptions. Because counting is dangerous. It attempts to put numbers on things that may not be enumerable. We may find our attempts at counting frustrated by the stubborn fuzziness of the world, stymied by our need to put order on disorder. Over the coming months we hope to show some of the interesting things that can be done with the millions of pages being digitised by Heritage Made Digital, and lots of this research will involve, at its core, counting.  

In digital scholarship, it sometimes feels like there is a move away from counting to produce results. Machine learning seems at a great distance from a chart of the most-commonly used words in a bunch of text. But machine learning still often takes a simple count as its raw material. The ‘features’ (the attributes of things we feed machine learning algorithms to make predictions about those things) are often elements like the total count of words in a particular document, or the count of unique words. No matter how sophisticated these methods get, they still, in the end, rely on counting.

Yann Ryan,

Curator, Newspaper Data

14 February 2019

The Black Wonder

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Here is a remarkable image. It looks, at first sight, like a collection of prosperous mid-Victorian gentlemen: perhaps a gathering of local politicians, or merchants of some kind, preening themselves with civic pride. But then we see the caption that accompanies the image: ‘The Great Pugilists of England’. They are boxers, presented in their Sunday finest. But look again to the right, and there is something we might not expect: one of them is black, presented without qualification as an Englishman among Englishmen, someone to be admired.

Great_pugilists

'The Great Pugilists of England', Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 14 February 1863

The image comes from Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 14 February 1863, one of the newspapers we are digitising as part of our Heritage Made Digital programme. The man is Bob Travers, a lightweight, one of a number of black boxers who fought at this time when the sport was bare-knuckle, the brutal contests could last for hours, and rounds could exceed a hundred (a round ended when a fighter fell and had to come up to a line, or scratch, for the next to begin - if one failed to 'come up to scratch', the contest was over). The police were never too far away, ready to break up what were viewed as riotous assemblies. Most, if not all the black boxers who fought in Britain in the 19th century were, in fact, American, born slaves or the free-born sons of slaves who managed to cross the Atlantic to try their chances in a land where pugilism had an avid following.

The first such fighter may have been the man billed as the ‘Black Dynamite’, mentioned in a report in The Times on 27 April 1786. He was followed by the celebrated Bill Richmond, who came to Britain in 1777, became a servant to a peer, bought a pub near Leicester Square with his winnings as a fighter, and established himself as a trainer. His greatest protégé was another former American slave, Tom Molineaux, whose two fights with Tom Cribb in 1811 (both won by Cribb) was considered the very peak of the regency era of prize fighting. Other black fighters that followed in Britain through the 19th century, of whom we sometimes know little more than a name or a nickname, included John Augustus Edward Plantagenet Green, Frank Craig, ‘Massa’ Kendrick, Bob Smith, Sambo Sutton and James Wharton.

Bobtravers

Bob Travers, from Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 15 August 1863 (left) and 14 February 1863

Bob Travers was American too. Some confused contemporary sources tried to suggest that he was British born, but he was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1832, though he came to Britain as a child, when his father moved to Truro in Cornwall and ran a shop selling crockery. He was, apparently, Charlie Jones then, but a talent for fighting, nurtured by English middleweight Nat Langham, saw him enjoy some success over a 10-year career as a pugilist under the name Bob Travers. His earliest known bout was in 1854, his last in 1863. He is best known to boxing historians for his 1860 bout against the great Jem Mace, when Travers displayed some dubious tactics (falling without a blow having been landed) and was eventually disqualified. Referred to rather disparagingly in some sources as ‘Langham’s Black’, he was more impressively billed elsewhere as the ‘Black Wonder’.

There was only a very small black population in Britain in the 19th century. Few black figures came to the forefront of British consciousness: among them were political radical William Davidson, hanged for his part in the Cato Street conspiracy of 1820; the Chartist William Cuffay; Crimean War businesswoman Mary Seacole; circus entertainer Pablo Fanque (of 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite' fame); and the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Prominent black American visitors included abolitionist speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, and the Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. 

What seems notable about Travers, and some other black sportsmen of the mid-19th century that were reported on in the pages of the Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, Bell’s Life and other sports-focussed papers that sprung up at this time (Sporting Life, Sporting Telegraph, Sporting Gazette), is how they were taken entirely at their own merits. Of course in real life they were subjected probably to daily racial abuse. Someone such as Bill Richmond, with his social connections (he even served as one of a group of pugilists ushers at the coronation of George IV in 1821), was unusual. For those such as Travers who toured the country, appearing before rough audiences, there would have been much to endure. Even friendly accounts in boxing memoirs of the period use language to describe him that we would now find offensive.

But in the pages of the Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review things are different. Travers is one of us. More than that, he is an admired figure, a notable exponent of pugilistic science, an exponent of sporting virtue, despite what censorious authorities might say about the rough world of bare-knuckle fighting. Certainly his colour is referred to - he is variously labelled as 'The Black' or 'The Ebony Gentleman' in the characteristically florid style adopted for fight descriptions - but for most of the time he is simply Travers, or Bob.

The Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review was founded in March 1862 to capitalize on the growing public enthusiasm for sport. Established by the London printer Edward Harrison, producer of numerous penny serials and weekly periodicals, the sports and games it covered included athletics, hunting, yachting, cricket, rackets, bowls, billiards, wrestling, the ring, pedestrianism, aquatics, golf, billiards, chess, cribbage, and coursing. True to its title, the newspaper also included coverage of various kinds of theatrical performance, increasingly so in its later years until the title closed in 1870.

Travers_and_travers

Bob Travers in fighting attitude and private costume, Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, 19 July 1862

It specialised in wood engravings of sportsmen, many of them derived from photographs, which were sometimes sold separately and lined the walls of many a home and public house. They were literally the pin-ups of their time. Such was the importance of the illustrations that a separate version of the journal with images only, Gallery of Engravings (not held by the British Library) was also published, while the journal maintained an index of its illustrations for easy reference. Travers was illustrated on several occasions, both in fighting mode and in elegant private dress.

Travers was not a great fighter, but he was a dogged opponent, and a smart one. He was not averse to taking a fall when the fight was no longer going his way. He certainly seems to have had a sound sense of self-preservation, particularly in his latter years as a fighter, when retirement beckoned. One indication of the dangerous world in which he operated is his fight with Jem Dillon in 1863, when the newspapers reported the shocking news that Travers had died of his injuries following fifty-three brutal rounds. Two weeks later, Travers enjoyed a Mark Twain-like opportunity to tell the press by a letter that reports of his death had been exaggerated – throwing in an advertisement for his pub for good measure (like Bill Richmond, he had opened a pub, the Sun and Thirteen Cantons, off Leicester Square).

Westerngazette

Bob Travers's comments on reports of his death, Western Gazette, 5 September 1863, via British Newspaper Archive

Travers retired from the ring at some point in the mid-1860s. Meanwhile boxing began to move away from its lawless roots. The Marquess of Queensbury’s rules, first set down around 1867, brought in some semblance of order and replaced bare knuckles with gloves. Travers was still around when the first world heavyweight championship fight, held in America between John L. Sullivan and James Corbett (the victor) in 1892, was fought with gloves. 16 years later Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion.

Maybe Bob Travers lived long enough to hear the news. We do not know where or when he died; he is last heard of in 1904. But we see him now in his prime, held up as an exemplar in the pages of the Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Musical Review, taking his place among the great of England in his field. In the backwaters of the British sporting newspapers of the mid-19th century we can find some inklings of a society based not on race or class, but personal merit.

Notes

There is more information on Bob Travers on the Cyber Boxing Zone website, and in Kevin Smith, Black Genesis: The History of the Black Prizefighter 1760-1870 (iUniverse, 2003). On sporting newspapers of the period, see Mike Huggins, The Victorians and Sport (2004). On black Britons of the 19th century, see David Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History (2017). On boxing generally, see Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History (2008).

31 January 2019

The anatomy of news

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“I hear new news every day”, wrote the scholar Robert Burton in 1628, “and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany Turkey, Poland, daily musters and preparations, and such like.” For Burton, this firehose of news amounted to a “vast confusion”, though his attitude seems to have been one of wonder rather than fear.

Burton was an Oxford man, but made regular trips to London. There he would have paid a visit to the Exchange, gathering up news and gossip from the merchants crowding the surrounding streets, before moving on to St. Paul’s Churchyard, perhaps stopping to buy a pamphlet from a hawker on the way. On front of the Cathedral he might have picked up some more pamphlets from the many booksellers lining the border of its square, or a copy of Nathaniel Butter and Nicholas Bourne’s new news publication, an innovative weekly format copied from the continent, although, somewhat disappointingly, it wouldn’t have contained any domestic news.

This short walk helps us understand how Burton perceived a world of overwhelming information. But what would he have made of the 21st century? Indeed, what would he have made of the 19th? Had he been writing, say, 250 years later, in 1872, Burton would surely have been overwhelmed by the number of titles available to him on a daily basis.

Coffeehouse

A late-seventeenth-century London coffee house (Usage terms: Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike licence. Held by © Trustees of the British Museum)

The 19th century is a new world for me, coming from a background of 17th century newspapers. And it is a different world. There’s the name, for one thing: the Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the word ‘newspaper’, to mean a publication of regular, periodical news, in 1688. My own work is on the first half of the 17th century, when the word ‘news-book’ was most common, as was a host of words and phrases like ‘coranto’, ‘weekly news-sheet’, ‘weekly pamphlet’ and ‘Mercuries’, with overlapping, shifting and slightly different meanings.

This naming change can be useful – it helps us to grasp the real intellectual and material differences between the news world of the 17th century and that of the 19th. Although the change was gradual and not always linear – changes and innovations often moved backwards as well as forwards – the march of progress was did eventual pick up pace. 17th century news looked very different, much like a few sheets of A4 paper folded in half, with news in a single column. It was called a news-book because it looked like a small book. The way information was organised was different, too: early 17th century news-books contained a series of paragraphs each from a particular place, recording all the news collected from that place. The invention of the ‘article’, a unit of news based on one particular subject or event, was not to happen for some time.

Columns

The evolution from one to eight columns

This categorical divide also continues with the data. I estimate there are 1,000,000 words in Early English Books Online’s entire periodicals collection. The British Library’s collection of 19th century news runs to hundreds of millions of pages (we wrote recently that the collection consists of 60 million issues, 450 million pages... perhaps four trillion words... twenty-six trillion characters…). The other seismic change is that a computer can be taught to read (with varying accuracy) 19th century news. For the 17th, it’s still very difficult.

This Optical Character Recognition is what allows me to load up the British Newspaper Archive and check if my great-great-granddad committed any crimes in 1839 (still can’t find anything), for example, or check Limerick hurling scores from 1887. This difference isn’t just trivial: it represents a complete step-change in the way we approach newspaper history. For one thing, the datasets increase in size, by orders of magnitude. I have created a dataset of about 15,000 rows, manually collected, by reading 17th century news and noting down bits of information in a spreadsheet. 15,000 rows, from about 400 newspaper issues, which took many months to create. Yesterday, a few hours, I created a dataset of N-Grams (basically combinations of words) from a single issue of one 19th century title.  It contained 150,000 rows.

150,000 rows of generated data, from one issue. Multiply that by about 250 for a weekday title, then by hundreds of titles, then by 200 years and the potential for ‘big data’ is rather astonishing. Of course, this data is not as rich with information as my humble spreadsheet, nor does it record any kind of fine-grained detail, but it does change the types of processing, computing power and storage needed, and most importantly, the types of intellectual questions that are and are not answerable. My 17th century dataset is like interviewing everyone in a small town, in some detail; the 19th century datasets we’ll be working with on our Heritage Made Digital newspapers project records the cosmos – albeit from far away. We don’t know much, but we know it about an enormous number of things. But the differences extend past volume: there is also a step-change in readership and scope.

The 19th century newspaper was everywhere. Some of the most popular 17th century newsbooks were probably printed in weekly runs of about 2,000; by 1863, the Daily Telegraph had a circulation of 120,000 per day. In 1628 Burton was overwhelmed by information in London and Oxford but elsewhere the firehose could be a drip, or a drought. By the 19th century news surged through the country’s arteries, veins and capillaries: at first everywhere within the reach of the train; eventually the telegraph, information finally travelling at the speed of light, in dots and dashes. It was the most pervasive cultural object of the century.

Newsgraph

Newspaper titles held by the British Library, year by year, 1621-1900

Even accounting for the reuse and sharing of copies this is a fundamentally very different type of cultural artefact. If I analyse every page of news in the early 17th century, I have a vast record of events, and the thoughts and feelings of a select group of people. In the 19th century, the newspaper is a reasonable proxy for the way society thinks. To me it seems as though news in the 19th century captures a good proportion of a collective consciousness. It is a reasonable (though problematic) way to infer societal change. Through the newspaper’s great reach we can understand historical forces. The articles and personalities in the 19th century newspaper can tell us about structures of power. Its advertisements identify trends, economic forces and the changing roles within the family. The words themselves and their frequencies can help us understand the use of language, or uncover drifts in sentiments towards political movements, ideologies and so forth. In the 17th century the readership is so small, such a small part of the diet of information ingested by both important and ordinary people, that the questions we ask of its remains are different. Not less important, certainly not less interesting, but surely of a different kind.

Yes, the 19th century news world feels like a different one to the 17th. A mostly new world, with some evidence of the ruins of its earlier civilisation: the old towers are fallen, though echoes of their presence remain. The vast confusion had been replaced with one infinitely greater. Our job is to find, research and understand the new techniques that are necessary to make sense of this information overload.

Yann Ryan

Curator, Newspaper Data

22 January 2019

African newspapers

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We're delighted to be able to announce a significant new digital resource using newspapers from the British Library's collection. African Newspapers: The British Library Collection is being offered by the academic publisher Readex. The collection comprises sixty-four newspapers titles, all dating from 1901, that were published throughout Africa, chiefly in English.

African

The British Library has substantial collections of newspapers from the African continent, particularly for the period of the British Empire, almost none of which have been available digitally before now. Ranging from 1840 to 1900, the newspapers cover the period of European exploration, colonialism and the first steps towards self-governance. The newspapers contain news reports, articles, letters, advertisements, shipping reports and obituaries, providing an invaluable portrait of a continent in transition.

The available titles are still being added to, but the finished resource will include such titles as Central African Times, Egyptian Gazette, Times of Marocco and the West African Reporter. The territories covered include the countries now known as Djibouti, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, and the islands of Mauritius and Saint Helena. All are fully word-searchable and browsable.

Egyptiangazette

The Egyptian Gazette, from African Newspapers: The British Library Collection

African Newspapers: The British Library Collection is available to British Library readers at our St Pancras and Boston Spa locations, as one of the many electronic resources that we provide onsite. A few we can offer for free remote access to those with a British Library reader pass, including Readex's World Newspaper Archive: African Newspapers, 1800-1922 and Rand Daily Mail (which is partly based on the British Library's run of this key South African title), via our Remote eResources facility. African Newspapers: The British Library Collection is not available for remote access, but has greatly expanded the number of newspapers from this period of African history which can now be searched in depth via a single interface.

We have a mixed model for the digitisation of newspapers. For British and Irish newspapers, chiefly regional, we work with family history company Findmypast, which produces the British Newspaper Archive website. Recently we announced that the British Library has started digitising newspapers itself, concentrating on some out-of-copyright (pre-1878) newspapers published in London, whose physical originals are often in a poor or unfit state. And we work with academic resource providers such as Readex, Cengage Gale and Adam Matthew Digital, who create thematic packages which sometimes include British Library newspapers and periodicals and are marketed to educational institutions. It's a complicated picture, and not everything can be made accessible to anyone anywhere, but through through such collaborations we can make far more available digitally than we could ever achieve alone.

 

 

 

16 January 2019

Multi-title newspaper volumes – historic practice vs. modern process

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The British Library (and its previous incarnation as a department of the British Museum) has been collecting newspapers for over 200 years. The ways in which these items have been acquired, processed, and stored have changed over time as priorities, policies, locations and technologies have developed, but some historic practices have had interesting implications for our current Heritage Made Digital programme to digitise a number 19th century newspapers. The newspapers we are digitising are mostly London based, and we are focussing on titles that have a number of volumes in poor or unfit condition, with the aim for filling in some gaps that currently exist in the digital archive.

Mixed_press

Multi-title newspaper volumes

One of the practices that has had a real impact on the way we have approached this digitisation project is the way in which items have been bound in the past for storage and preservation. When thinking about how newspapers are stored by the British Library, most users probably imagine that complete runs of a title, for instance the Morning Herald, would be held together. But that hasn’t always been the case. For ease of processing and storage and to conserve space, many newspapers were held in annual sequences, rather than in title runs. So newspapers published in 1832 were held together, and these were followed by the titles published in 1833.

For many newspapers, particularly the dailies, this simply means that one or more volumes of a title are held in each yearly sequence. But for a significant part of the collection, mostly weekly titles of 12 pages or less, for which the British Library collected only one edition, there simply wasn’t enough material to make up a bound volume on their own. This has meant that there are many volumes containing two, three or sometimes more titles for a year. For example, a volumes currently sat on my desk contains both The Ballot and the Weekly Times for 1831.

Ballot

The Ballot and the Weekly Times in one volume

This practice saved space and money by reducing the number of bindings produced for each year. There were no strict rules about how many titles or pages constituted a volume, and practices varied over the years, but mostly newspapers of a similar size are bound together, as this makes them easier to store. In most cases all of the items bound into a volume are newspapers, but occasionally they also contain periodicals bound, and these fall under the care of other departments within the British Library.

This has led to some complications in the workflow of our digitisation processes. The catalogue records for newspapers do not contain details of how they are bound, so we are often unaware of whether items are bound individually or in multi-title volumes, or which items are bound together. This sometimes means that a single volume is called up multiple times by our digitisation team, as several titles from our list are bound together for one or more years. It has also made the process of scanning titles more laborious and complicated. Staff do not simply open a volume and scan the contents, they have to identify the correct title, and work out where it starts and ends, checking this against the details that are on the catalogue records.

It has also raised some interesting questions for our digitisation project. What impact does going through the digitisation process several times have on volumes, particularly as many are already in a poor or unfit condition? If one of the titles we are digitising is bound in a multi-title volume, should we be digitising all of the other titles with which it is bound? Should we be digitising the periodicals that are contained within these volumes, even though they are not officially part of the newspaper collection? How far should what is digitised follow the physical reality of what is archived?

We are still working to answer some of these questions. In general we have had to stick to digitising only the items already on our list, as otherwise the numbers could spiral out of control, and we might end up digitising large numbers of titles that do not meet our criteria (i.e. in a poor or unfit condition; out of copyright; and with a circulation beyond London). We look closely at the other titles we come across, and access them against our objectives, but in most cases there are reasons why they had not already been selected.

Despite their complications these multi-title volumes do also provide opportunities. I will talk in a future post about serendipity and its role in newspaper research, but it has also played a very small role in our selection process. As mentioned above, in most cases we have stuck only to those titles already on our selection list, but there have been a few occasions when looking at a volume, we have stumbled across another newspaper that has proved interesting enough to make it onto our list. It has also made us think a lot about how and why things were done in the past, and how practices evolve, giving us a better understanding of how the collection was, how it currently is, and how it could be in the future.

 

Beth Gaskell

Curator, Newspaper Digitisation

07 January 2019

Heritage Made Digital - the newspapers

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The British Library is currently engaged on a major programme entitled Heritage Made Digital. The aim of the programme is to transform digital access to the British Library's heritage collections by streamlining digitisation workflows, undertaking strategically led digitisation and making existing digitised content available as openly as copyright and licensing agreements allow. Heritage Made Digital is embracing a wide range of materials, from manuscripts through to sounds, and one of its major elements is newspapers. 

Unfit

Unfit newspaper volumes awaiting conservation inspection

The first thing to ask is why the British Library needs to be digitising newspapers, when we already have a very productive relationship with family history company Findmypast, which selects and digitises newspapers for the British Newspaper Archive, providing us with digital preservation copies in the process. It has digitised over 20 million pages from our collection, and adds hundreds of thousands of extra pages each month.

The simple answer is that there is more that we would like to see digitised that isn't likely to get digitised soon otherwise. The greater part of newspapers processed by Findmypast come from our microfilmed copies, because it is so much easier and quicker to do so (about eighteen times quicker than digitising from print). But only a third of our collection of some 60 million newspaper issues has been microfilmed. Of the newspapers for which we have only print, some get digitised, but many do not. In part this is because of the condition of many of newspapers, often produced using low-quality newsprint and for many years not stored in optimum conditions. We define preservation status of our newspapers under three categories: good, poor and unfit. Unfit no one gets to see, even onsite, unless we have a microfilm or digital access version. And around 4.5% of our collection (or 20 million pages) is in an unfit state and with no microfilmed or digitised copy available. That's a lot of newspapers not to be making available at all.

So, for Heritage Made Digital, we have chosen to concentrate on newspapers in a poor or unfit condition. This is not as straightforward as it might sound, since few runs of a newspaper title (i.e. from its first date to its last date) exist under one condition status. One volume may be good, another poor, another unfit (e.g. with a broken spine, crumbling pages etc). Therefore, although we want to concentrate on poor or unfit newspapers, we also want to digitise full runs of newspaper titles, because this will make best sense for researchers. In practice, we find that 40% of the volumes we are digitising for Heritage Made Digital are in a poor or unfit state. 

We have set other restrictions for ourselves, with the aim of offering the best result for the widest range of research users. We are only digitising newspapers that are out of copyright, so that we can make the results freely available online - both the digitised pages and the data created by digitisation. Calculating when a newspaper goes out of copyright is complicated, but we are sticking to a 140-year rule - so the run of the newspaper has to have ended by 1878. 

Next, we are primarily digitising newspapers that we published in London but which were distributed outside London as well. So, not newspapers for the areas of London only (i.e. London regionals), but metropolitan newspapers with a wider circulation. Curiously enough, this is a neglected area for newspaper digitisation. The British Newspaper Archive focusses heavily on British regional newspapers, while the main UK national newspapers available digitally are almost entirely those where the title still exists (e.g. The Guardian, The Times). In other words, we have identified a gap, one which we think will make a significant difference to what is available online so far.

We are not in competition with Findmypast, however - in fact, we are working closely with them. Every newspaper that we digitise will be made freely available via the British Library's catalogue, but they will also be made available via the British Newspaper Archive (a subscription site). That means that almost all of our digitised newspapers will be searchable - by title, date and word - in the one place. As things stand, the newspapers will be appearing on the BNA first, and secondly (at a date still to be determined) through the British Library catalogue, using the Universal Viewer display tool (a development project still in progress).

Waiting

Waiting to be digitised

So, what are we digitising?

It will be around 1.3 million pages, 1 million from print and another 300,000 from microfilm. We're still choosing the titles to digitise, even as we start digitising, as we find out more through a process of preservation need and research, but it will be somewhere around 180 newspaper titles, many of them short runs of a year or less. We can't provide a definitive list as yet, but these are some of the titles (with title changes) that have gone to our imaging studios already:

  • Baldwin's London Weekly Journal (1803-1836)
  • The Bee-Hive / The Penny Bee-Hive (1862-1876)
  • The British Liberator (1833)
  • Colored News (1855)
  • Illustrated Sporting News and Theatrical and Music Review / Illustrated Sporting and Theatrical News (1862-1870)
  • The Lady's Newspaper and Pictorial Times (1847-1863)
  • Mirror of the Times (1800-1823)
  • Morning Herald (1801-1869)
  • The News / The News and Sunday Herald / The News and Sunday Globe (1805-1839)
  • People's Weekly Police Gazette (1835-1836)
  • Pictorial Times (1843-1848)
  • The Saint James's Chronicle (1801-1866)
  • The Sun / The Sun & Central Press (1801-1876)

There is a lot more that we have planned. We're exploring academic partnerships (we're already working closely with the recently-announced British Library/Alan Turing Institute data science project Living with Machines). We're aiming to do creative things with the data. We will be publishing blog posts, both about the content and about the decisions we're making on what gets digitised. We will be producing online guides and research tools, aimed at both the specialist and the general user.

We think that we have come up with a model for the digitisation of newspapers, in particular the way in which we are working in partnership with Findmypast, which will be particularly productive. We certainly hope to build on it beyond the life of the project. We can't show you any newspapers digitised through Heritage Made Digital, or offer any free datasets, as yet. But we will do soon.

It's worth remembering that the British Library has 60 million newspapers, from 1619 to the present day. After a decade or more of intensive work, we have digitised just 5%. There is a long, long way to go.

 

16 December 2018

Collecting news

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In two years’ time, it will be the four hundredth anniversary of the newspaper in this country. The first known newspaper in English, Corrant out of Italy, Germany, &c. was published on 2 December 1620, in Amsterdam. A year later, on 24 September 1621, the first newspaper was published in this country, the Corante, or, Newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France.

Corante

Corante, or, Newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France (September 1621), British Library

These newspapers survive at the British Library, and, looking at them, they are remarkably close to the newspapers of today. What we see is a sheet of paper: portable, foldable, shareable. There is a masthead with the title of the news publication. There is a date – strictly speaking, a date for the first story. There are stories, arranged in columns, with a shared currency. It gives a shape to the news, with the promise of more to follow.

The newspaper has been a remarkably successful publishing model, sustained in this country, after an unsteady start, for nearly 400 years. The newspaper and its prints variants flourished, with the inhibitions of censorship, taxation or regulation failing to halt their progress. The newspaper informed, entertained and helped define the nations and regions that it served.

The newspaper went largely unchallenged as a medium of news for nearly three hundred years. Certainly there were variations on the form, from periodicals to broadsides, and changes were brought about in size, illustration, distribution patterns and so forth, but essentially the news meant the newspaper.

Pathe

Title image of a 1911 edition of Pathe’s Animated Gazette, British Pathe

That changed in June 1910, when a wholly new news form was published – the newsreel. One can argue over the significant date, for newsfilms of a kind preceded newsreels just as there were news sheets and other news publications before there were newspapers. But with Pathé’s Animated Gazette, issue one of which was shown in cinemas in June 1910 and weekly, then bi-weekly thereafter, something changed. This was news on a new medium, that not only communicated the news in a different way but had to be consumed differently, by an audience sitting in a cinema, unable to control the order of stories in which they appeared nor the time they might want to spend on each one.

The newsreel did another revolutionary thing. It invited the audience to widen its understanding of the news, even to have a measure of control over it. Owing to the complexities of film processing, newsreels could not be published daily. They were published bi-weekly, matching the common pattern of cinema attendance (i.e. most people were going to the cinema twice a week), and deliberately chose news stories which had featured in the newspapers previously. You had read the story, now you could see it in motion. You the audience could combine these media together to enrich your understanding of the news, if you so wished.

Newspaper owners were swift to react to this. In the USA, William Randolph Hearst rapidly bought into the newspaper market, creating Hearst-Selig News Pictorial in 1914. In the UK, Edward Hulton, owner of The Daily Sketch newspaper, bought the Topical Budget newsreel in 1919. Lord Beaverbrook of The Daily Express became co-owner of Pathé Gazette in the 1920s. Hulton and Beaverbrook wanted to own the totality of the news.

But the news was spreading, increasing audience power while making it much harder for the news barons to control every manifestation of the phenomenon of news. The BBC introduced news bulletins on 23 December 1922, under government licence. It lay outside any possible control of the newspapers (though originally the BBC was restricted to using news agency copy only), and swiftly challenged them through daily publication and command of the public space. Radio added a new dimension: live reporting, collapsing the time difference between news event and news consumption. 

Radio also offered sound, of course, which the newsreels adopted around 1930. News could now be read, or seen, or listened to, and with each innovation the newspaper lost that much more of its claim to the totality of news, while audience power grew with the increase in choice.

Kendall

BBC newsreader Kenneth Kendall, 1950s, BBC

Next came television. The first BBC television news programme, in January 1948, was a newsreel in form and name – Television Newsreel, while the new medium owed much in its early years to its parent medium, radio. As with radio in the UK, it originally owed its existence to government licence, and added to the trump cards of frequency, domestic space and live reporting the particular power of the newsreader.

News now had a human face, that spoke to you the viewer as an individual as well as to the mass. It added to that sense of reassurance that news publications existed to provide. Danger and calamity were what was happening to other people. The fact that you were there to read the news, or to have it read to you, implied that you were safe.

Then came news on the web. Traditional news organisations were extraordinarily slow to grasp the implications of the Internet. Confident in their well-established models, in the audiences that were assumed to be loyal to them, and in the advertising revenue that sustained them, they were profoundly shocked – and continue to be shocked – by this mode of distribution and communication which upturned their every expectation. A fierce rearguard action is being fought, defending traditional newspaper values against the freewheeling digital behemoths Facebook and Google, but the balance of power has shifted irrevocably.

News stories now filter through a myriad of networks; the advertising money has moved to search; choice has expanded beyond any reckoning; the timetables around which had traditionally structured itself have gone; and the audience has become all powerful. The traditional news world has been disaggregated, and we are all – producers, readers, advertisers, regulators, legislators – trying to work out how to put the pieces back together again. All that is certain is that the Internet makes the news, because it has become the lifeline on which all news production and news communication now depend.

News in the UK has changed greatly over the past 100 years, in medium, range, extent and ownership. Today much of the understanding on which news has been based, the contract between publisher and reader, is being challenged. Political upheaval combined with the mushrooming of digital outlets, combined with growing audience power on what is accepted as news, has made collecting the news all the more challenging – and imperative. What is the news now, and how do we collect it?

The British Library, until recently, has not collected the news – it has collected newspapers. As part of its function as the national research library, and as an outcome of Legal Deposit legislation, the Library (or the British Museum before it) has had the power since 1869 to request one copy of every newspaper issue published in the UK or Ireland. Just the one edition is taken where there are multiple editions of a title, usually the latest edition.

Between roughly 1822 and 1869 copies of newspapers were supposed to be sent to the Stamp Office for reasons of taxation, and these copies subsequently made their way to the British Museum. Consequently the collection is comprehensive from 1869 onwards, and nearly so for 1822 to 1869, though comprehensive is, in our case, a relative term.

Prior to 1820, the Library has been dependent on acquisitions and donations, mostly notably the newspapers, news sheets and news books from the Civil War period collected by bookseller George Thomason, and the Burney Collection of newspapers 1603-1818, collected by the Reverend Charles Burney. As a result of Legal Deposit, donation and acquisition, the collection amounts to some 60 million issues, or 450 million pages, though that is a figure derived from counting the number of volumes held, and in truth no one can really say exactly how many newspapers the British Library holds.

Bostonspa

New newspapers received under Legal Deposit awaiting processing at British Library, Boston Spa

We do know how many are coming in, however – currently we take in 1,200 titles every week – that is, a combination of dailies and weeklies received under Legal Deposit. The figure is down from the 1,400 or so we were taking in only a couple of years ago, but, for the time being at least, this is remains a country with a remarkable appetite for newspapers.

Around a third of the titles in the collection are from overseas. Relatively few foreign newspapers are now collected, owing to storage issues and the availability of electronic newspaper resources, but historically there was collecting from many countries, notably from Empire and then Commonwealth countries which were received through colonial copyright deposit.

But what of the other news media? There is no Legal Deposit for sound or moving image in the UK. The Library incorporated the National Sound Archive in 1983, but its collection has been created through acquisition, special arrangements with publishers, off-air recordings and the recording of live performances and interviews by the Library itself. News, until recently, was not part of its collecting remit, though its radio collections did include some news broadcasts.

For television, the British Library deferred to the British Film Institute (BFI), which has collected the medium selectively since the late 1950s. The Broadcasting Act of 1990 brought in statutory provision for a national television archive, paid for by the television companies, driven by off-air recordings of programmes as they were broadcast. This archive is maintained by the BFI, and since the mid-80s it has been recording on a daily basis television news programmes from the main terrestrial channels.

In 2010 the British Library re-introduced off-air recording, taking advantage of an exception in UK copyright which enabled it to record broadcast programmes for the purposes of maintaining an archive. It had previously recorded radio and TV programmes up to 2000, mostly on musical themes. Now the emphasis was on news. This was driven by a wish for the Library to build up its moving image capability, and in response to a gap in archival provision. Although the BFI was recording the main terrestrial television news programmes, most news programmes from the 24-hour news channels were not being archived by any public body. There was an opportunity to become a television news specialist, adding radio news as well to the mix, to provide a service to researchers not available elsewhere. It was also recognition that television and radio news made for a logical extension of the Library’s news collection. Newspapers were no longer enough.

In 2013 the Non-Print Legal Deposit Act was passed, permitting the British Library, in partnership with the other Legal Deposit libraries of the UK and Ireland, to collect electronic publications, including websites, the same as for print. This has been a complex and gigantic undertaking, with the number of files now archived running into the billions, dwarfing in size the Library’s physical collection. 

Most of the websites on the UK Legal Deposit web archive are captured once a year. That is, a snapshot record of a website is made as it appears at one point in time, with all pages linked to a root URL. This is not suitable for news, where so much can disappear quickly, and where there is a research imperative to see the news as it was made available, at regular points in time. We need web news to be archived like print newspapers, because print newspapers have established the model. So, from 2014, we have been capturing news websites on a regular basis, usually weekly, but daily for the national daily newspaper sites and news broadcaster sites.

It has taken a while to build up, but we are currently capturing some 2,000 web news titles on a regular basis, in collaboration with the other Legal Deposit libraries. This has included perhaps the most radical shift yet in our news collecting strategy, because as well as archiving the websites of the recognised news publications, around half of what we are archiving has been hyperlocal news sites. Hyperlocalism, a local publishing movement which began in the USA and has taken off greatly in the UK in the past four years, means that anyone can be a news publisher. Anyone with a bee in their bonnet or a feeling that the news in their street is being overlooked can sign up for free to a Wordpress site, give it a newsy title, and start publishing. And, if the British Library gets to hear of them, we will start archiving them. We do not discriminate.

Stone

A Little Bit of Stone, hyperlocal news site for Stone, Staffordshire, established in 2010

There is no definitive list of hyperlocal sites in the UK (though there are two directories that list many: Local List, and Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism’s directory of hyperlocals). Nor is there any comprehensive listing available of standard UK news websites. Consequently we do not know what percentage of the UK’s news websites we are archiving, though we are confident at least that it is a good majority. 

There are many problems with the archiving of web news, however. Firstly, there is the sheer vastness of the web. No one can say what the true size is of a phenomenon which is in a continual process of change, but in a recent talk web archivist Ed Summers calculates that the Internet Archive, which said in 2016 that it has saved 510 billion web captures, might by this have collected just 0.39% of the web. We can see something of the mania of trying to capture the ever-changing web in the Internet Archive’s hourly captures of the dailymail.co.uk (known as Mail Online in the UK). It is too much to comprehend, certainly too much to archive. The comprehensive archive of what is published can no longer exist.

Dailymail

Internet Archive captures of dailymail.co.uk, highlighting one day’s captures for 26 March 2018

Secondly, owing to purely technical reasons, the Library is not always able to capture the audio and video elements of news sites, and even if it can capture them it is not always able to play back the results. Next, there used to be a simple correlation between a printed newspaper and the website that shared its name, and often its content. Increasingly the two are diverging, not just in content, but in title and scope. Single websites increasingly represent several regional newspapers where costs need to be cut. Newspapers are also being replaced by web versions, most prominently The Independent, which exists no longer in print but continues its digital existence as a facsimile version of the print title, as well as the independent.co.uk website and the indy100 spin-off site.

A few years ago, many newspapers made a PDF of their newspaper available on the website, but now a far more complicated picture exists, with a combination of digital outputs and many newspapers turning to aggregators such as PageSuite to provide digital access for them. Collecting newspapers digitally, which the Library does not currently do but is investigating, will not be a simple case of matching like for like. Whatever future collecting model the Library may pursue is bound to include a measure of print newspapers, not least because we will want to continue to collect a core of newspapers as print out of respect for a 400-year-old medium, for as long as there continue to be print newspapers. But one thing is certain – the world of digital news is different to that of physical news, and we will have to obey the rules of digital.

The current collection comprises the following: 60 million newspapers, 2,000 websites captured a total of 400,000 times, 85,000 television news programmes and 40,000 radio news programmes. Each week we take in 3,500 UK news publications of one kind or another. The news publications are collected through a combination of Legal Deposit, copyright exception and licence.

All of this is expressed in the key principles underpinning our news content strategy:

  • The Library’s news offering incorporates the full range of news media – newspapers, news websites, television news, radio news, and other media
  • The Library's news content comprises primarily news most relevant to UK users, meaning news produced in the UK or which has had an impact on the UK
  • The Library also collects or connects to selected overseas newspapers, now primarily on microfilm or digital, according to availability and with focus on areas of research interest
  • The content strategy for news media is underpinned by Legal Deposit collecting, both print and non-print, but includes audiovisual media that lie outside Legal Deposit

The challenge for the Library will be how to bring these different news media together. That is why our news strategy focusses strongly on data. Commonalities of data – particularly date, time and place – will be essential for linking together different news stories. Other libraries are already experimenting with this, the Royal Danish Library for example, with its Mediestream service that brings together newspapers, television and radio.

To achieve such integration it will be essential to link up not only by date but keyword. We already capture subtitles for television news programmes where these are available; we are now experimenting with speech-to-text transcriptions of radio programmes. We will eventually be able to offer full text searching across each of the news media. The quality of such transcriptions will vary according to source, so an essential next step will be to extract entities, or themes, from these transcripts, using a shared set of terms.

So I will be able to aske of a future resource discovery system, show me everything you have relating to Brexit between 1st and 31st December 2018, and there will be there newspaper stories, the television news stories, the radio stories and the web stories, all of them indexed automatically, as well as books, papers or other media produced at that time which will enrich the picture of what the news was on this one topic at that particular time. All those objects must be born digital or to have been digitised, so our collecting policy must be digital.

There are other news media. The Library is looking at podcasts, which certainly fall under its sound and news collecting remits, not least because all the major newspaper titles and news broadcasters are producing podcasts. No commitment has been made as yet, but we have started capturing some sample news-based podcasts.

The area of current news that we get asked about most is social media. We are not archiving Twitter, firstly because it is an American company and so falls outside our UK web archiving remit. The Library of Congress took on the task of archiving Twitter, though a year ago it announced that the task was proving too great and that it would only be archiving Twitter selectively from now on. The British Library archives some Twitter feeds where these have a British focus, a number of which are news-related, but it is a tiny drop in a vast ocean.

Twitter highlights the challenge we now face in trying to collect the news. It is not just about the vast scale of the archives, but about their meaning. As I wrote earlier this year:

The archiving of Twitter is a logical impossibility. There is no single Twitter out there that might be consulted equally by any of us. There are over 300 million Twitters in existence. Each person signed up to the service selects who they will follow and what topics interest them. No one person sees the same Twitter as the next. It is universal and absolutely personal at the same time, which is the key to its particular power. No archive can replicate this, because it must convert the subjective into the objective.

The subjectivity or personalisation of news is going to present us with the greatest collecting challenge. If everyone sees the news differently, how do we collect it? Once it was understood that a news object such as a newspaper was read in the same way by the same set of people for whom it was intended, usually defined by geographical location or political persuasion. But does that apply in a wholly digital world?

Those who once saw themselves as newspaper publishers now view themselves as news publishers. News is gathered and composed digitally, and then transmitted through a variety of media, one of which - for the time being - remains the print newspaper. To get at the heart of news, to collect it fully, one might want to collect not the published forms but the individual digital elements and the content management systems that hold them. Then one could recreate the news in the various forms in which it was be distributed at any given point in time – as print, website, mobile and so on. Collecting news as publications has been fine for 1620 through to, maybe 2020. But what after then?

Nnb

Inside the British Library’s National Newspaper Building, Boston Spa

John Carey, in his introduction to the Faber Book of Reportage, makes an intriguing argument about the nature of news. Firstly, he says:

The advent of mass communications represents the greatest change in human consciousness that has taken place in recorded history. The development, within a few decades, from a situation where most of the inhabitants of the globe would have no day-to-day knowledge of or curiosity about how most of the others were faring, to a situation where the ordinary person’s mental space is filled (and must be filled daily or hourly, unless a feeling of disorientation is to ensue) with accurate reports about the doings of complete strangers, represents a revolution in mental activity which is incalculable in its effects.

Carey considers what it was in the mindset of pre-communication age humans that reportage replaced, and he suggests that the answer is religion. He continues:

Religion was the permanent backdrop to [man’s] existence, as reportage is for his modern counterpart. Reportage supplies modern man with a constant and reassuring sense of events going on beyond his immediate horizon … Reportage provides modern man, too, with a release from his trivial routines, and a habitual daily illusion of communication with a reality greater than himself … When we view reportage as the natural successor to religion, it helps us to understand why it should be so profoundly taken up with the subject of death … Reportage, taking religion’s place, endlessly feeds it reader with accounts of the deaths of other people, and therefore places him continually in the position of a survivor … [R]eportage, like religion, gives the individual a comforting sense of his own immortality.

There is plenty to challenge in Carey’s suggestion of reportage as being the natural successor to religion. There are different religions out there, and religion did not disappear with the emergence of public news forms. He also blends mass communications, reportage and news, though they are not the same as one another. But his theory is richly suggestive. One thinks of John Donne, writing in 1611 in his poem ‘An Anatomy of the World – The First Anniversary’ of changing ideas of the universe, “'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone / All just supply, and all relation”. Ten years later the country’s first newspaper would appear.

Carey’s insight also provides an interesting mechanism for considering the nature of news today. 

Published, public news has fed curiosity, helped to solidify our sense of belonging, and has provide a sense of reassurance. It has profoundly influenced our sense of time. The question is whether our new world of news will continue to do the same. News is a constant, but the forms in which it is transmitted must change, and they could be in the process of changing quite radically. The trust in the definable news publication to tell us who we are by relaying what we want to know, could be disappearing. The need for assurance will remain, however, so what will provide it? The increase in the personalisation of news, the logical extension of which is to make everyone their own news editor, hardly seems a recipe for the sort of assurance that leads to a settled society.

Or maybe we are entering a post-news era, with a changed sense of reality, an age without reassurance. My personal definition of news is that it is “information of current interest for a specific audience”. It’s a flexible construction, but what happens when I no longer feel certain to what audience I belong? Maybe an age of supreme individuality is underway, in which I no longer feel a part of any audience, or else there are so many audiences to which I could be said to belong that the concept becomes meaningless. It is a world lived in a continuous now, where the past is losing its meaning, and where everyone thinks themselves immortal, now. That could be the end logic of an entirely interconnected world.

Despite the alarmist cries from some quarters about disinformation and the undermining of the news media as we have known them, these remain fringe concerns. The vast majority of people trust the established news media. They like their local newspaper, or at least the idea of there being one. They watch the same TV news programmes in their usual slots, they listen to the familiar radio news summaries. The urge for local identity is driving our politics, so there is little evidence for saying that we no longer know who we are or where we belong. We still need the reassurance of news. The post-news era is still some way off. Perhaps it will always be some way off.

Meanwhile the British Library’s collecting policy must be to collect what it can, by the mechanisms that are available to it. It wants to collect across the different news media, through a combination of Legal Deposit, copyright exception and licence, augmenting what is still its core news collection, newspapers. Everything must be built around the newspaper, for the time being. Our revised news content strategy, currently in development, has the subtitle, “moving from a newspaper collection to a news collection”. It sounds reasonable enough. We must do what we must. But the world of news may be moving beyond us; beyond the British Library, or any of us.

 

This a shortened version of a talk I gave at the Media History Seminar, Senate House, on 4 December 2018. A PDF copy of the full text, with footnotes, is available here.

 

02 August 2018

Wanted - a curator for newspaper data

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We are currently advertising for a Curator, Newspaper Data to join our news curatorial team. This is a fixed-term post until March 2020, based at our St Pancras site in central London. The post is being advertised as part of the British Library's Heritage Made Digital programme, a major part of which involves digitising 19th century British newspapers, with a special focus on newspapers in a poor or unfit condition.

Thenews

We are looking for someone who will help us to apply data journalism thinking to this historical news material. The person we are looking for will be responsible for the analysis and creative interpretation of data derived from Heritage Made Digital and related British Library newspaper digitisation projects. They will prepare derived newspaper data sets and promote these for use by researchers. They will work with researchers to develop projects using newspaper data.

In particular we want them to help us produce stylish visualisations using historical newspaper data, working with third-party designers as necessary. A couple of years ago on the Newsroom blog we wrote about the art of the news visualisation, and how this particular branch of data science was helping to illuminate the themes behind the news. We also said that it would be a good idea if such thinking, and with such outputs, could be applied to historical news data. Now we want someone to put those thoughts into action.

The post-holder will need to have a strong background in computer science and data science. They will have experience of working with or developing tools for large content and data volumes, and an interest in nineteenth-century history and/or news and current affairs. It's a terrific opportunity for the right person. Information on how to apply is on the British Library's vacancies site. The deadline for applications is 9 September 2018.

 

17 November 2017

The artist-reporter

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Newspaper art, by its very nature, is an ephemeral art form, sprawling in number and fleeting in effect, so it is no easy task to research the field of Victorian Graphic Journalism. The role of Special Artist – or artist-reporter – as a recognized profession came into existence in the mid-nineteenth century. The seminal event in its early history was the founding of the Illustrated London News in 1842, and that of its chief rival, the Graphic, in 1869.

Simpson

William Simpson, 'H.R.H, The Prince of Wales at the School Children’s Fete Bombay, 10th November 1875', 1875, pencil with grey wash and white, ©CSG CIC, Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

The critical innovation that made it possible was the discovery of a wood engraving technique by Thomas Bewick, back in 1791, which enabled images to be printed simultaneously alongside text.  But it was not until Herbert Ingram, the founding editor of the ILN, seized on its potential, that the pictorial press came into its own. Ingram formalized the practice of publishing images to accompany newsworthy events.  As one of the leading Special Artists, William Simpson, would reflect, you did ‘not hear of the Special Correspondent during the wars of Napoleon, but between 1815 and 1854 a great change had taken place in the character and position of the newspaper press. It was this change that evolved the “Special” (Notes and Recollections of My Life, 1889, National Library of Scotland).

Acknowledging that historical events had previously been illustrated, Simpson identified that the key distinction was that the artist was now expected:

‘to be always on the spot, jotting down in his sketch-book what he saw with his own eyes. … [he] sees what takes place, and his work is immediately given forth to the world, so that its accuracy can be tested even by the actors in the historical event.’

Convinced of the importance of the new profession of which they were part, because it meant accurate, visual records existed of all the most newsworthy events of Queen Victoria’s reign and – most importantly – had been communicated back to the British public through the medium of the press, Simpson and his journalistic colleagues, all household names in their day, believed that their work would be highly prized by ‘future historians’.  However, contrary to their expectation, they, and the imagery they produced, have been largely forgotten. If they are remembered, it is as pioneering war artists – rightly so, as the Crimean War of 1854 marked the point at which the fledgling profession truly took off. Yet my research into their work over the past decade has revealed that the scope of what they achieved is even greater. I now share their conviction that they deserve to be celebrated - in tandem with their counterparts, the special correspondents - as the progenitors of our modern media world.

Part of the reason for their neglect comes back to the relative inaccessibly of the art form they created, the sheer scale of its production and the wrongful assumption that the original sketches were destroyed in the process. However, pockets of the original artwork do still exist, such as this evocative sketch by William Simpson of the Prince of Wales presiding over the School Children’s Fete in Mumbai in November 1875, now in the collection of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow (see above).

It is the digital innovations of the twenty-first century that are providing the means for us to look back and reassess the advances of the nineteenth – not only in terms of locating the images in digital form, but also by providing platforms in which to group, analyze and ultimately represent them as a reconstituted body of work.  Picturing the News: the Art of Victorian Graphic Journalism, the online exhibition I have co-curated with Cathy Waters, is one result. Professor Waters and I will be talking about ‘Rediscovering the Art of Victorian Graphic Journalism’ as part of the AHRC’s Being Human Festival in the Foyle Room at the British Library on Thursday 23 November. If you cannot get there but are interested in learning more about the subject, please visit https://research.kent.ac.uk/victorianspecials/.

Ruth Brimacombe, Freelance Curator and Art Historian

23 October 2017

Rediscovering the art of Victorian graphic journalism

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Writing in the Guardian earlier this month, Roy Greenslade queried what it is about ‘fake news’ that draws such widespread public attention: is it ‘a wilful desire to reject “boring” reality and choose its “exciting” opposite?’ he asks. The question of how to picture the news in a compelling way – so that it remains accurate as to the facts, while imaginatively transporting newspaper readers to the scenes and events described – goes back to the emergence of the first special correspondents and special artists who worked for the metropolitan press in the second half of the nineteenth century. Who were these newspaper pioneers and how can they help us to understand continuing debates about the media today?

Russell

Image courtesy of the British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent, www.cartoons.ac.uk

William Howard Russell is probably the only one of the first generation of special correspondents who is now widely remembered, largely as a result of his famous reports from the Crimean War for the Times. Russell’s despatches from the front were gripping, eye-witness accounts that brought the war home to British readers and galvanized public opposition to the Government’s mishandling of the campaign. His narratives of spectacle, heroism and suffering established him as the Times’s leading ‘special’.

Reporting from the seat of war was undoubtedly the assignment that most tested the special correspondent’s mettle. However, when no war was afoot, they had to turn their hand to cover all manner of events in any location at home or abroad as required by their newspaper. Their versatility was key; and at least equal in fame to Russell on this score from the 1860s onwards was George Augustus Sala: ‘the chief of travelled specials’, as he was later described. Sala’s potential as a ‘travelling correspondent’ was first demonstrated in 1856-7 when Dickens sent him to St Petersburg to obtain material for a series of papers on Russian life and manners for his weekly periodical, Household Words. Sala’s colourful, descriptive style, cultivated as a contributor to Dickens’s journal, flourished when he began work as a special for the fledgling Daily Telegraph in 1857. Although he reported on a number of wars, including the American Civil, Austro-Italian and Franco-Prussian wars, special correspondents were also required, as he wrote in 1871, to ‘be Jack of all trades, and master of all – that are journalistic’: ‘to “do” funerals as well as weddings, state-banquets, Volunteer reviews, Great Exhibitions, remarkable trials, christenings, coronations, ship-launches, agricultural shows, royal progresses, picture-shows, first-stone layings, horse-races and hangings’.

While not all of the journalists who worked as specials became so famous in their own day as Russell and Sala, what distinguished their correspondence was its mobility, versatility and descriptive power: an ability to observe and seize upon events wherever they happened, rendering them for the press in sufficiently graphic prose so as to transport readers through vivid eye-witness accounts. These qualities were also features of the New Journalism – a development famously criticised by Matthew Arnold in 1887 as part of a commercially driven press deploying sensational reportage to sell newspapers (a debate that remains familiar today).

Picturingthenews

https://research.kent.ac.uk/victorianspecials

But for its proponents, special correspondence was a new technology – like the railroad or the telegraph, with both of which it was closely associated – that brought the world closer, shrinking space and time and conveying readers to distant places. In fulfilling the often arduous demands of their role, these journalists sometimes became newsworthy in their own right. Indeed, speaking at an anniversary dinner of the Newspaper Press Fund in 1878, Lord Salisbury described the special correspondent as one who ‘seems to be forced to combine in himself the power of a first-class steeple-chaser with the power of the most brilliant writer – the most wonderful physical endurance with the most remarkable mental vigour’.

Some of the remarkable achievements of this forgotten breed of journalists will be rediscovered as part of Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities on Thursday 23 November from 6-8 pm when Dr Ruth Brimacombe and I discuss our online exhibition, Picturing the News, in the Foyle Room of the British Library.

Booking for this free event is available here.

Catherine Waters

c.waters@kent.ac.uk

@vicspecials

www.facebook.com/VictorianSpecials/