The Newsroom blog

News about yesterday's news, and where news may be going


Whether you are studying history, politics, society, international relations, economics, media history, sports history or family history, our collections will have something for you Read more

07 June 2022

Creating infographics for historical news

The British Library is currently hosting at its St Pancras site a free exhibition of infographics on Victorian news topics, created using data from digitised newspapers and other sources. In this guest post, one of the professional designers behind the Visualising Victorian News exhibition, Ciaran Hughes, explains how he got involved. 

Advocates of Freedom - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

Advocates of Freedom - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

Often, especially when previously working at national newspapers, a graphic briefing would consist of being asked - or rather, told – that what was required was a map (no matter the topic) that showed how big the provided numbers were. Of course this was rarely what was required, or indeed delivered.

Instead the British Library project was as far from that starting point as possible.

Living with Machines - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

Living with Machines - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

With so much information and so many data sets we worked to slowly construct the graphics, and a narrative hierarchy that would offer the reader many entry points. Linked and cross-referenced, the various elements worked as building blocks in the construction of an overarching story. So it became about striking a balance, visually as well as editorially. Also, as I was doing several of the posters it was important that they worked together as a series.

About 20 years ago when traipsing round primary schools with my toddler son, I was conscious of how many double-page spread, stand-alone, strong colourful infographics (usually taken from The Guardian) had lived on as teaching aids, pinned up in their busy corridors and shiny classrooms. I wanted my graphics to have the same impact and level of engagement, and also to work in a public space. The copy had to be legible from a set standing distance and the posters had to appear light, open and inviting.

Disease Science and Suspicion - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

Disease, Science and Suspicion - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

So with a shared grid, common fonts for headlines and copy, and a limited colour palette we constructed various sections to see how they fitted together. This helped us discover what was important and their role in the flow of the narrative. Like moving pieces of a jigsaw round, we started to make small information blocks into larger blocks until they developed and became more solid. The historical images helped serve the narrative too, and in a way their limitations were their strengths – the crude printing methods gave them a visual texture that I could incorporate into the designs. If these elements work to create a compelling, informative and engaging work then I think the brief has been fulfilled.

Ciaran Hughes

The Price of Tea - British Library Infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

The Price of Tea - British Library infographic designed by Ciaran Hughes

For larger images from the exhibition and other examples of Hughes's work, visit The free Visualising Victorian News exhibition continues at the British Library, St Pancras, until 21 August 2022

18 May 2022

The woman who gave birth to rabbits

A sensation hit the headlines in 1726. Mary Toft, a working-class woman from Godalming, Surrey, gave birth to rabbits. Dubbed the ‘rabbit woman’, she hoodwinked the entire nation, including some of the most lauded medical professionals.

The news travelled fast with newspapers across the country covering the story. In our Breaking the News exhibition, you can read about Mary Toft in one of the earliest newspapers printed in Exeter, Devon.

As an early example of evidently fake news, we have to ask why did people believe her?

Mary Toft exhibit at British Library Breaking the News exhibition

Mary Toft exhibit at the Breaking the News exhibition

Toft claimed that she had become obsessed with rabbits before going into labour. It was a popular belief at the time that, in a theory known as maternal imagination, what a woman saw and did whilst pregnant affected her offspring. This, along with her acting skills, gave Toft just enough credibility to fool the experts and excite the public.

She couldn’t maintain the hoax forever. The same press that had covered Toft’s story so gleefully derided her when, after she had been taken to London for further investigation, she confessed. She was briefly incarcerated in Bridewell Prison and paraded in front of large crowds

Eventually Toft returned to Godalming and faded into obscurity thereafter. We do not know much about her life afterwards – only that she was briefly imprisoned for possessing stolen goods years later and the press reported her death in 1763.

Detail from Hogarth print on Mary Toft

Detail from William Hogarth's print on Mary Toft, 'Cunicularii or the wise men of Godliman in consultation' (1726)

Magician and historian Ian Keable elaborates on Mary Toft and other amusing fake news of the past in The Hoax: The 18th Century's Most Intriguing Deceptions at the Library on Monday 23 May.

Journey back through the last 500 years and discover how truth and trust in the news has changed in Britain in our Breaking the News exhibition. Open until 21 August 2022. Members go free. Buy your tickets now:

Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections

12 May 2022

Caroline, Byron and Wilde: celebrity scandal in the 19th century

Sordid details of celebrities’ sex lives scandalised the public and sold huge numbers of newspapers in the 19th century and beyond. However, unlike today, salacious celebrity stories were rarely published in the press. Libel laws were more stringent and a strong sense of deference, especially to aristocratic notables, pervaded.

When a celebrity sex story did break through in the 1800s, it invariably caused a sensation. Our Breaking the News exhibition (22 April – 21 August 2022) showcases three such stories, spanning the century.

The celebs in the spotlight – Caroline of Brunswick, Queen consort of the UK, Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde – were exposed to the public gaze because of a varied mix of their alleged ‘bad behaviour’ (according to contemporary prejudices), legal transgressions and news publishing loopholes.

Portrait of Caroline of Brunswick

Portrait of Caroline of Brunswick, 1804, by Thomas Lawrence (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Royal divorce?

Caroline of Brunswick’s marriage to King George IV was beset by troubles and ill will from the start. He thought her uncouth, she considered him a drunkard and a bore. Upon George’s ascension to the throne in 1820, he instigated divorce proceedings, which, in this era, had to be heard in the Houses of Parliament.

For the first time, the details of Caroline’s lifestyle and the allegations of impropriety coming directly from her estranged husband were voiced in the public domain where previously only gossip and rumour had circulated. Newspapers were able to publish the evidence put forward at the trial in the House of Lords due to a loophole that allowed all proceedings in Parliament to be reported word-for-word in the press.

Coverage of the divorce hearing in The London Chronicle 1 September 1820

Coverage of the divorce hearing in The London Chronicle, 1 September 1820 (British Library)

Despite Caroline’s immense popularity with the British public (at the expense of her husband) when the finer points of her affair with Bartolomeo Pergami, an Italian and a commoner, came out the nation was scandalised. However, the remaining public goodwill was such that the Pains and Penalties Bill 1820, which would have stripped Caroline of the title of queen and dissolved her marriage, never made it into the House of Commons.  

Coloured etching by R Cruikshank 1820

George IV and entourage laden with provisions, about to embark from Brighton in the Royal Yacht; satirizing the extravagant monarch's distressed retreat from England at the time of the Queen's trial. Coloured etching by R. Cruikshank, 1820. (Wellcome Images CC BY 4.0)

Separation, scandal and self-imposed exile

Only a few years before the royal divorce trial, the intimate details of Lord Byron’s shock separation from Annabella Milbanke, his wife of little more than a year, were leaked to the press. What was the source of this unexpected glimpse into the couples’ private life? Lord Byron’s own verses.

Portrait of Byron 1813 by Phillips Thomas Phillips

Portrait of Byron, 1813 by Phillips Thomas Phillips (Public domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Two poems were published by The Champion: one laid bare the depth of Byron’s feeling for his erstwhile wife, while the other viciously attacked her close, elderly friend and servant. The broadcasting of such strong personal sentiments was certainly not considered the ‘done thing’ in Regency London. Originally authorised by the poet for a limited print-run for his friends and allies, Byron was betrayed and the poems were maliciously given to the newspaper to print.

One of Lord Byron’s leaked poems in The Champion 14 April 1816

Part of one of Lord Byron’s leaked poems in The Champion 14 April 1816, BL NEWS11674

The published poems caused a frenzy of gossip and encouraged wider speculation about Byron’s colourful and unorthodox (in many instances illegal) romantic history.

So intense was public scrutiny and condemnation that Byron felt compelled to leave England. He was never to return. The editorial accompanying the poems describes how the editors viewed Byron’s initial willingness to publish – albeit on a limit run – as an invitation to turn his personal life into current affairs:

‘His Lordship, then, is determined that nothing shall stand between him and public animadversion'.

Oscar Wilde imprisoned!

Photograph of Oscar Wilde c1882

 Photograph of Oscar Wilde, c. 1882, by Martin van Meytes (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The close of the 19th century saw one of the greatest celebrity scandals of the Victorian age: the trial of Oscar Wilde. The trial itself was a result of Wilde’s hubris. He had initially taken the Marquess of Queensberry to court for publicly referring to Wilde as a ‘somdomite’, a move that grossly backfired and resulted in Wilde facing charges himself.

Evidence of the famous author’s sexual activities were presented to the court and he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’. As a result, Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Gaol. The public were enthralled and closely followed the coverage of proceedings, in print and through illustrations.

The trial of Oscar Wilde in The Illustrated Police News 4 May 1895

The trial of Oscar Wilde in The Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1895. As displayed in the Breaking the News exhibition.      

These three historical celebrity stories appear in the Breaking the News exhibition alongside more recent showbiz scoops, including #WagathaChristie, the Rolling Stones drugs bust, and the first paparazzi picture of Diana Spencer, later Princess of Wales.

Breaking the News is open until 21 August 2022. Members go free.

Supported by Newsworks.


Tamara Tubb, Exhibition Curator

09 May 2022

Spotted: A flying serpent and a record-breaking Trump

During his inauguration in 2016, Donald Trump claimed to have been met by ‘record’ crowds after his successful campaign to become President of the United States. But what does this have in common with the appearance of a flying serpent in the 17th century?

They are both – as Trump’s Campaign Strategist would deem – ‘alternative facts’.

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It is easy – reassuring, even – to trust and consume news that supports our existing worldview. However, without challenge or counter-balance, we can end up in a news bubble where opinion and rhetoric that we agree with can be mistaken for, or ignored in favour or, objective facts.

‘Alternative facts’, fake news and conspiracy have been published as news for centuries, but are becoming more threatening to mainstream news and the public in today’s online algorithm-led world.

Donald Trump became President of the United States in 2016 in what was a victory for right-wing politics in America. Trump and his staff claimed, contrary to the visible evidence, that his presidential inauguration attracted the largest crowd ever. In his first press briefing, Sean Spicer accused journalists of ‘deliberately false reporting’, claiming that the mainstream media was purposefully underestimating the crowd and that the ceremony had drawn ‘the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration’. Later, Trump’s Campaign Strategist Kellyanne Conway defended these claims, describing them as ‘alternative facts’.

On display in the Breaking the News exhibition is a photograph taken by Lucas Jackson that demonstrates the small turn-out at Trump’s inauguration in comparison to Barack Obama’s first inauguration. The contrasting photographs went viral on social media. The White House’s condemnation of mainstream journalism in favour of ‘alternative facts’ became a theme of Trump’s presidency.

So how does this relate to flying serpents?

In 1669, a dragon was spotted in Essex. Witnessed by ‘many credible persons’, the locals attempted to kill the dragon several times but it survived. The dragon spent its time lounging in rivers, sunning itself on hills and attacking cattle.

The Flying Serpent or Strange News out of Essex c1669

The Flying Serpent, or, Strange News out of Essex, c.1669 (British Library 1258.b.18)

Well, at least this is what an anonymous news pamphlet claims.

The Flying Serpent, or, Strange News out of Essex is the sole surviving account of this so-called flying serpent. The pamphlet begins with “Guests, fish, and news grow stale in three days’ time, and nothing delights an English-mans fancy so much as new novelties”. This London printer transformed a fantastical tale into news – turning alternative facts into objective facts. Reports of wonders and other phenomena were ten-a-penny in early modern England, and pamphlet-writers distorted ordinary things into ‘strange news’ to capitalise on the public’s gullibility for these ‘alternative facts’. Was there really a flying serpent living in Essex? Likely not, but that didn’t stop people believing it at the time.

This wondrous story inspired Sarah Perry’s bestselling novel The Essex Serpent. The TV adaptation premieres on 13 May on Apple TV.

When do ‘alternative facts’ become conspiracy theory?

Alternative facts can be much more dangerous than this; people’s tendency to consume news that confirms rather than challenges their own beliefs can lead to the spread of disinformation and conspiracy in extreme cases.

In 1903, a notorious anti-Semitic conspiracy entered circulation that some neo-fascist and anti-Semitic circles still believe and perpetuate today. 

Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion 1920

Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, 1920 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anonymous forgery that was passed off as a Jewish plan for global domination. Much of its content reaffirmed anti-Semitic notions that have existed for centuries; the Protocols falsely claimed that Jews wanted to take over the world, control the press and have Jewish bankers control the world’s economies. The forgery was first published as fact in a Russian newspaper in 1903 and, by the 1920s, it had been translated into multiple languages and reprinted in newspapers across the globe.

The Times denounced the Protocols as fake news in 1921 by proving that they were a forgery, but the damage had already been done. Amidst a pervasive climate of anti-Semitism, many continued to believe that the Protocols were true. They became common knowledge due to their widespread circulation in the international mainstream press. In the 1930s and 40s, they became integral to the Nazi propaganda effort surrounding their persecution of the Jews. The Protocols still gain traction today on social media and extremist websites. They are an example of when the line between conspiracy and mainstream media becomes dangerously blurred.

‘Alternative facts’ is a contemporary phrase but fake news and conspiracy news have always existed on the fringes of the mainstream media. The news can never be completely objective. News will always be shaped, to a certain extent, by opinion and beliefs but these stories show what happens when the balance tips dangerously in their favour.

These stories are explored in the Breaking the News exhibition, open until 21 August 2022. Plus there are smaller localised versions of the exhibition touring libraries across the UK.

We are also hosting a diverse programme of events at the Library and online, and an accompanying exhibition book: Breaking the News: 500 Years of News in Britain.

Maddy Smith, Curator Printed Heritage Collections

04 May 2022

Encountering the news

One of the special features of the British Library’s Breaking the News exhibition is a large-scale panorama, created by designers Northover&Brown. Objects and graphics have been placed into flowing pictures of networks, places and people, tracing the changing ways in which we have discovered the news over five centuries, from town squares to what Elon Musk calls ‘the digital town square’. This post complements the panorama.

Interior of a London coffee house c1690

Interior of a London coffee-house (c.1690), British Museum

Thence to the Coffee-house … where all the newes is of the Dutch being gone out, and of the plague growing upon us in this towne; and of remedies against it: some saying one thing, some another. 

On 24 May 1665 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary of his quest for news. Pepys visited one of London coffee houses two or three times a week over 1663-1664, the habit falling away in 1665 as plague took its grip on the city. He seems not to have cared that much for coffee, but yearned for the companionship, good business contacts and information to be found at a coffee house. Here one discovered the world.

The news one gleaned from a 1660s London coffee house came as much from discussion and talks as it did from printed news. Coffee houses had long tables on which the latest newsbooks and newsletters would be laid out. In 1665 there were only two print newsbooks available (from one publisher), both mostly restricted to overseas news: The Intelligencer and The Newes. The news Pepys discovered was an amalgam of publication, rumour and opinion. Such it was then; such it has remained.

The news has to seek us out. Just as much as it is shaped by those who are able to publish it and those who choose to consume it, news is shaped by where it is found. News publications in Britain in the seventeenth-century were found in print shops, coffee houses, taverns, and in the homes of those in business, officialdom and the church served by private news services that provided handwritten newsletters. Tight publication regulations prevented coverage of anything except overseas events, but the Civil War (1642-1651) created an audience hungry for information and opinion. Mostly confined to London, it was circulated, at some risk to publishers and sellers, as newsbooks, newsletters and proto-newspapers, news from the streets that was sold on the streets.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries newspapers gradually grew in numbers, geographical range, and habit. News was carried across the country by mail coaches along ever-improving roads to homes and public spaces such as taverns and workplaces. Copies passed from hand to many other hands. Such news could be shared verbally, reaching out to the illiterate or those priced out of purchasing a newspaper by taxes designed to suppress radical thought. Working class memoirist Thomas Carter recalled passing on the news in 1815:

I every morning gave them an account of what I had just been reading in the yesterday's newspaper ... My shopmates were much pleased at the extent and variety of the intelligence which I was able to give them about public affairs, and they were the more pleased because I often told them about the contents of Mr. Cobbett's "Political Register", as they were warm admirers of that clever and very intelligible writer. (T. Carter, Memoirs of a Working Man, London, 1845)

In the nineteenth century the newspaper flourished, aided by rapid growth in readers and advertising money that freed newspapers from political control. Coffee houses remained a popular location, but from the 1830s newspaper reading rooms emerged, followed later by newspaper sections of public libraries, greatly widening access to local and international affairs to those who had previously been priced out of such knowledge. The rapid spread of a rail network not only boosted the distribution of newspapers but created a new kind of space for news, the commuting space, private consumption in a public environment. Newspapers could be organised to last for the duration of a rail journey. Truly national newspaper titles came to the fore – The Times, The Morning Chronicle, The Daily Telegraph (few other countries have so dominant a national newspaper culture as the UK). Sunday titles such as The Observer and The Sunday Times fitted into the weekend pattern of lives with greater leisure time. All culminated in the great game-changer, The Daily Mail, launched in 1896, a million-seller by 1901.

In the twentieth century different news forms arose to compete for public attention in both private and public spaces. From the 1910s through to the 1960s cinemas usually featured news in their programmes, in the shape of short newsreels, with dedicated news cinemas proliferating across cities from the 1930s. Radio news started in December 1922, delivering its messages exclusively for domestic consumption, building up its reputation so that for the Second World War it was the essential means by which the general public anchored itself to the daily progression of the conflict. BBC television in the 1930s showed only cinema newsreels, introducing its own newsreel in January 1948. It introduced newsreaders in the format that endures to this day in 1955, just ahead of its new commercial rival, ITV. It proved to be the perfect domestic, communal medium, gradually supplanting radio, pressurising the newspapers and crushing cinema newsreels, which could not compete with so frequent a service.

Newspapers were still read on trains and in libraries, but the contest for news supremacy lay in the domestic space. News was something that came to us, that occupied our homes. It tied us constantly to the turn of events happening outside our protective four walls. Local radio and television arose, following newspapers in serving audiences who understood themselves as much regionally as nationally.

The multi-format, domestic model began to be overturned at the turn of the century. The Internet has become a platform for all established news media (press, television, radio) and has led to the creation of new news media forms. Social media combines personal and general information, serves as a distribution platform for stories from the other news media while delivering original content as well, and supplies content on which all news media now depend.

The Internet has not only broken up traditional news forms, but has changed the relationship between news and space. The news no longer needs to seek us out: it is everywhere. Amy, aged 25-30, in a 2019 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report on news habits of the young, describes how she occupies this world:

I’m on Instagram, for example, and there are videos on there, that could send me to a link to somewhere else… It depends what I’m looking for, but if I’m scrolling that could be anything from a post on Facebook to a video on Instagram to an article on BBC News or something. So, it sort of depends where I am and what I’m looking for.

Where do we find the news panorama at  Breaking the News exhibition

Part of the ‘Where do we find the news?’ panorama, Breaking the News exhibition, British Library

For 400 years, since the publication of the first newspaper in Britain, the established news media have been defined by regularity. As C. John Sommerville argues, they built an economic model around news as something shaped in a particular form, forever replaced by new content, an idea of news that fed off assured spaces and a regularity of habit. Pepys went to the coffee house when his morning’s office work was done. Newspapers arrived when the mail coach was due, or were read on the daily train commute, or were delivered to the doorstep each day. They called themselves dailies or weeklies, naming themselves after their dependability. News reading rooms were open for when workers had leisure time, a weekly luxury. Newsreels were released twice a week because, in its heyday, that was how often the average person went to the cinema. Radio news established itself around daily bulletins – the six o’clock news, the nine o’clock news. Television followed the same model until it devised 24-hour news, though even that was built around regularity, with headlines on the hour. News has been defined by, indeed has helped shape, the daily round.

The Internet knows no regularity and demands no physical space. It ignores all confines (at least in those societies that permit such freedoms). The Internet is therefore changing the news. We still measure our time in days, but the network through which we communicate across the globe does not. Many, of course, still cling to the daily newspaper, or to the early evening TV news, or a radio report at midnight, signing things off for another day – but these are habits, no longer certainties. What once could be defined by a physical space must now be defined by its absence. The news today is determined not by where we are but by who we are, or who we want to be. This is the unsettling, but exciting, world of news that the twenty-first century is now delivering to us.

Luke McKernan

Lead Curator, News & Moving Image

Further reading:

Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1957)

Markman Ellis, The Coffee House: A Cultural History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004)

Matthew Engel, Tickle the Public: One Hundred Years of the Popular Press (London: Victor Gollancz, 1996)

Andrew Hobbs, A Fleet Street in Every Town: The Provincial Press in England, 1855-1900 (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2018)

Anthony Smith, The Newspaper: An International History (London: Thames & Hudson, 1979)

John Sommerville, The News Revolution in England: Cultural Dynamics of Daily Information (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)


19 April 2022

Breaking the News

Breaking the News is our new exhibition looking at 500 years of published news in this country. It is about what has been news to us, why it has been important, what has changed over this five centuries, and what has remained the same. It is an exhibition about the stories that have shaped us. Its overall message is that news matters.

Breaking the News title design

Breaking the News title

Of course news has been around for more than five hundred years. News is as old as society. When the people in one cave learned that those in the cave next door has discovered fire, that was news. The crucial element is publication, where someone has collected that news and presented it in a form that we the readers, the listeners and the viewers, will accept as news.

News is a contract between those who gather it and those who consume it. It is that contract, that tension between them and us, that is the subject of our exhibition.

The exhibition’s focus is on British news, or rather what the British have understood as news. To have produced an exhibition on news across the world would have been too much, and not so instructive. News is not only as old as society, but is determined by society. What is news to one group of people may not be news to another, though their perception of what is news to them is always going to be changing. News can only be understood through its audience, and for our exhibition that audience is the British.

The exhibition does not trace the history of published news in this country chronologically. It is a thematic exhibition in which objects from different time periods and on different formats are brought together to show how various our news has been, and yet how common our news interests have remained. We have newspapers and news websites, broadsides and newsreels, tweets and television programmes, headlines and hashtags.

There are around 100 objects in the exhibition, but it is better to think of them as 100 stories – stories that have made up our news over five centuries. Stories are what draw us to the news, and which make up our news publications. Here are five of them, with the headline titles that accompany them in the exhibition:

Victory for the English Army

Battle of Flodden news pamphlet from 1513

Battle of Flodden news pamphlet from 1513

Breaking the News traces the news in this country since the publication of this pamphlet reporting on the outcome of the Battle of Flodden, fought between the English and Scottish armies in 1513.  It is the earliest surviving example of a news publication in this country.

The English army was victorious, and King James IV of Scotland was killed. The pamphlet gives a full and graphic account of the course of the battle. It is compelling newsy, with its strong headline, vivid illustration, on-the-spot reportage and fact-filled information. It is news as we understand it, composed in an event’s immediate aftermath, designed for quick distribution for those who needed to know what had happened.

Who those readers were cannot be said for certain, but such a pamphlet was a means of circulating information far beyond the English court. Those in the upper echelons of society had messengers who would deliver manuscript newsletters to them. Everybody else, however, would have made do with word of mouth or cheap, printed news pamphlets like this. One way or another, news spreads.

Tax dodger

Bertholds Political Handkerchief 8 September 1831

Berthold's Political Handkerchief from 8 September 1831

From 1712 to 1855, the British government imposed a high tax on newspapers through the Stamp Act to control the press. Effectively the intention was to restrict news to those who could afford it, who were the ruling elite.

Berthold’s Political Handkerchief, created by political writer Henry Berthold and published in 1831, urged revolt against national debt and the government. It was printed on cloth, a cheeky attempt to avoid the tax and escape censorship by claiming it did not qualify as a paper.

The authorities were not persuaded by Berthold’s ruse and the newspaper only ran for a few issues. But ‘unstamped’ newspapers, as they became known, continued to refuse to pay the tax and defy attempts to suppress working class access to news.

Guernsey fights back

Guernsey Underground News Service from 4 August 1943

Guernsey Underground News Service issue from 4 August 1943, loaned for the exhibition by Priaulx Library, Guernsey

There are few more powerful expressions of the desire for a free press than Guernsey Underground News Service (GUNS). The Channel Islands were the only part of the British Isles occupied by Germany during the Second World War. One of the Germans’ first actions after the invasion was to seize control of the local press, but this only triggered local underground news services, of which the most celebrated is GUNS.

GUNS published transcripts of BBC news broadcasts obtained in secret (radio sets were banned in occupied Guernsey), printed on tomato-packing paper. The newssheet was produced between 1942 and 1944 at great personal risk. Five islanders were sent to prisons in Germany for distributing the paper, where two died.

That some have given up their lives to report the truth shows how deeply the need for a trustworthy and truthful news lies within us.

Guardian's computers smashed


Smashed hard drives used by The Guardian to store Edward Snowden’s hard files © Guardian News & Media Ltd 2021

The dividing line between what is in the public interest and what is of interest to the public has been long argued over. In 2013, American National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified information to journalists. The resulting stories alerted the world to civilian surveillance and breaches of privacy by the US and its allies. It was also argued that it impeded defence operations and put lives at risk.

This computer was one of those used by The Guardian newspaper to store the leaked material. It was destroyed by Guardian staff, under the supervision of British security services. It was a purely symbolic act, however. The data had already been shared.


Black Lives Matter display in Breaking the News exhibition

#BlackLivesMatter display from the Breaking the News exhibition

One part of the exhibition focusses on the power of language, as wielded by the news. Language is never neutral, and words of a news headline can powerful sway opinion. But who do we mean by ‘the news’? In a digital world, anyone can contribute to what the news might mean, if they get their language right.

There may be no more powerful tool in today’s news world than the hashtag. A carefully chosen hashtag can encapsulate a strong message, link posts on a topic together, and amplify content across social media. #BlackLivesMatter, both a phrase and a movement, formed in 2013. For the exhibition we have created a striking display of images used in Instagram and Twitter posts that used hashtag to put the injustices experienced by Black British people often ignored by mainstream media back into the news.

It asks the question, who makes the news? And the answer may be – us.

We hope that you will be able to visit the exhibition, which runs until 21 August 21, if not in London then at one of over 30 pop-up displays at public libraries across the UK, via the Living Knowledge Network. There is an accompanying programme of events at the Library and online, and the exhibition book, Breaking the News: 500 Years of News in Britain, edited by Jackie Harrison and Luke McKernan.

Buy tickets to Breaking the News now.

31 March 2022

Visualising Victorian News

Back in 2016 we wrote a post on this blog entitled News is Beautiful. It looked at the art of infographics and data visualisations in explaining the news of today. How interesting it would be, we speculated, if the infographic artists of today could work with data from historical newspapers. What would the results look like and what would we learn from them? Six years on, we have some answers.

Advocates of Freedom infographic by Ciaran Hughes

Advocates of Freedom infographic by Ciaran Hughes

On 1 April 2022 a small exhibition opens at the British Library's St Pancras site, entitled Visualising Victorian News. Inspired by the questions we raised back in 2016, a project was established as part of  the Library's Heritage Made Digital programme to commission three infographic designers to work with data derived from nineteenth-century British newspapers digitised by the British Library to illustrate significant news themes from the Victorian era. The three artists we commissioned were Tiziana Alocci, Ciaran Hughes and Erik Nylund.

The work began in 2018 with the intention of exhibiting the results in the summer of 2020. Covid-19 put paid to such plans, but the extra two years turned out to be necessary for the learning process we needed to go through. Our original plan was to work from the raw text created by by the process of digitising a newspaper (known as OCR, or Optical Character Recognition), extracting keywords to show patterns of development that we could ask the designers to express visually. It soon became clear that the raw text, though forming an essential component, was too impressionistic on its own and needed to be supported by data from other sources. We learned the importance of have a strong story; of having datasets that complemented and contrasted with each other, enabling comparisons to be made clear; and of the balance required between text, tables and image. 

We learned that some stories that we would like to have told did not have the right datasets available. We learned that some datasets were of great interest as datasets, but did not necessarily produce satisfactory stories. Crucially, we learned the importance of working with researchers who had already used data in their work, or who had produced datasets as an output of their research. They could supply the materials needed and explain the themes and arguments that such such data could best serve. Above all we learned that most important of all was a productive, co-operative relationship with the designers, sharing ideas and understanding by the process of building up a complex design what would work best in telling the story.

Visualising Victorian News is the result. There are seven designs, on the themes of Abolitionism, Newspapers, Crime, War, Health, Machines and Tea. Each uses data from digitised newspapers, augmented by data from other sources, to illustrate these news themes. Each follows the original brief we gave to the designers, of looking striking from a distance, then to be full of information for the viewer to discover as they get up close. Each design is accompanied by a panel naming the artist, researchers, data sources and other sources. The designs are on display in the upper ground area of our entrance hall. The exhibition is free, and runs to 21 August 2022, accompanying our major exhibition on British news, Breaking the News, which opens on 22 April and run to the same date.

As it says on the introductory panel of the exhibition, when we digitise a historic object, we do not simply reproduce what the original looks like, but that we untap a wealth of new information from the data it provides. To digitise is to create new histories.

To accompany the exhibition there is an event being held at the Library on 26 April, 19:15-21:00, Beautiful News / Visualising Victorian News. This will bring together the three designers behind our exhibition and David McCandless, the 'king of infographics', whose bestselling books Information is Beautiful and Knowledge is Beautiful have been joined by his latest, very appropriate title, Beautiful News. There will be a special viewing of the exhibition beforehand with the designers present between 17.45 – 19.00.



21 February 2022

Breaking the News on tour

The British Library’s Breaking the News exhibition opens at our London site on 22 April. Running in parallel with this will be pop-up displays at over 30 public libraries across the UK, via the Living Knowledge Network (LKN). As well as highlighting a selection of key British Library news objects, the displays will draw upon each library’s individual collection and regional connections to celebrate the value of regional news in communities across the UK. 

Breaking the News logo


The pop-up displays will feature graphics and text that investigate a variety of key news stories from 500 years of the news in Britain. Each tells us something different about how the news is made, and why the news matters. 

The LKN will launch the season of news on Thursday 24 February with a live-streamed event and discussion panel at Leeds Central Library. At the launch, Channel 4 newsreader Fatima Manji, James Mitchinson of the Yorkshire Post, artist and activist Rachel Horne, and former reporter Roger Lytollis will take part in a discussion exploring the regional news landscape, and how we all have a voice to tell our own stories and influence the bigger picture.

To book tickets to the event or to watch on our platform (online) live or within 48 hours on catch up, please visit:

For information on what online events are being lined up for Breaking the News around the country,  visit or follow the announcement on Twitter via

For a map of all libraries in the LKN network, see

Tamara Tubb

08 December 2021

Breaking news on Breaking the News

Opening next April, Breaking the News, supported by Newsworks, is a major exhibition from the British Library, spotlighting the role news plays in our society, exploring issues of choice, interpretation, truth and trust in the news.

Smashed hard drives used by The Guardian to store Edward Snowden’s files

Smashed hard drives used by The Guardian to store Edward Snowden’s files © Guardian News & Media Ltd 2021

From the earliest surviving printed news report in Britain on the Battle of Flodden in 1513, to smashed hard drives used by The Guardian to store Edward Snowden’s files and an original BBC radio script announcing the D-Day landings, Breaking the News will go beyond physical newspapers to examine the role news in its many forms plays in our lives. Presenting historical and contemporary reports on war, natural disasters, crime, politics and celebrity scandals, the exhibition will reveal that while the themes that interest us generally do not change, the form and ownership of news does.

Breaking the News will interrogate what makes an event news, what a free press means, the ethics involved in making the news, what objective news is and how the way we encounter news has evolved. Delving into the biggest collection of news heritage in the UK, housed by the British Library, these pressing issues will be set against the backdrop of over five centuries of news publication in Britain through newspapers, newsreels, radio, television, the internet and social media.

Ahead of, and then in tandem with the Breaking the News exhibition, pop-up displays will open at over 30 public libraries across the UK, via the Living Knowledge Network. The displays will draw upon each library’s individual collection and regional connections to celebrate the value of regional news in communities across the UK.

Breaking the News will run 22 April-21 August 2022.

The touring exhibition will run 24 February to August 2022.


20 September 2021

400 years of British newspapers

On 24 September 1621, London printer Nathaniel Butter published a newspaper. It wasn’t called a newspaper, but there were sufficient elements that we recognise as those which make a newspaper. It had reports on a number of news stories, all of them current. It was published on a specific date. It was one a series of news publications with the same title (or approximately so), introducing a pattern. The title appeared at the top of the sheet: Corante, or, newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France.

Front page of the first British newspaper from 24 September 1621

Front page of Corante, or, newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France, published 24 September 1621

As with all first, the first British newspaper needs to come with qualifications and caveats. It was not the first newspaper published in English, as English language newspapers, or corantos, had been published in Amsterdam since at least December 1620. It may have been preceded by corantos published in 1621 by London printer Thomas Archer, but those do not survive. Although published in London, in English, it was effectively a translation from a Dutch original, as were the earlier news publications. It was not the only type of news publication available, as single-story newssheets had long existed before this date, and manuscript news service were available to subscribers, but it was irrefutably something new. It established the rhythm of public news in Britain.

There is advice from Naples, that certain Ambassadours of Messina are arrived there and from thence are to go to Spaine, to congratulate the king and to give him a present of 150000 crownes, as also that in Naples a contention falling out between the Spaniards and Neopolitans, there were many on both sides slaine and wounded, so that if the Cardinall the Vice Roy had not stept in among them, there would have been a great slaughter.

By letters of the 21 from Genoa it is certified that Petro de Liena is arrived there with two galleys from Spaine, and that the rest stay still at Vado.

There are 8000 men of Moravia, Bohemia and many souldiers of Sylesia gathered together in Marble, that are to go withal speede to releeve Presburge.

The Earl of Colalto, 8 dayes since, meeting with the Hungarians that came to Newstadt, and there in the suburbs took certain children and carreyed them prisoners, whereof some of them were Turkes.

Not that the first British newspaper had anything to say on its two sides on the one sheet of paper about news in Britain. Aside from being a translation from Dutch publications, it was far too dangerous to challenge the British authorities by publishing news about what was happening at home. Instead, the Corante, or, newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France told its readership about what was going on in Europe, with particular focus on the Thirty Years War. This was important news for the merchants and officials who were likely reader of the publication – it affected their business, it was a general topic of conversation, it was news for them.

Publication date of the first British newspaper from the bottom of its second side

Bottom of other side of Corante, or, newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France, showing publication details with date, 24 September 1621

This first surviving first British newspaper is held by the British Library. On 23 September 2021 we are hosting an event to mark this quatercententary. Old News, New Perspectives: 400 years of Newspapers will look at the origins of newspapers and the transformative growth of news in this country ever since. Its special guest speakers will be Matthew Shaw, formerly of the British Library and now Librarian at The Queen’s College, Oxford, author of the recently-published An Inky Business: A History of Newspapers from the English Civil Wars to the American Civil War; and the Times columnist and former MP Matthew Parris, who in 2015 won the British Press Award for Political Journalist of the Year. The event will be introduced by Chief Librarian Liz Jolly.

Details of the event can be found here: