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HIST 243: British Society and Empire since 1901 (Conley): Start Here!: Working with Period Newspapers

Spring 2024

Working With Period Newspapers

Analyzing Primary Sources

These resources will help you think through the process of evaluating primary sources: 

Where to Find Newspapers:

British Newspapers: 

Other Papers & Sources:


Keywords for Historical Sources

When searching for primary sources, think carefully about the vocabulary you are using.

  • Remember that the names we use in hindsight to describe historical events (for example, "World War I") might not have been used at the time. 
     
  • Consider and look for other 'quirks' of the historical language. You might find that words are used to describe items, places or groups of people which we no longer use today. 
     
  • Don't forget to consider the names of groups, events, etc. as they are known in their own languages and/or countries and whether these terms would be helpful to include in your search. 

Refreshers: Understanding Your Sources

The Information Lifecycle:

The Information Lifecycle helps us understand how information about an event, topic or idea might emerge and evolve over time. 

Note that this timeline is just a general sense of the information lifecycle -- the exact timing can vary greatly from one discipline to another! 

Scholarly & Popular Sources:

Scholarly sources are written by experts on a particular subject (for example, a professor or other researcher). They also go through an extra process of review and approval by a group of other experts before they can be published. Usually, scholarly articles are written in 'academic-ese' and designed to be read by other scholars. However, because scholarly sources take a long time to be approved and published, they are not always good sources for current events.  

How can you tell if you have a scholarly article in your hand? 
The chart below compares the characteristics of scholarly vs. popular (non-scholarly) sources:  Handout version of popular vs. scholarly source chart; click to enlarge

  POPULAR SCHOLARLY
AUTHOR Usually staff writers and/or journalists Experts on the topic -- usually researchers, scholars and/or professors
AUDIENCE General public (for "popular" consumption) Other experts (and students) in the field
EDITING & REVIEW Editor(s); generally concerned with grammar, style, etc., with some fact-checking Other experts ("peer reviewed"); generally concerned with quality, thoroughness of research, strength of argument, etc. 
STYLE & DESIGN

Reasonably brief, typically uses colloquial if not informal language. Often illustrated with graphics, sidebars and other aesthetic elements. Sometimes accompanied by ads.

More extensive in length; tends to be more formal and uses specialized vocabulary. Illustrations and charts are used only when furthering content. 
GOAL OR PURPOSE To entertain; and/or, to share general information To share findings, advance and argument and/or engage with other scholars
SOURCES Few or none; if sources are used, there may not be formal citations.  Typically uses many sources, cited in detailed bibliographies, footnotes and/or endnotes
EXAMPLES Time Magazine; Sports Illustrated; New Yorker; Boston Globe Annual Review of Political Science; American Historical Review; Sociology of Education

It's important to keep in mind that scholarly sources are not always the best or only source available to you -- it depends on what information you are trying to find:

  • Due to the time required for a scholarly article to be researched, written, go through the peer review process and then be published, it can be difficult to find scholarly articles published about recent events, discoveries, etc.. You should expect 1-2 years between the time an event occurs and the time academic research on that event begins to be published, with some exceptions. 
     
  • For matters related to policy, official government documents are also good sources of information that may not be available in peer-reviewed formats. 
     
  • News articles, correspondence and other 'primary sources' can also provide useful insights, again depending on your topic.  

Primary & Secondary Sources:

primary source is a first-hand witness to a historical event or period (that is, it was originally created at that point in history).  Primary sources offer a first-hand perspective which is untouched by hindsight, subsequent events, or modern knowledge. They provide insights about the actions, motivations and emotions involved in a historical period, and allow us to understand history as it was experienced at the time rather than as we analyze it today.   

Unlike with secondary sources, the value of primary sources lies in their proximity to the event rather than a particular publication venue and/or authority (though this can also play a role in your interpretation of the source). For this reason, primary sources may include a combination of scholarly, popular, unpublished, and other kinds of sources. 

Secondary sources are second-hand witnesses -- they provide descriptions and/or analysis of historical events and documents after the fact. Secondary sources usually draw their information from primary sources, but add a layer of interpretation, and often rely upon the kind of understanding of historical periods and/or events that only becomes clear sometime later.  Handout version of primary source chart; click to enlarge

  PRIMARY SECONDARY
AUTHOR A first-hand witness to a historical event or period A second-hand witness who interprets first-hand information using later understanding of events
DATE Typically, but not always,  published in or near the relevant time period or event. Exceptions can include memoirs or compilations, translations, etc. published at a later date. Typically removed in time from the relevant period/event
ORIGINAL PURPOSE Varies widely. Typically not intentionally created for sake of history or research.  Varies; usually, to convey information or analysis
RESEARCH
USE

Offers first-hand perspectives untouched by hindsight or modern knowledge

Offers descriptions, and/or analysis of historical events after the fact; may also offer synthesis of first-hand information.
PUBLICATION FORMAT Varies; can include nearly anything from an object to a scholarly article [if from the appropriate period] Typically "published" sources -- books, journal articles, magazines/newspapers
EXAMPLES NYT article from April 1912 [Titanic], 1963 book on the USSR [Cold War], George Washington's collected papers [Colonial America/Revolution] American Historical Review; current NYT articles; a book published in 2018 

Questioning Your Sources:

WHO

 Who is the author?

How is the author qualified?

 Is the author an expert?

 What is the author's bias? (Remember that a bias may not be directly stated -- but there is almost always some bias!))

Be wary if you cannot determine an author or group responsible for the content you are reading.

WHAT

 What is the domain extension?What is the source? Is it a research report? An entertainment piece? An opinion essay? 

 What is the domain extension? What does this tell you about the source's audience, purpose, and potential bias(es) or shortcoming(s)? 
 

WHEN

Is the source recent (or, if digital, regularly updated)?  When was it published? 

 Is there any information which seems out-of-date? 

 

WHERE

 Who published this resource?

  Does the host/publisher have bias?  (Remember that a bias may not be directly stated.)

 

WHY

 What is the purpose and audience of the source?

 What is the benefit, and/or who benefits, if this source reaches and/or successfully convinces readers? 

 

HOW

 By what means was this source created? 

 Does the resource provide its sources?

  Does it refer/link you to other credible sources?

  Can you determine whether the information came from, and whether the original source/info is represented accurately?

 

History Librarian

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Jennifer Whelan
she/her/hers
MSLIS
Coordinator of Research & Information Literacy

Contact:
jwhelan@holycross.edu
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508-793-2254
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