Studies in Newspaper and Periodical History: 1995 Annual

By Michael Harris ; Tom O'Malley | Go to book overview

14
At the Coal-Face of History: Personal Reflections on Using Newspapers as a Source

Glenn R. Wilkinson

While some modern scholarship has started to move away from the idea that newspapers are not a serious source for historians, there still seems to be a perception that newspapers are the lignite of the historical world rather than the anthracite. Lignite, an example of poor quality domestic coal, is an apt metaphor, for although newspapers are recognized as mines of information, the extractions are felt by some to be low grade and trivial. This prejudice, however, is changing, especially among social and cultural historians to whom the distinction between low-grade and high-grade measures now depends on the subject and historical orientation of the researcher.

For those of us searching for anthracite, here are some reflections that might be useful to share. What follows can be seen perhaps as not so much a call for militancy, but more as a desire to stop exploring for gold in a coal mine. It might be fruitful to begin with an examination of some of the ways that newspapers have been used in the past, to mention the multifarious nature of the source, and to discuss some general suggestions of how the press can be marshalled to aid in the historical inquiry. I shall then go on to discuss some of the problems of using newspapers as a historical source linked to some corresponding strengths. Last, some practical and perhaps more mundane helpful hints for greenhorn coal miners.

I have found that newspapers in the past have been used to gauge, among other things, the "mood" of the country. I first came across this

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