Like many researchers, historical newspapers are my bread and butter. I use everything from national publications like Washington Post and New York Times to small local newspapers to help fill in gaps in historical narratives that other sources leave out. Most newspapers are on microfilm and there has been a large movement in the past decade to digitize these records. I can access historic issues of the New York Times and Washington Post through my library’s electronic resources. The Library of Congress has been digitizing historic newspapers from 1690 to 1922 in its Chronicling America project. Some state historical organizations have also started digitizing state papers.
But if all else fails, I can usually turn to Inter Library Loan (ILL) to get my hands on a reel of microfilm that I need. For my Cumberland Gap research, I needed access to the Middlesboro Daily News. I’m sure many of my colleagues can attest that ILL can be hit or miss. When I requested the Middlesboro Daily News, it turned out to be a miss. I had two options: travel to Middlesboro, where there is the only complete collection of the newspaper; or, try a new subscription-based service, newspapers.com.
Newspapers.com has emerged out of the same industry as Ancestry.com. It’s a service that combines digital tools for making sense of big data with historical resources. It sells itself primarily to people interested in family genealogy, but professional historians may find the tools useful as well. I purchased a six-month Ancestry membership while working on my residency project for Catoctin. The interface was much more friendly (no more eyestrain looking at microfilm!) and far more convenient (i.e. working my couch and not some uncomfortable library chair). Ancestry was worth the money, so I became interested in Newspapers.com. However, my research budget is minuscule and my resources are precious. The benefits must outweigh the costs before I buy into it. It was worth it to me to do a seven-day trial if it meant I could avoid wasting precious research time looking at microfilm in Kentucky.
So for seven days I got to know the website very well. I very much enjoyed the interface of Newspapers.com. No more eyestrain looking at tiny print. No more motion sickness from trying to skim microfilm as it moved by. I could enlarge articles no problem. The search function was easy to use and I could limit by geographic area, publication, and date. Furthermore, search terms were highlighted on the newspaper page so they were easy to find. I like that search results came with the entire newspaper page, and not just the individual article. I could browse the rest of the issue if I wanted to. You can “clip” an article to save it for later and it lets you make notes on it. When you save an article it includes the publication’s name, date, and page, which is useful for organizing files and recall later. There was even a social media function so you could share articles via Facebook, Twitter, or email. I liked that feature when a particular find excited me, because I could share it with my friends in a click. From a more practical stand point, the email option is good when you’re collaborating with someone else.
Unfortunately, Newspapers.com did not save me from expending precious research time in Kentucky looking at newspapers. I noticed that for most of my range of research, the database was missing the very first page of every issue. That is a huge blow, because usually the most important news of the day is listed—you guessed it—on the front page. I also noticed that the database listed the wrong page numbers for articles. When I realized this, I began to make a note which page the article actually appeared on. That was a minor annoyance.
Because the database was missing the first page of the paper, I did not purchase a subscription. Subscriptions run $79.95 a year or $7.95 a month. That’s cheaper than a Netflix account. I still had to go to the Middlesboro Public Library to use its collection of microfilm. However, I was able to be more strategic in my search while I was there. My newspaper.com research at least clued me into key dates.
I was a bit disappointed with the service, but other graduate students and historians may find it useful. I’m really surprised that these sites don’t do more to target graduate students. It is awfully hard to go back to microfilm after using these fancy tools, particularly when you are pressed for time and can’t afford an expensive research trip.