Using Digitized Historical Newspapers in Class

An example of an article I asked the students to find from the New York Daily Tribune (August 5, 1900, p 12).

One of the most exciting endeavors in digitization of historical sources is the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project.  Anyone who has spent time in front of microfilm knows how powerful this project is.  Chronicling America currently searches newspapers (including advertisements) from 1880-1922.  This year, the project hopes to bring 1860-1880 online, offering the Civil War and Reconstruction era newspapers up for exploration.  The open platform allows you to save newspaper pages in PDF format and I had no problem using a standard Mac screen capture to grab parts of a page.

The implications for using this site in research projects are obvious, but I wanted to bring these newspapers in to supplement classwork as well.  In preparation for one of our classes during the Gilded Age unit, I decided to print out around 15 different newspaper pages from the era.  Each page corresponded to a different theme or identification from our reading.  For example, the students got to see examples of the “Gibson Girl”, Jane Addams’ work at Hull House, and immigration demographics.  In groups of two, I asked the students to take an entire newspaper page and locate the theme or identification from the reading.  The students then explained how the discovered connection relates (or doesn’t relate) to what they read in class.  When they came to an acceptable conclusion I swapped their page with another one and they started the process over again.

This activity served a variety of purposes.  Most significantly, the students began to see history as ‘actually happening’ as opposed to something just inside of their textbook.  They are all (believe it or not) still familiar with newspapers in their own lives.  Actually seeing one from over 100 years ago added relevancy and significance to the Gilded Age.  Obviously, students also got the added benefit of using and exploring primary sources to supplement textbook reading.  A natural (more student-driven) extension of this project would allow students to find the articles themselves.

Drawbacks: Most papers are “regional” in nature, some are near impossible to read when printed out, there are over 100 periodicals but they’re only from 16 different states, the site runs slow sometimes as the images are large.

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