Photographs, diaries, maps, and now another wonderful resource you can find in archives … newspapers! When using newspapers at an archive you are likely to find that many will only be available on microfilm. Newsprint is probably the most fragile format we have. Printed on cheap, thin paper that was only ever meant to be ephemeral, it soon becomes brittle and crumbly. Peering at microfilm may be hard on the eyes, but it keeps newspapers accessible and prevents damage to the originals. If newspapers have not been microfilmed they are usually bound into large hardcover volumes which are heavy and unwieldy (but much easier on the eyes!)
In the UK the earliest local newspapers are likely to date from the early to mid 19th century, though there are some which began in the 18th century. This means that for most areas there is a weekly snapshot of local life available for the last 150 to 200 years. Newspaper reports can often be used to build on information found in other documents; for example, a Victorian gaol record can lead to a description of the court proceedings in a local newspaper. Sometimes it can be interesting to see what was not reported – explosions in First World War munitions factories, or major bombing raids during the Second World War, are notably absent. On the other hand, in 1914 local papers were publishing letters from servicemen which were quite brutal in their honesty about the horrors of life at the Front, which would certainly have brought down the wrath of the censor at a later date.
Local newspapers vary quite widely in quality. Some spent acres of newsprint discussing the price of grain or sheep – interesting to farmers or agricultural historians, but otherwise very tedious. Sometimes they focused on very trivial local trivia, and there are only so many near identical reports of meetings of minor local societies that one can read before they all become a tedious blur. On the other hand much of what at the time would seemed trivial is fascinating a hundred or more years later – school news, cinema programmes, and even advertisements, are all intriguingly different to their modern day equivalents.
The British Library has partnered with Find My Past to digitise over 40 million pages of its newspaper collection. As they are digitised they are added to the online British Newspaper Archive. This is a subscription service but, in the UK at least, is often available through local libraries. Unlike hard copy or microfilmed newspapers the website has a text search facility. Automatic text conversion doesn’t work perfectly so this can be a bit unpredictable, but any search facility is a good deal better than none.