Explorers Retrospective on the Use and Re-use of Digital Historical Newspapers

Author:  Tamsin Martin, student majoring in Modern History at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. This piece was written on Darug Land.

Photo of stacks of folded newspapers

This blog post consists of two parts: first, a discussion of the IFPH Explorers event. Second, the contextualisation of the project with my own experience using digital newspaper archives in Australia.

The event:

In June 2021, Eva Pfanzelter and Sarah Oberbichler presented their work on the NewsEye project to IFPH Explorers. 

Pfanzelter first spoke about the motivation behind the project, primarily increasing access to digital newspaper interfaces and making their search features easier to use. Pfanzelter stated that the team had worked with the databases of the National Libraries of Finland, Austria and France. The project used data mining and research strategies to look at questions of migration, history, gender, war, and upheavals within media articles from around 1850 to 1950. These served as case studies for testing database interfaces and creating educational materials on how to use them in educational institutions.

Oberblicher discussed the reasoning behind this project, specifically when finding and utilising sources. She explained that the motivation was to better understand and implement strategies for searching, collecting, exploring, and exporting resources, and then importing, analysing, and visualising them in projects. Their priorities here were finding ways of optimising keyword searches, where a database is able to identify common keywords amongst resources and then recommend relevant sources to the searcher.

Both Pfanzelter and Oberblicher spoke about the technologies used and the results of these practices on the humanities and research methods. Both tools mentioned, Orange and Voyant, are programs in which you enter a cache of works that the program then analyses to find common themes and phrases. From there, they present quantitative statistical data, with various tools like graphs and word charts mapping the most common phrases and geolocation and context tools and a trend chart. All of this, as Pfanzelter and Oberblicher explained, allows for the researcher to view details on how discourse and discussion have changed over time and encourages a closer reading of sources in order to pick up commonalities or patterns that benefit the research. Another benefit brought up by both was using this data mining to increase the accuracy of search functions in the digital database by improving text recognition and text analysis.

I think this kind of project is fascinating, as digital archives of newspapers are such a valuable resource, which don’t necessarily always get this level of attention when it comes to improving user interaction and research capabilities. I have certainly experienced times when search functions have been unable to find similarities in documents from searching the text. A project like this would be essential to improving those issues and making it much easier to find similarly relevant documents, and tracking how discussion of a topic has changed over time.

The use of digital historical newspapers in practice:

In my own experience studying history in high school and university, I have found newspaper digital archives essential to my research. The database I use in Australia is called Trove, run by the National Library of Australia. Trove holds over 14 billion documents in a number of different forms, including digital copies of newspapers, Government Gazettes, maps, magazines and newsletters, books, pictures, photographs, archived websites, music and interviews, letters, diaries, and archives. All of these display the history of Australia through individual and media accounts, and are freely accessible to the general public.

Trove is essential to the study of Australia history, as well as climate science and political studies due to its collection of records, both in academic and professional settings, and for the interested general public. I have used it in a number of research projects, including researching newspaper records of bushranger actions, arrests and executions in the 1800s, records of arrests and treatment of people involved with gay rights movement events in the 1970s, and pottery catalogues from the 1930s for a recent task evaluating the historical significance of an artefact. Trove sees an average of over 70,000 site visits a day.

While Trove is an essential part of the National Library of Australia, earlier this year it was at a pretty significant risk of being shut down due to a lack of funding. The National Library of Australia underwent federal government budget cuts in 2016, which had a flow on effect, meaning that the entire institution was underfunded, including the Trove database. The potential of losing this essential database saw national uproar, with a petition sent to the Australian Parliament reaching 22,240 signatures. Thankfully, the May 2023 budget announced that over the course of four years, the National Library of Australia would be allocated $33 million dollars, plus an additional $9 million dollars dedicated to Trove. 

This whole discussion surrounding the potential of losing Trove shows just how valuable digital archives and digitised newspapers are, not only to historians but the general public as well. I know I couldn’t complete my degree without access to these resources. This is why programs like NewsEye, presented by  Pfanzelter and Oberbichler, are so important: they increase the accessibility of digital archives both in and out of the academic institution.

Tamsin Martin is in her final year of Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Modern History at Macquarie University. Her plan after graduation is to continue onto higher level study, focusing on researching the gay rights movement of the 1970s, and to enter museum and research work.

Cite this blog post
Bridging Editor (2023, June 26). Explorers Retrospective on the Use and Re-use of Digital Historical Newspapers. IFPH-FIHP. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pvqn

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