07 December 2009

Review and Reader Discount: British Newspapers Online

by Pam Cerutti, Editor

A recent press release announced the online availability of British newspapers from 1800 to 1900. (See UpFront article dated 20 September 2009.). This review includes a limited-time offer for 50% off your purchase of a full day pass or week pass to this great web site. Full details appear at the end of this article.

I had a chance to look at the British Newspapers web site and found it both easy to use and full of interesting information. In this article I'd like to share my experiences. You can try it out for yourself as the website offers free access to all the articles in two London publications, The Graphic and The Penny Illustrated Paper.

Made available by Gale, part of Cengage Learning, The British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, the British Newspapers website at http://newspapers.bl.uk provides lots of information to help put into timely context ancestors who lived in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales during a 100-year span. It has fully searchable newspapers as well as a timeline of major events, articles about aspects of life in those times, and articles about both people in the news and the newspapers themselves. A good amount of information is available for free; however, views of most full newspaper articles are offered by purchase of a modestly-priced pass for either 24 hours or 7 days.

To start with, I decided to see how many hits I'd get when searching on a surname of interest. A simple search on “Towler” found 3756 entries, the first two of which are shown below in the easy-to-use results screen (Note: You can click on any picture to see it full-sized; then use your browser's Back button [<] to return to the article.):

The default results are sorted by Publication Date Ascending, but the dropdown choices let you quickly switch to Publication Title, Article Title, Publication Date Descending, or Relevance. In addition, the options on the left side of the window allow you to further limit your results by either Newspaper Section (Advertising, Arts and Sports, Business News, News, or People) or Article Type (Arts & Entertainment; Birth, Death, Marriage Notices; Business; Classified Ads; News; or Sports). I decided to focus first on vital records, so I changed my display to Article Type and clicked on Birth, Death, Marriage Notices to limit my Search Results to the 118 results of this type that included my “Towler” surname.

Efficient researchers will definitely want to take advantage of the Advanced Search. Besides limiting your search results to a particular category and/or article type, you can specify a date range, publication, or place of publication. I found valuable information about my surname in some less-than-obvious categories, such as Classified Ads, for example, so I’d suggest you keep an open mind as to what you might find within each section.

You can also use all the standard search tools with the Advanced Search: quotation marks, wildcards, and logical (Boolean) operators, as well as range and proximity operators. If you need a refresher on any of these, click the Help link for clear, concise explanations of each. Shown below, I filled in the Advanced Search window to find the name “towler” either 30 words before or 30 words after “weeting,” the home of my Towler ancestors. I further restricted this search to three types of articles published before 31 December 1875 in the English language.

Of course, the real fun begins as you peruse your search results! As the Search Results window tells you, you can click on the thumbnail image of any article to see a free extract containing the words used in your search. The thumbnail images give you a preview of the first match for your search word(s) within a listed article, allowing you to see its context without using one of your purchased article views. If it looks good to you, you can go ahead and view the full article. For my search, each thumbnail showed green highlighting on the section containing my “Towler” search word. Here's an example:

To quickly scan all your results, you can bypass the thumbnail's Close button and just click on another thumbnail. Whenever an item is labeled as free content, you can view the whole article without a subscription. You can view the subscription-based articles by purchasing either 24-hour pass or a 7-day pass.

You can display the full article by clicking on either the link inside a displayed thumbnail enlargement, the blue title line for the entry, or one of the links below the title: Article, Page, or Browse Issue. Once displayed, the article can be enlarged or even searched for further key words. The example below is 50% of its full size and shows the clarity of the scanned image; I have also pointed out the other options available:

The clarity of the scanned newspapers varies, as can be expected with paper that is 100 to 200 years old. However, everything I found was quite readable. You can always zoom in to enlarge any item that you want to see better. Below is example that provides a glimpse into the life of Ann Towler, even offering information about her father that was new to me. It is zoomed to 50% and is very clear:

Placing a check in the “Mark” box at the top places the item in a “Marked List,” where you can perform further actions on all your marked items at the same time. The other actions each display in a new window. Some were a bit confusing to me at first, so here are descriptions of each:
  • Bookmark displays the full URL to display the same search results or article, depending on what’s displayed when you click it. From the Bookmark window you can email a link to yourself or other recipients. When recipients click on this link, they will see the same search results list or article. Their access to the full articles that are not part of the free content depends on whether or not they have purchased a pass to the British Newspapers site. Note that simply using your browser's bookmark or favorites feature will not work to bookmark pages that contain dynamic content, such as search results, marked items, or a document.

  • Print Preview lets you create an HTML or PDF file of articles or a PDF file of an entire newspaper issue that you can then either save or print. Keep in mind that the included newspaper content will be the scanned image that you displayed or checked in your Marked List – not a transcription; this is a good thing because it averts the possible errors that transcriptions can create due to bad guesses by humans or software. The choices for the output depend on what page is displayed when you select the Print option.
I noticed a couple other points about the Print option worth reporting. (1.) If you want to print the entire page or issue, you need to display that page or issue before choosing the Print option. (2.) Only the HTML option will include source citation details such as newspaper title and date and website-specific document number. I found it most efficient to mark the articles I wanted and then go to the Marked List to click on the Print icon. Here is a sample of the Print window displayed from the Marked List, which generates an HTML file (that your browser can display) containing citation detail and the article for each marked item that you keep checked:

  • Email generates citation details that you can send to yourself or other recipients. Note that you cannot email any part of the newspaper with this option – only source citation information.
  • Download allows you to generate either an HTML file of citation information or a PDF file of the displayed item, which you can then download to your hard drive, USB flash drive, or other portable device. Here again, the contents of the PDF file depend on whether you have displayed just the article, the full page, or the entire issue. Instead of using this Download option, I found it preferable to display the desired article and then, using the Print option, click on the HTML button; the resulting HTML page included both citation detail and the article itself.
These options are available from many entry points. The icons appear in the top left corner of the window, so be sure to keep your window as wide as the full display. Whenever a particular option is not available, it will be grayed out. On occasion, the window for one of these icons seemed to open behind my browser window; this may be my own doing, but if you don't see the window, look for it in the tray of open windows at the bottom of your screen.

The site also provides helpful background information on each newspaper. This information is freely available on what the web site refers to as “Issues pages.” You can display Issues pages by several avenues, but my preference is from my search results since this is where a particular newspaper gains my interest. When you click on a displayed publication title, its Issues page provides its background information, such as key dates in the publication's history, an explanation of its role, significance or political leanings, and a description of its layout and contents. Below is a sample Issues page:

The British Newspapers site offers much more information that's available for free. A lot of it is accessible from the Research Tools tab, which displays four sections, each of which expands into a number of subsections:
  • Researching Historical Newspapers and Periodicals provides two clear and scholarly articles that give historical, social, and economic context for newspapers as they developed in the periods from 1800 to 1860 and from 1860 to 1900, respectively. You will also find a lengthy bibliography of 19th Century British Library Newspapers for all the footnotes referenced in the articles.
  • Historical Context is a large section that starts with a Chronology, or timeline, of major news events throughout the nineteenth century. Clicking on any of these events displays Search Results of newspaper items about that event. Following the Chronology are no less than sixteen topics ranging from “Rights, Responsibilities and Emancipation" to “Sex and scandal." The link for each topic displays a full article on its subject, and some of these articles end with a list of links to still more articles that you can download and print in PDF format. (If you don't have a program that can read PDF files, you can download Adobe's free Acrobat Reader at http://get.adobe.com/reader/.) The following screenshot shows this section expanded and displaying an article on “Emigration, Immigration and Migration in Nineteenth-Century Britain.”

  • The People section contains right-sized articles that highlight the lives of eight prominent individuals of the nineteenth century.
  • The About section includes an Introduction describing the partnership between Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, and the British Library that allowed the creation of this web site as well as a larger collection that spans three hundred years of newspaper publishing in the U.K. There's also a brief description of the digitization project and the selection of the included newspapers. I found the last section especially helpful: it's a thorough Frequently Asked Questions section that answers many questions about the web site's contents and operation, as well as how the subscription options work.
I found the overall operations quite intuitive, but I’d like to offer a suggestion to maximize your time if you decide to purchase a pass. A strategy you might consider is to read any articles of interest within the Research Tools before purchasing your pass. Also, peruse the Help to orient yourself to the options you’ll have, especially any Advanced Search tips you need to brush up on. Then do a couple searches on the free content so that you know what to expect from each action in the Search Results window. Now that you’ve whetted your appetite, you’re off and running.

All in all, anyone with nineteenth century U.K. ancestry will find the British Newspapers website a valuable resource. Besides finding details about my ancestors that I had not seen anywhere else, I found many fascinating stories about their towns and contemporaries that gave me a much more colorful picture of their lives. Subscriptions are reasonably priced at either £9.99 (about $16.50 US) to open and work with 200 articles over a week's time, or £6.99 (about $11.50 US) to open 100 articles over a 24-hour period. You can try it for yourself at http://newspapers.bl.uk.

The folks at Gale, part of Cengage Learning, have graciously offered readers of UpFront with NGS a 50% discount for either pass – 24 hours or 7 days – until December 31. To take advantage of this offer, simply go to http://newspapers.bl.uk and click Subscribe Now! When the payment window appears, enter coupon code NGSdiscount (Code is not case-sensitive.).

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