You may already know about Chronicling America, the long standing partnership between the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provides free access to almost 8 million digitalized pages of America’s Historic Newspapers from 1836–1922. But did you know what unique types of primary source information this collection contains? Almost everyone is familiar with, and has used large, national newspaper databases with such titles as the New York Times or the Washington Post. But the ability of most of us to read about the local, state, and regional concerns big and small that occupied people and communities from Arizona to West Virginia a hundred years ago is limited to nonexistent.
With its database of pages from state and local newspaper, however, Chronicling America allows us to expand our awareness of how history has been recorded across the U.S. while deepening our appreciation of our country’s regional, political, social, and cultural differences as they existed over the past 175 years. Thus the database is a windfall to students who want to do local or regional history projects.
Curating Content for the Classroom: The Problem of Bias
Reading old newspapers opens a window into a world that hold a multiplicity of values, many of which are sharply different from ours. The unfiltered news and commentary of yesterday holds wonders but also requires a teacher’s sharp editorial guidance to be most effective. The existence of racial or gender bias in articles or advertisements that would have raised no concern back in the day, may make modern students or their parents uncomfortable.
Be prepared to encounter such moments and to use them to help students understand their own beliefs and values, as well as to learn how complex an encounter with real history is. To assist you in this process, we have linked to a short guide to teaching sensitive material.
Moreover, most historic papers were affiliated with a particular political party and consequently have a strongly partisan editorial policy, in the literal sense. Happily through the tools available, students can easily learn about—and from—the distinctive perspectives of these newspapers. Chronicling America makes it relatively easy to discover the history and political profile of the paper under examination by way of the “about” section that accompanies almost every newspaper title.
For example, the “about” section of The Toiler gives a fascinating “biography” of the “Official Organ of the Communist Labor Party of Ohio.” Though short lived, it was merged with another title to form what became known as the Daily Worker, the Communist Party of America’s national paper. For an introduction to the partisanship of 19th- and early 20th-century newspapers and an interesting argument about the positive side of this partisanship, see the article "The Rise and Fall of Partisan Journalism."
Teaching with Ethnic Newspapers
Ethnic newspapers are an especially exciting and revelatory part of Chronicling America, most especially as we begin the centennial of the Great War. Irish, Latin American, and Jewish newspapers have now been joined by eighteen German language newspapers. There are also seven Native American newspapers: three from tribes in Minnesota and four from Oklahoma.
Most impressively, there are now forty-three African American newspapers from sixteen states and the District of Columbia. South Carolina alone is represented by ten papers!! These papers allow us to trace the daily lives and opinions of black people from the days of Emancipation and Reconstruction through the establishment of Jim Crow, World War I, and the Great Migration
To find these and other ethnic goodies, simply click on the “All Digitalized Newspapers” tab in the Chronicling America toolbar and use the pull-down the menu.
The “Golden Age” of Newspapers
The greatest concentration of Chronicling America material currently available online runs from 1900–1922, offering an unrivaled view of the heyday of what Doris Kearns Goodwin has called the “golden age of journalism.” Here one can immerse oneself in the Populist and Progressive Eras, the leadership of Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the return to “normalcy” under President Warren Harding. On the world stage, this is the period of the Great War, the Russian Revolution, and the worldwide influenza pandemic—all of which are covered in great and fascinating detail in these pages.
The date range and states included in Chronicling America’s newspapers collection are constantly expanding. You can begin to explore the riches of this database by simply searching Chronicling America by keyword or by using the suggested list of topics arranged by subject, decade or large theme.
Getting Started for National History Day 2015
This year’s theme “Leadership and Legacy in History” offers a remarkable array of suggested topics for research projects. The history and social studies staff of EDSITEment has curated some of these topics in order to facilitate the use of Chronicling America and our other resources. The hot links refer to the actual newspaper views of these topics on the Chronicling America website.
Finally it should be noted that EDSITEment, the digital outreach to K–12 teachers and students, has hundreds of lesson plans built around important primary sources with appropriate scholarly background information which may be of interest and use to you as you begin your project.
As the official repository of “The Best of the Humanities on the Web,” EDSITEment also has hundreds of NEH-reviewed/supported websites that are perfect starting points for researching your project.
These accompanying EDSITEment resources, including lesson plans and EDSITEment collection of reviewed websites (many of which were funded by NEH) will add greater insight into these topics and expand your contextual knowledge of your chosen historical event.
Get updates on new lesson plans and other resources.