Newspapers as an Historical Resource – LSG event overview

A few weeks ago I attended a half-day event at CILIP HQ on the use of newspapers for historical research. The event, organised by CILIP Local Studies Group, featured two very interesting talks by Edmund King, former head of the British Library‘s newspaper library, plus a personal account by Diana Dixon of the way local newspapers have enabled her to piece together previously untold stories from her family history.

Most of the day focused specifically on digitised newspaper databases, and in particular the British Newspaper Archive which Edmund King oversaw the creation of at the British Library. Like Diana Dixon I had used the BNA for my own family history research and at the local studies library where I work, but had not previously appreciated the full range of international newspaper databases which can now be searched online. Some of these databases mentioned by Edmund King in the first of his talks included:

  • Chronicling America – Historic American newspapers from 1836-1922, sponsored jointly by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Library of Congress (free)
  • Gale News Vault – A broad selection of international newspapers and periodicals (paywall)
  • Google News Archive – Google’s discontinued newspaper scanning project, whose content is still available to search (free)
  • Ireland Old News – Transcriptions of old Irish news articles (free)
  • – Database of 3,400 newspapers, mainly American (paywall)
  • Trove – The National Library of Australia’s digitised newspaper collection (free)
  • Welsh Newspapers Online – Welsh and English-language newspapers from 1804-1919, digitised by the National Library of Wales (free)

Several of the above can be cross-searched via, which is attempting to create a single-search interface for all the world’s online historic newspapers (they have quite a long way to go admittedly, but a noble aim nonetheless). As local studies specialists we might question how useful international databases like these are to our daily work, which tends on the whole to focus on local people and events. The truth of course is that historically these ‘local people’ often moved around considerably, especially within the Empire, and events on one side of the world would often be reported on the other due to the complex web of family and business connections which linked people across the globe. Indeed, comparing the regional and international reportage of local events can often provide unique insights into these events which local sources alone could not.

Next Diana Dixon provided a very useful overview of some of the ways local newspapers can be used by family historians. In the past I had used reports of local births, marriages and deaths as an alternative to ordering GRO certificates, but had not thought to examine the long lists of wedding guests and mourners frequently included in these same reports to put together a detailed picture of an individual’s extended family and social circle.

After tea and coffee Edmund King’s second talk focused on some of the more unusual items which can be found in the British Newspaper Archive. We would naturally expect to find reports of local events, births, marriages and deaths etc., but many of the ‘lighter’ pieces can be equally revealing. These include poetry, cartoons, celebrity portraits, ladies’ fashions, maps, literary reviews, serialised novels and items of musical interest, which can all help flesh out the world in which our ancestors lived.

All of the above were all illustrated with examples, and one of the best in my opinion was a brief mention in the Oxford Journal on the 23rd of February 1765 of a visit by:

“One Wolfgang Mozart, a German boy of about eight years old…who can play upon various Sorts of Instruments of Music, in Concert, or Solo, and can compose Music surprizingly ; so that he may be reckoned a Wonder at his Age” (p. 3, col. 1).

It is inconceivable to think this wonderful description would have been found without the BNA’s search engine, and it is worth remembering how lucky we are to have such an excellent tool at our disposal.

It was a very interesting and informative day, and a great opportunity to meet with colleagues and share experiences. If there are any historical newspapers in your library’s collections which you would like to see digitised, you can submit a request on the BNA forum.

Robert Jones, Assistant Librarian (Local Studies)
London Borough of Hillingdon

Nominations open for Local Studies Librarian of the year

Do you know a Local Studies Librarian that has gone the extra mile? Have they pioneered an amazing project or given a career of excellent service to their community?

If you do, nominate them for the 2015 McCulla Prize, the annual Local Studies Librarian of the Year Award.

We welcome nominations from colleagues, local historians, family historians and anyone who knows a local studies professional who has made a difference.

To nominate, please complete form below.

Any questions? Please contact Alice Lock via

Nominations close on 30th October 2015.

e-books & local studies

I was helping someone check about new local books and I was going through the library catalogue to see which were in stock and which needed ordering. I came across one title which wasn’t held so was just putting the details for ordering when I noticed that it was a Kindle only book. On further investigation I realized that it was a republication of a book first written 30 years ago, with a slightly different title, and since it was already in stock it was fine in this instance and we didn’t need this edition. It did make me wonder if anyone had come a situation where a useful local studies title was only available in e-book format and what did you do about it?

Lessons from a year in an historic library

In 2013 I spent the year in alien territory. After nearly ten years in local studies, I undertook a maternity cover contract at an historic library housed in a think tank-cum-learned society. So, what lessons would I bring back to the world of local studies?

  1. COPAC & ESTC. We had an excellent Associate Library Fellow who was a retired rare books cataloguer. Surprise, surprise, our rare book cataloguing was brilliant, however he also put our pre-1800 stuff onto the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) and were in the queue for COPAC. An important part of local studies is to help scholars, so surely our scholarly material should be listed where scholars look for them? COPAC seem to do all of the work for you and you just need to find your rare book on ESTC, log in and say that you have a copy (okay, things get more interesting if it is not on ESTC and you have to check pagination etc is the same as your copy).
  2. NADFAS. I have always worked with volunteers, but had not come across NADFAS. Not only will they do conservation and listing projects, they elect their own leader and manage themselves, taking some of the stress out of volunteer management. You do have to pay expenses. For more info see the second post on this site:
  3. How close the world of heritage/specialist collection librarianship is to local studies. Okay, you perhaps don’t get the emphasis on community engagement, but you do have volunteers, specialist users, conservation, event management, ephemera, stockwork etc. After all, local studies is heritage librarianship with our geographical patch as our specialist subject.

And most importantly……

4. The power of shiny things. I had a lot of snazzy things in my collection and those above loved it when I brought some out for their important guests. Shouldn’t we be doing similar things for our political masters? Would Mayors like to see some pretty illustrations when they are hosting important visits from twinned towns? Would County Council Chairmen like to see a display of maps before an official dinner…. and most importantly, an enthusiastic person to talk about them. That will get us those all-important brownie points.

The future of Local Studies librarianship…….

A few years ago I remember reading an article in Local Studies Librarian and by the end of it I was fuming. The author said that local studies librarians, archivists and museum professionals will morph into one profession. I began writing a furious reply, saying that we had a completely different skills and we looked at “heritage” in completely different ways. Later, deciding that Local Studies Librarian was a serious scholarly place and not somewhere to vent my spleen, I put my pen away.

Four years ago I became a LSG blogger and I started writing a blog post called “Is there a future for Local Studies Librarianship”. It was rather depressing. It started….

Things are getting a bit depressing. According to that “What is the point of…. Public libraries” Radio 4 programme, there are 14% less professional librarians in public libraries than there were a few years ago. I used to hear the refrain, “you’re okay, they’ll never get rid of local studies” but things are not going that way, at least in the South East. Buckinghamshire’s last Local Studies Librarian retired last year, only half of Berkshire’s Unitary Authorities have someone who is referred to as a “Local Studies Librarian” and everybody knows what is going on in Hampshire. With 25% of local government spending being shaved off in the next 5 years, we “ain’t seen nothing yet”.

The Local Studies Librarian contributor a few years before did see Local Studies Librarianship posts beginning to be transferred to archive and local studies units, but as job cuts came, it seemed to me that Local Studies posts were hardest hit. As with much of public librarianship, professional posts were often replaced with lower paid para-professional.

My 2000 blog post was to finish:

I do not know what the future of our part of the profession holds, or even what we can do to influence it. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will not be a “Local Studies Librarian” for too many more years. Please can someone tell me I am wrong.

A year later my Local Studies post was deleted. Mine was not the only local studies post to be deleted around that time.  

It is not just local studies staff that are being given the chop. As branches are being refurbished, town collections are being “streamlined” and material being sent to county archive/local studies units. There is one case where the archive only wants a small amount of the collection and it is proposed that the rest of the collection would be sent to reserve stock – how can you access OS maps from reserve stock, let alone have someone around to show you the right map and how it works? 

I believe local studies professionals make a difference. Archivists and Museum guys do an amazing job, but our training, experience and outlook make us stronger in certain fields. I started to make a list, but last year I saw some notes from a LSG North East meeting, and, to be frank, theirs is much better. Here it is:

Strengths of Local Studies librarians

  • We look at our collections, identify gaps and acquire, or even create, sources to fill them. This isn’t part of an archivist’s remit though they might make efforts to collect material created by other organisations to fill gaps.
  • We preserve ephemera and grey literature, often discarded from archive collections.
  • Our tradition is the user’s right to access to our collection, the archival tradition is that preservation is paramount and access is a privilege. Having people who come from both traditions helps maintain a balance.
  • Our focus is the information, not the document.
  • Secondary sources are important – anybody studying local history needs to know what others have already written before they start using the primary sources held in record offices.
  • Our collections are valuable as the historical record and in monetary terms – what will happen to them without professional custodianship? Will their cash value make them vulnerable to being sold off?
  • How will collections develop without professional input? They need collection policies, active book selection using local knowledge, complicated acquisition procedures. It can’t be left to library suppliers.
  • We come from a library tradition with its emphasis on outreach, promotional events, social inclusion etc.
  • Many record offices, especially in counties, use libraries to make archives more accessible throughout a large geographical area.
  • [missed anything? Please add a comment at the end of this blog].

So, what are we going to do about it? Here are some options….

  • Shout about how great we are. We make a difference to individuals, groups and our communities:
    • We do celebrate through the McCulla “local studies librarian of the year award” and the Alan Ball “best publication” award.
    • Use this blog to record our great project.
    • Write a submission for the Sieghart Commission (we’ve only got a week!)
  • Are librarians, archivist and museum guys going to become one profession? There are a number of Heritage Officer posts, especially in smaller authorities and engagement, enquiry and volunteer management roles are increasingly interchangeable within larger units. Should LSG be talking to ARA & the MA?
  • Team-up with other librarians so we can shout louder. Should we be talking more to librarians in “historic libraries”? Whether many know it or not, they have a lot in common with local studies librarians – some do as at the last LSG Committee Meeting there were librarians employed by the National Archives, the National Maritime Museum and the RUSI Library of Military History. Should Local Studies Group become Heritage Collections Group.
  • Continue to tell our political and senior officers how we are addressing their priorities such as social cohesion, the digital citizenship etc.
  • [missed anything? Please add a comment at the end of this blog].

So what shall we do – all I do know for certain is that we do need to do something.