Center for Research Libraries - Global Resources Network

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On Using the World Newspaper Archive

James Simon
Director, Global Resources Network - Center for Research Libraries


Distinctive masthead of the Central African Times (March 7, 1908, Blantyre, Nyasaland). From CRL’s World Newspaper Archive – African Newspapers.

The Center for Research Libraries has focused a great deal of attention on the library partnership aspects of the World Newspaper Archive (WNA). However, the resource is also gaining scholarly attention as access to the resources becomes better known on campus. CRL is interested in learning more about the uses and benefits of WNA among faculty, scholars, and students, as in the following examples:

Robert Hill (Professor, Department of History, UCLA) is editing a multi-volume set on the papers of Marcus Garvey, noted journalist, activist, and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Hill has been able to mine references to Garvey in African newspapers, leading to new resources to cite in the ongoing compilation of Garvey’s works.

Laura Fair (Associate Professor, Department of History, Michigan State University) has written on the social history of cinema in Tanzania and was able to locate significant references on early cinema houses in East Africa.

Elias C. Mandala (Professor, History Department, University of Rochester) has used the Nyasaland Times as a source of documentation on the agrarian history of Southern Malawi in his article, “Feeding and Fleecing the Native: How the Nyasaland Transport System Distorted a New Food Market, 1890s-1920s” ( Journal of Southern African Studies 32, no. 3 [September 2006]: 505–24). He is excited that the newspaper is now available to his university on WNA, and that its inclusion in African Newspapers may reveal new insight into the paper.

Peter Limb is the Africana Bibliographer at Michigan State University and an Associate Professor (Adjunct) in the History Department, where he teaches courses on the economic, social, and political history of South Africa.

Dr. Limb’s interest in the World Newspaper Archives–African Newspapers is twofold: first, as a librarian and representative of the Cooperative Africana Microform Project (CAMP), from which much of the current module’s content has been drawn, and second as an African history scholar. Dr. Limb’s current research includes the works of African physician and politician A. B. Xuma, women in early African politics, comparative African-Indian nationalism, and a centenary history of the early black newspaper Abantu-Batho.

With these research interests in mind, Dr. Limb began to search the WNA collection, first to assess the technical and content quality of the archive, and second as a potential source for his ongoing work. Limb found the database encouraging for both purposes.

“In general, I find the full text capabilities to be very good,” Limb notes. “The OCR [optical character recognition] appears to have worked very well, despite the evidence of poor-quality microfilm for some of the sources.” Many of the newspaper pages appear faded in spots, particularly along gutters and edges of the paper.

Limb also appreciates the features included in the Readex newspaper platform. “The image preview accompanying text searches is useful for interpreting context, particularly when a reference may only be to a last name or a single word of a title.” He cited references to Abantu-Batho, where editors of other newspapers would often only include “Abantu” as the source of an article from the former. Both the preview function and text highlighting within articles assisted in locating pertinent references to his research topic (“abantu” is a common word meaning “people” in many Southern and Eastern African languages).

Limb’s work on Abantu-Batho is part of a scholarly compilation on the history and publication of this important title. Started in 1912 with funding from the Queen- Regent of Swaziland, the paper supported the newly formed South African Native National Congress, renamed the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923. Abantu- Batho became the official organ of the ANC by 1928 and was a leading Africanowned newspaper in South Africa, championing the cause of African nationalism until financial troubles forced its closure in 1931.

Despite its historical importance, only fragmentary issues remain accessible (CAMP holds microfilm for the period April 1930–July 1931). Single copies of Abantu-Batho are held by various repositories or individuals in different countries, but the majority of issues from 1912 to 1929 remain elusive. Researchers must search alternative sources for information relating to the publication.

By using the World Newspaper Archive, Limb and his colleagues can uncover references to articles (often reproduced wholesale) and letters published by the ANC mouthpiece. Piecing these together, the scholars are beginning to form a more complete publication history of the newspaper, including evidence of a previously undiscovered preview edition of the title. “With African Newspapers,” Limb describes, “we’re able to widen the scope of the material we are able to cite and reproduce for the publication, and add to the content of the essays we are producing.”

Aside from keyword searching, Limb finds the ability to browse and move through issues a distinct advantage over text-only databases, particularly for the historian who may not be able to pinpoint what terms to search. Searching the text of a newspaper only provides certain insight into the paper’s history, while full-issue browseability allows users to view the overall structure (advertisements, photographs, letters, and opinions) and content of the title.

Dr. Limb sees tremendous potential for World Newspaper Archive–African Newspapers, especially as additional content is added. As an advisor for the original selection of titles, Limb and the selection committee found that the availability of early African newspapers was rather “lopsided” in terms of regional balance, language, and political and racial perspectives. The lack of availability is due to the sporadic publishing history of newspapers in Africa in the late 19th–early 20th century, as well as the imbalance of early collecting practices.

Limb states: “Pre-1923, we were not able to find many francophone newspapers. Within collections in the U.S., titles are historically weighted toward only a limited number of countries, such as South Africa, particularly white-owned papers for this early time period.” The editorial policies of white newspaper owners often constrained African editors or journalists, which led some to establish their own newspapers such as Imvo Zabantsundu, the first black-owned and -controlled newspaper in South Africa in 1884. Before this date, African-owned papers were rare (although several vernacular publications, such as Leselinyana La Lesutho, were aimed at black readership in the 19th century).

CAMP actively seeks to address these imbalances with a new round of title identification, acquisition, and, in some cases, original preservation. “We see this as an opportunity to make accessible titles that are under-represented in contemporary research, including those in African languages with non-Roman script,” Limb explains. “We would love to include titles from Ethiopia in Amharic.” CAMP aims to balance the content between long-running titles and newspapers with short, ephemeral runs.

Limb sees an opportunity to engage with large repositories in Europe with early titles in colonial languages (German, French, Italian, Portuguese), but more importantly with colleagues within Africa itself. “There are many archives in Africa with collections of newspapers in print that are not yet digitally preserved. This could be an opportunity to correct some of the poor-quality images on those papers previously filmed, but also to uncover new content.” The true challenge is in establishing an equitable partnership model between libraries, publishers, and CRL’s commercial partner, Readex. “The majority of African institutions are not able to afford access to content at Northern market price levels, so we should consider how to create partnerships with institutions that have important content.” He notes that scholars are also interested in newspapers published post-1923, some of which still appear, so working with existing publishers is a vital necessity.

Finally, Limb notes, “I can see amazing possibilities for teaching, by linking to primary sources, but we need to brief professors on this.”