Imagine if you could pick up a newspaper from over 200 years ago and see what people were saying. Wouldn’t that be difficult? I mean, you would have to find a good reference library with a pretty decent collection of backdated copies…
Surely there is no other way?
Of course there is, the clue is in the title of this blog!
A few months ago, my colleague Francis talked about how addictive searching the Oxford Database of National Biography can be. While I do agree, I am going to say that The Times Digital Archive will give him a run for his money.
Recently I have been visiting libraries and talking with members of the public about some of the Online Resources available to anyone with a Westminster library card. The Times Digital Archive (TDA) is a fully searchable database containing facsimiles of all of the Times newspapers from 1785 to 2009. Here are three points I like to show our customers while highlighting some useful features of the TDA:
Founding of the Newspaper
I like to start at the very beginning. Not only does it make sense chronologically, it also shows just how far back the Digital Archive goes. The Times was first released as The Daily Universal Register for 3 years until 1788 and would set you back 2 ½ pence for 4 very large pages of content (the very definition of a broadsheet newspaper).
The first entry in the TDA is actually the second edition of the paper, you can see under the left hand ‘Printed Logographically’ banner. I like to point it out when demonstrating the TDA as well as to show off this rambling explanation from the editor:
“An unfortunate accident having prevent the publication of the first number of this paper in as early an hour as the proprietor intended, and the hawkers having taken away so many papers, that he was not able to supply his numerous friends and others, according to the promise, he thinks it proper to reprint his address to the public, that those who have not yet seen it may have an opportunity to form a judgement of his plan.”
On Tuesday 4 January 1785 the editor expands on what he intends to report in this fledgling newspaper. I’ve trimmed the text but you can read the whole paragraph in the image below:
“In this paper his readers will find regular accounts of the sailing and arrival of ships, of remarkable trials, debates in Parliament, bills of entry, prices courant, price of stocks, promotions, marriages and deaths &c. in a word, no expence [sic] will be spared that may procure useful intelligence and as next to having good intelligence is to have it early, the paper will be published regularly every morning at six o’clock, even during the sitting of Parliament.”
Looking through modern day Times, I can’t decide if it is meeting its 250 year old aims or not.
Important Events of our Times
While it is mildly useful to search through the rambles of the early editors and peruse the advertisements, I do enjoy showing people events that still resonate with us today. While we all know that Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, it must have been curious to read about it as the events are unfolding.
Here is one of the headlines from Monday 4 September:
Today that would be the front page headline, but in 1939 before reading that the country was at war you had to skip past a couple of pages of advertisements, shipping news, sports results – association football, rugby, golf and racing all come first. Admittedly, the next several pages discussed it in depth, but I find it interesting that front page headlines aren’t commonplace at this time.
The majority of the articles related to the war’s outbreak are either very short or very long, making it difficult to find good examples, but here are a few from the same edition that I find interesting:
Let’s go back a little further to another war and another battle that we know through hindsight – the Battle of Waterloo:
I won’t copy the whole text now, but the dispatch is fascinating and I encourage you to go look it up.
Each description of what the army is up to has this immediacy to it – slightly ironic that you are reading about it days after the event. For example, before the Battle of Waterloo was reported you had the reports coming in regarding the minor skirmishes taking place on 16 June 1815 in the 21 June edition:
And it wasn’t until 23 June that reports of the actual battle started coming in, along with lists of dead officers (the rank and file had not yet been accounted for) and a report from Wellington himself. Here are his closing remarks:
Change of Image
The last point I want to show is not about the content of the newspaper, but how the newspaper was presented – and I might have already given it away. If you look back at the font from the Battle of Waterloo reports, to the font for the WW2 War Declaration you might see where I am going with this.
By the 1930s the Times was a 28 page broadsheet, very popular but being accused of not adhering to the times (irony?) and still using an antiquated typeface. In 1931 a new type was commissioned that would sound very familiar to you if you have used a Microsoft computer in the past 3 decades. I am talking about, of course, Times Roman.
So there we have it. There is far too much to talk about in one blog post, but I hope I have whet your appetite for the Times Digital Archive and all the history that it contains.
If you have an event in history that you would like to look up, it is simple to do so yourself if you follow these steps:
Helpfully, the Browse by Date function is on the front page.