Research resources move into the classroom

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The boundaries between the primary sources used for research and the materials for teaching are being broken down. Seth Cayley of Cengage reveals the unexpected level of interest in the Times Digital Archive for teaching

Digital newspaper archives have transformed scholarship and the use of historic newspapers in research. Where it once took months to read through huge, bound volumes of a paper or to trawl through endless microfilm, many investigations can now be conducted in the course of an afternoon.

The Times Digital Archive, which celebrates its tenth birthday next year, allows users to search every page of The Times newspaper from its first issue in 1785 (when it was known as the Universal Daily Register). The huge amount of births, deaths and marriages content in The Times also means the archive makes regular appearances in mainstream media such as the BBC genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are?

When Gale, now part of Cengage Learning, launched the Times Digital Archive in 2003, we expected the main audience to be academic researchers. Our original publicity campaign even stated as much, with an article in The Times at the archive’s launch noting:

‘The full research potential of The Times is being unlocked, or perhaps unleashed. Complete pages and all the articles from our first 200 years will shortly be available online in a form that makes possible astonishingly sophisticated searches… such phenomenal tools will inevitably change the nature of research’.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests The Times Digital Archive and other newspaper archives in our Gale NewsVault programme are being increasingly used as teaching and learning resources in the school and university classroom, not just in study. This would have been a huge surprise 10 years ago; it was a rare lecturer who brought in old newspapers for an undergraduate class to examine, let alone lugged a microfilm reader to school. Historic newspapers simply were not part of the curriculum.

Digital literacy

It would be facile to argue that this is the inevitable progress of "digital natives", and that the current generation of learners is instantly at home with such resources. As others have commented, "digital natives" is a misleading term. The indigenous citizens of Planet Google are comfortable with computers, but not smart with them. I have seen more than one student search the Times Digital Archive for "Hitler Second World War" as they might on Google, and then wonder why their first search result dates from 1956, not 1939. (The term "Second World War", although thrown around by a few commentators at the time, only became an accepted label after the conflict was over.)

So the digital natives are somewhat primitive in their research skills. What has made the difference is the rise of digitally-literate teachers. We passed a milestone recently, where the first undergraduates who had access to the Times Digital Archive are now writing up their doctoral theses and teaching classes. Of that same intake of undergraduates – the class of 2003 – many of those who did not stay in postgraduate education are now secondary school teachers. This is a generation that has seen the benefits of learning with digital humanities resources.

Digital newspaper archives transform learning because they allow students to engage with primary sources much earlier, and in greater depth, than was previously possible. Primary sources make the past tangible. Would today’s students believe you if you told them that early 20th century society idealised women with curves, not today’s size zero models? A 1939 advertisement in the Picture Post Historical Archive for a dietary supplement can show them how things have changed:

‘After repeated failures I was persuaded to try Irvona, and the result was most astounding. In a month I had put on twenty-eight pounds and was transformed from a skinny, underweight weakling to a well-formed being, full of energy and vitality.’ [1]

Primary sources also encourage critical thinking. What is the writer’s motivation? Do I believe what they say? Will I really gain 1lb a day if I take Irvona? In an age where the humanities are being forced to justify themselves against vocational and scientific subjects with direct applications to the "real world", digital archives can help students acquire the versatile analytical skills that subjects such as history provide.

Archives in the classroom

All this being the case, how are teachers using newspaper archives in the classroom?

At the undergraduate level, the focus is on teaching students how to find, interpret and evaluate primary sources. One particularly imaginative teaching plan I have seen involved a class filling in the case files for notorious criminals from history. Students were asked to search the archives to find out what crimes Eugene Allmayer committed (he was a master con-man), how he was caught (three times, escaping twice, on one occasion forging his own release papers), and his eventual punishment (12 years’ hard labour). They were then asked to what extent they thought the press was glamorising Allmayer, and why. Was it possible that the press had made up some of the details? What does this tell us about Victorian society’s attitudes towards crime?

At the secondary school level, the emphasis is currently on the teacher using archives to guide the class. In the UK Key Stage 4 (ages 14-16) history curriculum, many, if not most, students will study Weimar Germany and the rise of the Nazis. Some teachers are now basing lesson plans around articles found in The Times Digital Archive, which allow their students to follow the narrative of these years, with the added benefit of witnessing the different opinions held by commentators at the time. The letters pages show that in 1933 not everyone in Britain thought that Hitler should be condemned, or that German anti-Semitism at the time was excessive.

At all levels, English literature lessons can be enhanced by reading the contemporary book reviews of the classic text being studied in class. How was the book received at the time? What does this tell us about the author’s readership and intended audience? To those of us who have always failed to see eye-to-eye with the works of Thomas Hardy, it is pleasingly revelatory to read the 1895 review in The Times stating that ‘Jude the Obscure is, to speak plainly, a somewhat dull novel’. [2]

There are challenges to bringing digital archives into the classroom and getting students to explore them for themselves. Fundamentally, digital archives are databases, and databases are not Google. Does anyone use the Advanced Search page on Google? Yet to get the most out of a digital archive, students will need to master Boolean searching and wildcard operators – essential information and communication technology (ICT) skills, but ones rarely developed without guidance. Teachers will need to provide training and guidance, but pressures on their time will only increase. Publishers can help here by providing tutorials, further support materials and facilitating the sharing of lesson plans.

Digital archives are firmly established in research. Now, unexpectedly but happily, we must help them become embedded in teaching and learning.

Seth Cayley is publisher for media history at Cengage Learning EMEA

Further information

[1] ‘The London and Colonial Export Co., Ltd.’ Picture Post [London, England] 18 Mar. 1939: 80. Picture Post Historical Archive. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.

[2] ‘Jude The Obscure’. Times [London, England] 18 Dec. 1895: 4. Gale NewsVault. Web. 16 Dec. 2011.