I would like to share a research tip for history buffs, curious people, hist-fic writers, language lovers, and culture evolution watchers.
The tip is: read some old newspapers! Newspapers such as the May 10, 1918 Keokuk, Iowa “The Daily Gate City and Constitution-Democrat,” pictured here. That image comes from Chronicling America, a database assembled (and still being added to) by the Library of Congress, along with the National Endowment for the Humanities. Hist-fic writers will find that reading news written near the time and place they wish to write about adds authenticity to their final product. See the image above, for example, from a small-town Iowa paper during WWI. American soldiers are referred to as Yankees, while the soldiers of the “central empires” are referred to as Huns or Teutons. The warship Vindictive is described down to its tonnage and the diameters of its guns. How flavorful!
The ins and outs of finding, reading, and potentially reproducing old newspapers are complicated due to copyright laws. The Chronicling America site helps, because anything there can be searched and reproduced at will. Its purview is
- Searchable scanned papers from 1789 to 1963.
- A newspaper directory from 1690 to present-day.
- Browse by state, by date, by paper, and by keywords with either “and” logic or “or” logic.
Many papers are not there. For example, the New York Times is not there because it keeps its own archives. Also, most big libraries keep microfiche of the major papers. The Library of Congress has prioritized its scanning process to concentrate first on papers that are defunct and in danger of being lost altogether.
Most papers printed after 1923 are not there, either. This is because the first copyright laws came into existence in 1923. Blindly copying newspapers after 1923 potentially runs into a copyright violation. Usually, it does not, but, again, in terms of priorities, the Library of Congress would rather scan what it can instead of chasing hard-to-track chains of copyright ownership, which can pass from heir to heir without much, if any, paper trail.
The sweet spot for the Chronicling America site is therefore between 1789 and 1923. Within that restriction, it’s amazing. Newspapers from all over the country are represented, even out-of-the-way places. Especially out-of-the-way places.
For major papers, visit your local research library and plop yourself down at the microfiche reader there. (Heavy sigh. Less convenient, I know. Also, no coffee allowed.) Paired with fiction written in the same historical period, fairly soon the literary researcher will be soaked in period minutiae.
The above, I’ll call it a “chest drill,” here, shall I? was a tool used by my character Ace Carroway to sabotage a row of airplane engines. Although I had to euphemistically say “chest drill” due to the drift of language meanings over time, knowing about this specific device added verisimilitude to my writing. (P.s., I miss the “gay nineties.”)
Technical note: users may download any pages in pdf or “jp2.” The latter stands for “jpeg 2000” and is not a common image format. GIMP2 cannot handle it (as of this writing). Free online converters exist, however. When converted to jpeg, expect images in the 5000 to 7000 pixel range. Also, I could not get the web site’s language filter to work.
This little research tip was originally written for Kendra Ardnek’s 2018 Indie E-Con.