THE BRITISH LIBRARY

The Newsroom blog

News about yesterday's news, and where news may be going

Introduction

Whether you are studying history, politics, society, international relations, economics, media history, sports history or family history, our collections will have something for you Read more

17 November 2017

The artist-reporter

Newspaper art, by its very nature, is an ephemeral art form, sprawling in number and fleeting in effect, so it is no easy task to research the field of Victorian Graphic Journalism. The role of Special Artist – or artist-reporter – as a recognized profession came into existence in the mid-nineteenth century. The seminal event in its early history was the founding of the Illustrated London News in 1842, and that of its chief rival, the Graphic, in 1869.

Simpson

William Simpson, 'H.R.H, The Prince of Wales at the School Children’s Fete Bombay, 10th November 1875', 1875, pencil with grey wash and white, ©CSG CIC, Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

The critical innovation that made it possible was the discovery of a wood engraving technique by Thomas Bewick, back in 1791, which enabled images to be printed simultaneously alongside text.  But it was not until Herbert Ingram, the founding editor of the ILN, seized on its potential, that the pictorial press came into its own. Ingram formalized the practice of publishing images to accompany newsworthy events.  As one of the leading Special Artists, William Simpson, would reflect, you did ‘not hear of the Special Correspondent during the wars of Napoleon, but between 1815 and 1854 a great change had taken place in the character and position of the newspaper press. It was this change that evolved the “Special” (Notes and Recollections of My Life, 1889, National Library of Scotland).

Acknowledging that historical events had previously been illustrated, Simpson identified that the key distinction was that the artist was now expected:

‘to be always on the spot, jotting down in his sketch-book what he saw with his own eyes. … [he] sees what takes place, and his work is immediately given forth to the world, so that its accuracy can be tested even by the actors in the historical event.’

Convinced of the importance of the new profession of which they were part, because it meant accurate, visual records existed of all the most newsworthy events of Queen Victoria’s reign and – most importantly – had been communicated back to the British public through the medium of the press, Simpson and his journalistic colleagues, all household names in their day, believed that their work would be highly prized by ‘future historians’.  However, contrary to their expectation, they, and the imagery they produced, have been largely forgotten. If they are remembered, it is as pioneering war artists – rightly so, as the Crimean War of 1854 marked the point at which the fledgling profession truly took off. Yet my research into their work over the past decade has revealed that the scope of what they achieved is even greater. I now share their conviction that they deserve to be celebrated - in tandem with their counterparts, the special correspondents - as the progenitors of our modern media world.

Part of the reason for their neglect comes back to the relative inaccessibly of the art form they created, the sheer scale of its production and the wrongful assumption that the original sketches were destroyed in the process. However, pockets of the original artwork do still exist, such as this evocative sketch by William Simpson of the Prince of Wales presiding over the School Children’s Fete in Mumbai in November 1875, now in the collection of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow (see above).

It is the digital innovations of the twenty-first century that are providing the means for us to look back and reassess the advances of the nineteenth – not only in terms of locating the images in digital form, but also by providing platforms in which to group, analyze and ultimately represent them as a reconstituted body of work.  Picturing the News: the Art of Victorian Graphic Journalism, the online exhibition I have co-curated with Cathy Waters, is one result. Professor Waters and I will be talking about ‘Rediscovering the Art of Victorian Graphic Journalism’ as part of the AHRC’s Being Human Festival in the Foyle Room at the British Library on Thursday 23 November. If you cannot get there but are interested in learning more about the subject, please visit https://research.kent.ac.uk/victorianspecials/.

Ruth Brimacombe, Freelance Curator and Art Historian

23 October 2017

Rediscovering the art of Victorian graphic journalism

Writing in the Guardian earlier this month, Roy Greenslade queried what it is about ‘fake news’ that draws such widespread public attention: is it ‘a wilful desire to reject “boring” reality and choose its “exciting” opposite?’ he asks. The question of how to picture the news in a compelling way – so that it remains accurate as to the facts, while imaginatively transporting newspaper readers to the scenes and events described – goes back to the emergence of the first special correspondents and special artists who worked for the metropolitan press in the second half of the nineteenth century. Who were these newspaper pioneers and how can they help us to understand continuing debates about the media today?

Russell

Image courtesy of the British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent, www.cartoons.ac.uk

William Howard Russell is probably the only one of the first generation of special correspondents who is now widely remembered, largely as a result of his famous reports from the Crimean War for the Times. Russell’s despatches from the front were gripping, eye-witness accounts that brought the war home to British readers and galvanized public opposition to the Government’s mishandling of the campaign. His narratives of spectacle, heroism and suffering established him as the Times’s leading ‘special’.

Reporting from the seat of war was undoubtedly the assignment that most tested the special correspondent’s mettle. However, when no war was afoot, they had to turn their hand to cover all manner of events in any location at home or abroad as required by their newspaper. Their versatility was key; and at least equal in fame to Russell on this score from the 1860s onwards was George Augustus Sala: ‘the chief of travelled specials’, as he was later described. Sala’s potential as a ‘travelling correspondent’ was first demonstrated in 1856-7 when Dickens sent him to St Petersburg to obtain material for a series of papers on Russian life and manners for his weekly periodical, Household Words. Sala’s colourful, descriptive style, cultivated as a contributor to Dickens’s journal, flourished when he began work as a special for the fledgling Daily Telegraph in 1857. Although he reported on a number of wars, including the American Civil, Austro-Italian and Franco-Prussian wars, special correspondents were also required, as he wrote in 1871, to ‘be Jack of all trades, and master of all – that are journalistic’: ‘to “do” funerals as well as weddings, state-banquets, Volunteer reviews, Great Exhibitions, remarkable trials, christenings, coronations, ship-launches, agricultural shows, royal progresses, picture-shows, first-stone layings, horse-races and hangings’.

While not all of the journalists who worked as specials became so famous in their own day as Russell and Sala, what distinguished their correspondence was its mobility, versatility and descriptive power: an ability to observe and seize upon events wherever they happened, rendering them for the press in sufficiently graphic prose so as to transport readers through vivid eye-witness accounts. These qualities were also features of the New Journalism – a development famously criticised by Matthew Arnold in 1887 as part of a commercially driven press deploying sensational reportage to sell newspapers (a debate that remains familiar today).

Picturingthenews

https://research.kent.ac.uk/victorianspecials

But for its proponents, special correspondence was a new technology – like the railroad or the telegraph, with both of which it was closely associated – that brought the world closer, shrinking space and time and conveying readers to distant places. In fulfilling the often arduous demands of their role, these journalists sometimes became newsworthy in their own right. Indeed, speaking at an anniversary dinner of the Newspaper Press Fund in 1878, Lord Salisbury described the special correspondent as one who ‘seems to be forced to combine in himself the power of a first-class steeple-chaser with the power of the most brilliant writer – the most wonderful physical endurance with the most remarkable mental vigour’.

Some of the remarkable achievements of this forgotten breed of journalists will be rediscovered as part of Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities on Thursday 23 November from 6-8 pm when Dr Ruth Brimacombe and I discuss our online exhibition, Picturing the News, in the Foyle Room of the British Library.

Booking for this free event is available here.

Catherine Waters

c.waters@kent.ac.uk

@vicspecials

www.facebook.com/VictorianSpecials/

18 October 2017

Newspaper data and news identity

Below is the text of a short paper I gave recently at 'Language Matters', the 5th Transfopress Encounter in Paris. Transfopress is an international network of archivists, librarians and scholars interested in the study of foreign language press. The subject of this conference was printed news in English abroad and foreign-language publishing in the English-speaking world. My talk was on newspaper data and news identity.

Twonewspapers

Abend naies: The Jewish Evening News (London), 11 December 1914 and Al-Arab (London), 2 June 1977

The British Library holds one of the world’s largest newspaper collections. It has some 60 million issues dating from the 1620s to the present day. The collection is fairly comprehensive from 1840, certainly so from 1869 when legal deposit was instituted, and publishers of British and Irish newspapers were required to send one copy of each issue to the Library. 1,400 additional titles are added each week, along with a web news collection that archives over 2,000 news sites on a frequent basis, and a growing television and radio news collection.

Around two-thirds of the newspaper collection is British or Irish titles. Most overseas newspapers are now taken on only in electronic form or on microfilm, but we nevertheless have substantial holdings of overseas newspapers in English and other languages. This includes an extensive collection of newspapers from Commonwealth countries which were formerly received through colonial copyright deposit.

Our goal is to move from being a newspaper library to being a news library, reflecting the great changes taking place in the world of news today. In doing so we have had to ask questions about what the nature of news is. The definition we use is that news is information of current interest for a specific audience. Such a definition can be applied across different news media and suggests ways of linking them up, but also challenges the idea of what news is, since it can be applied more widely that that just those media we commonly identify as ‘news’. Anything can be thought of as contributing to 'news' if it helps inform our world. In particular, it draws attention to communities seeking out news that is meaningful to them, and asks how we should be expressing such audience identification in our catalogue.

Titlelevel

British Library title-level list of newspapers (a work in progress)

These issues have come to the fore in a project we have been undertaking, to produce a single title-level listing of all newspapers at the British Library (around 34,000 titles). Producing such a listing from a catalogue built up over many decades and from diverse collections has been challenging. It ought to be a simple case for a national library to produce a single listing of the newspapers that it holds, but in practice a significant number of newspapers have been classified as journals, or even books, on our system. Ensuring that we identify every newspaper as a newspaper has involved some prolonged research, in particular working with areas of the Library that cover particular geographical areas or communities.

For example, over the past year the News section in which I work has been working with our Asian & African department to identify Indian newspapers in the collection. Many of these had been classified as Journals on our catalogue, making discovery difficult for anyone looking for Indian newspapers without a specific title in mind. Multiple standards had been applied to the cataloguing of newspapers in the past, and there were additional problem particular to newspapers, such as changes of title and similarity of titles to other newspaper series. Previous investigations had indicated that we held some 214 Indian newspaper titles; in the end, 234 were identified by a research fellow, Junaid ul-Hassan. Each title was reclassified on our catalogue, the result being that what had previously been a buried newspaper collection has been opened up for researchers.

Indiannewspapers

Map of Indian newspapers held by the British Library

The Indian newspaper records each come with geographical codings, meaning that we can produce a map of their distribution, while research by Junaid into contemporary reference sources has given us a greater picture of what was published overall, from which we may judge how selective and representative our collection of Indian newspapers might be.

A significant number of our newspaper records still require better or more consistent geographical identifiers before we can say with confidence how many newspapers we have from different countries or parts of those countries, or before we can produce further maps such as we have for Indian newspapers. But what about diaspora newspapers? We have many newspapers past and present that have been published for and by different immigrant or ethnic communities within the UK. How does our catalogue reflect the existence of newspapers published by the different communities within the United Kingdom, be they identified by race, religion or particular political persuasion?

The short answer is that we cannot. There is no means of extracting information for the British Library catalogue that will identify all news published for immigrant or ethnic communities, whether in English or other languages. Our catalogue does not work that way. The newspaper titles are there, but but they are not classified in a form that would help us locate them. It is possible to identify some newspapers published in the United Kingdom by the language in which they were printed, which is one way of narrowing down diaspora newspapers, but it is an incomplete solution, since many will have been published in English.

The British Library catalogue primarily identifies a newspaper by its title, date range, place of publication and its geographical coverage. Traditionally, this has been enough. It is not the function of a research library to do the researcher's work for them. We provide the basic list, comprehensively compiled and accurately described, and you must do the rest. You must know what it is that you are looking for.

But one can argue that such an ordering of the data is a form of suppressing identity. The catalogue becomes a political tool, creating conformity of identity through rules of description. Such an ordering reinforces the suppression of difference.

The function of the catalogue as something that replicates society's power structures is well known. Catalogues and classification systems are never the value-free orderings of information that they advertise themselves as being, but are instead profoundly imbued with the values of the dominant society that maintains them.

There is an argument, therefore, that the newspaper catalogue could be doing more to identify different forms of newspaper by their audience and purpose, to counteract this impulse towards conformity.

Should this be a component of news cataloguing, and if so how should it be implemented, both for future news publications and retrospectively? How do we identify a news community, and how do we determine what their understanding of the news was, and from what sources they gained the fullest picture of the world in which they found themselves? As said, the definition of news we are employing is that news is information of current interest for a specific audience. This suggests that identification of audience should be playing a far greater part in how we catalogue newspapers than is currently the case. Cataloguing by nation and geographical area presupposes that all news is geographically determined, but this is not so. Those specific audiences may be determined by gender, age, special interest, belief, language or ethnicity. A community-led understanding of the news may be the necessary way forward - both in how we manage news collections today, and how we revisit the discoverability of our historical news archives.

One of the major growth areas for news in the UK is hyperlocal news. Hundreds of news websites, and in some cases newspapers, have been published independently on an amateur or semi-professional basis, that are aimed at small communities across the UK. Most of these hyperlocals are geographically based, as their name suggests, but they indicate the ways in which traditional structures for the production, ownership and identity of news are changing. they suggest that news is something that comes from us, however we choose to identify ourselves, rather than something that is decided for us. This is the logic of social media, where each of us selects the news world that is meaningful to them.

Volumes

Another imperative is the direction in which digital libraries are going. As with some other national libraries, the British Library is now archiving its national portion of the Web, including newspaper websites and other news sites. The figures involved are overwhelming, with the number of pages being archived each now to be counted in the billions. Indeed, the amounts of published content coming in across all formats is growing at a rate beyond the comprehension of the ordinary researcher. When we curators at the Library give talks to people about what we are collecting you can see their eyes glaze over. There is too much to take in.

In such a world, there is a paradox. The more we acquire the harder it is to find the resource to make discovery through our catalogues practical, yet the greater the imperative must be to enhance discovery for those who do not need to discover everything, just something.

As collections grow exponentially, so does the need to contextualise them also grow. This cannot be managed by humans, at the rate things are going. It will need to come from algorithms, automated topic extraction, mapping tools and other forms of artificial intelligence. The future of cataloguing is automation, and in such a world it will be our job, as curators, to ensure that the machines address the right needs.

Those of us who manage news archives must rethink how we are managing them. When discoverability becomes overwhelming, and when traditional cataloguing structures hide records that do not conform, such as diaspora newspapers, then we must question what we are doing - and make changes. There will always be the single list of every title that we hold, because ultimately an archive is a collection of discrete objects, each identifiable by a title and a date. But we must think for whom the news has been shaped and published. We must produce discovery tools that bring to the fore different parts of the collection - a multi-faceted approach to replace the linear. We must be mindful of the identity of the news that we archive, without which it is not going to be news at all.