Illusionary Order: Cautionary Notes for Online Newspapers

By Ian Milligan

The splash page for the Globe and Mail's "Canada's Heritage Since 1844" website.

The splash page for the Globe and Mail's "Canada's Heritage Since 1844" website.

Online digitized newspapers are great. If you have access (either through a free database or via a personal or library subscription), you can quickly find the information you need: a specific search for a last name might help you find ancestors, a search for a specific event can find historical context for it (i.e. the Christie Pits Riots, or a certain strike), and generally the results are beautiful, render relatively well, and are – crucially – immediate.

In some ways, however, poor and misunderstood use of online newspapers can skew historical research. In a conference presentation or a lecture, it’s not uknown to see the familiar yellow highlighting of found searchwords on projected images: indicative of how the original primary material was obtained. But this historical approach generally usually remains unspoken, without a critical methodological reflection. As I hope I’ll show here, using Pages of the Past uncritically for historical research is akin to using a volume of the Canadian Historical Review with 10% or so of the pages ripped out. Historians, journalists, policy researchers, genealogists, and amateur researchers need to at least have a basic understanding of what goes on behind the black box.

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