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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Montana Newspapers and Chronicling America

I just spent the day introducing 3-5 graders in Helena's gifted and talented program to our digitized newspaper collections. It was exhausting. (I'm in awe of those of you who do this every day.) And it reinforced my belief there are few sources more fascinating than historic newspapers.

In the past, we've asked students engaged in research projects to jump right into the digitized newspaper collections. It mostly didn't work. Because only a small portion of our collections are digitized, students aren't guaranteed to find material on their topic. And, more importantly, searching is a learned skill. So this time, we waded in slowly.

I started by showing a printed front page from the Montana Post (Montana's first newspaper). We talked about how it differed from newspapers today and speculated on why that was so.

Students then played "newspaper bingo," using other pages I had printed out from various Montana newspapers. (In choosing which pages to print, I made sure the newspaper name and publication date was on the page and I leaned toward pages with lots of advertisements, since those are less intimidating.) To save time, reduce frustration, and keep students' looking more broadly at the paper instead of searching only for specific topics, I defined bingo as completing any four squares on their card (they didn't have to be in a row).*

We then went from printed pages to the computer to go shopping. I first had the students share some of the things they would like to get as a present. We talked about whether those items would have been available in 1900. Then we  "stepped into our time machines" (the Chronicling America web page) to travel back in time to shop for gifts.** This shopping activity fascinated students, and it taught them how to limit a search to a particular span of years and state. It also introduced the idea of delimiting searches by using the "all the words" feature.

After we shared what we "bought", we talked a little about the different ways to search ("any of the words," "all the words," "within five words").

As time permitted, students also traveled back in time to investigate what was going on in the world 100 years before they were born. For this exercise they chose a specific date (their birth date minus 100 years.) Some chose to refine their search by looking in a specific state but most just entered the date range, hit search, and then started browsing.

By this time, they were much more comfortable navigating the online newspaper collections than they had been when we started. They knew a little about searching and also how to enlarge and navigate around specific pages so they could read various articles.

Finally, we talked about using the newspapers for research projects, including the fact that Montana has newspapers on two different sites and that there is no overlap between sites. We talked about how to figure out whether digitized newspapers existed for the time period the event you were researching occurred. Montana Newspapers has 382,000 full-text searchable pages from 54 newspapers (1885-2014) while Chronicling America has 257,000 pages from 59 Montana newspapers (1864-1922)--and many more pages from newspapers across the country. Logically, then, if you are researching the 1959 Hegben earthquake, you'll have better luck looking in Montana Newspapers for stories.  

Only a few of the students had time to actually conduct newspaper research while I was with them, but I'm pleased to say they were successful--much more so than other students we'd tried to introduce to the online newspaper collections. My teacher friends tell me it's all about scaffolding. I'm glad I finally listened!

*Billings librarian Ruth Ferris came up with both newspaper bingo and the shopping activity as part of larger units: "Thinking Like a Historian: Using Digital Newspapers in the Classroom"  and Girl from the Gulches: The Story of Mary Ronan Study Guide (by Cheryl Hughes). Thanks, Ruth!

**My colleague Zoe Ann Stoltz often says that the historic newspapers are the closest thing we have to a time machine, so I borrowed that analogy. Kids really liked buckling up in their time machines and/or climbing into their "tardis."

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