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Newspapers and other online news sources from the 17th – 21st centuries: Good practice for effective searching

A guide to historical and current newspapers and news sources, covering the 17th to 21st centuries. Includes searching tips, outline common problems and lists key resources available to Oxford scholars.

Choosing search terms

  1. Think carefully about your keywords before you enter them in a search engine or database.
    • What are the key concepts in your research topic?
    • Can the key concepts be expressed in different ways?  Are there alternative phrases or synonyms
    • What about alternative spellings?
  2. When you enter your keywords you can use the following 'boolean operators' and connectors
    • AND (between all words which must be present in search results) - use to combine keywords/concepts e.g. child AND refugees AND Britain
    • OR - use between synonyms or alternative terms to indicate that one or other word must be present e.g. child OR minor OR juvenile OR youth
    • specific phrase” – use quotation marks to search for a specific phrase, e.g. “asylum seeker”
    • * (truncation) finds alternative word endings, e.g. child* finds child, children, childhood, etc
    • ? - use to replace a single character e.g. minor? finds minor, minors but not minority
    • Proximity operators (NEAR, ADJ, SAME, w/ etc) - same as AND but the words must appear near to one another.
    • Sometimes the operators and particularly the proximity operator vary between databases.   Check the Help files in each database for details.
  3. Review your results carefully
    • If you get too many results, consider narrowing down your search by adding more concepts or by limiting to a particular time period or region
    • If you get too few results:  have you spelt all the words correctly? does the database you have chosen cover the correct period/region?    Consider searching for a broader topic by removing some of your keywords or using broader search terms.
    • When you find useful items, look at the language they have used.  Are there any words or concepts which you should add to your search?

Want more tips?  See the building your search example.

What are you searching

It is worth keeping in mind what you will be searching:

Some databases will allow you to specify which bits of content you wish to search – but in many cases you will not be able to control this.


Where are you searching

Think also about where you are searching.  Some of the historic databases will search the full newspaper rather than individual articles which can mean you get a lot of results.

More modern databases will search at article level.  Also some of the modern databases will allow you to specify which part of each article you want to search (for example you can search full text, headlines or lead paragraphs)

Headlines in modern newspapers are often unreliable for searching because they use puns or clever language – lead paragraph is a good option.

Also of interest: How The British Papers Overhauled Their Front Pages After Syria Vote, By Jack Mirkinson  08/30/2013 08:39 am ET | Updated Oct 30, 2013, accessed 25 July 2017

Mind your language!

Searching newspapers is also much more difficult than searching for books or journals. This is in part because they may use emotive or colloquial language or puns.

On the other hand some regular columns will always have the same title, so once you have found out what that is, it can help you to track down what you looking for.

In the case of historic newspapers you also need to think about what language would have been used at the time.

On the slide here we have two very different reports of what is essentially a banking scandal!