Data-mining eighteenth-century newspapers

Use innovative research techniques to understand historical data.

Due to COVID-19, delivery of the programme has slightly changed and is outlined below:

Key Information
  • Gain experience of using digital sources in historical research
  • Work collaboratively with another student
  • Receive training and mentorship from academics
  • Commitmentyou will negotiate participation with researchers, but expect to work for the duration of the Third Term from the end of May to the end of June
  • Host AcademicProfessor Jon Stobart
  • Two positions are available
Detailed Information

Newspapers are a familiar source for historians, with news articles and advertisements offering a wealth of information on political, social, economic and cultural topics. The digitisation of many newspapers has opened up the possibility of large-scale quantitative analysis via a range of data-mining techniques, often based on searches for key words and phrases.

This Third Term activity utilises the technique on a relatively small scale, but links into two larger pieces of research.

The first explores the provenance of goods being advertised in eighteenth-century newspapers by focusing on place names linked to a variety of groceries and textiles. The aim is to examine the shifting balance between British, European and global/colonial place-name associations, and to assess the meaning that these geographical descriptors carried, both for the retailer advertising the goods and the potential customer reading the advertisement.

The second examines the language used to describe goods being offered for sale at auctions of household belongings, usually after the death of the householder. Interest here centres on the descriptive terms and the items to which these were applied – e.g. handsome tables, elegant curtains or neat carriages – and the ways in which these varied over time and space. The aim is to identify the values attached to these goods and assess the ways in which these communicated their desirability.

The activity offers the opportunity for two students to work remotely but with each other, drawing on the same source and methodology to address different historical questions. The students thus have the opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences and to develop and share good practice.

The students will use the British Newspapers database available via the University library website to carry out key-word searches on an agreed range of provincial and national newspapers, entering their findings onto excel spreadsheet databases. Training will be provided in terms of both conducting searches of the newspapers and transferring data into the spreadsheets.

The project will give the students the experience of using digital sources and new skills in data mining. These skills, along with the insights gained into the historical themes/questions being addressed, could offer the starting point for dissertation projects. More broadly, they offer invaluable experience of and transferable skills in identifying, collecting and analysing data.