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By their nature, serials -- magazines and newspapers -- often offer the most immediate published accounts of and reactions to historical events. In Europe, the development of the periodical press is a product of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The periodical press in America, and in many other locales colonized by European powers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is almost as old as the earliest colonies themselves.

The challenge of using serials as primary sources is twofold: first, identifying what publications existed in the locale and at the time you're interested in, and secondly, finding out if someone has vastly simplified your search for information by providing an index to the contents of the publication.


For many time periods and many countries, bibliographies or directories of periodicals and newspapers exist. For more recent historical periods, these may have been published contemporaneously with the publications themselves in order to identify the extent of this publishing as it occurred.


To locate bibliographies or directories of periodicals or newspapers, use the following subject headings in Orbis and the card catalog:


What everyone hopes to find, of course, is a well-prepared and complete index to the entire contents of whatever newspaper or periodical is found to be the most accurate reflection of the time period under study. But this is often not -- and in the case of newspapers, rarely -- the case. Much historical investigation is based on hours of pouring over issue after issue of a periodical or scanning reel after reel of microfilm, searching for the elusive mention of an event or a person. But indexes do exist, and it's always best to seek their existence first.


Because of the extensive coverage of newspapers, the moderate length of their articles, the number of articles contained in a single issue, and the frequency of their publication, it's unusual for a newspaper to have a printed index. Those that do, however, provide valuable access to the history of decades, not only in their own publications, but in identifying the date that an event was covered, may often help the researcher to identify articles in other newspapers as well. Perhaps the best known newspaper indexes -- for the length of their historical coverage as well as for the reputation of the publication indexed -- are the New York Times index (1851-) and Palmer's Index to the Times of London (and its successor)(1790-).

In Orbis and the card catalog, check for the existence of an index to a specific newspaper using the subject search [Name of the newspaper, e.g. Wall Street Journal]--Indexes.

American newspapers also have a history of having indexes produced by historical societies or by public libraries in the city or town where they're published. These indexes may still exist only in card form and only for a specific period of time. A good guide to the existence of these unpublished indexes (for the United States) is Milner, Anita Cheek. Newspaper indexes : a location and subject guide for researchers / by Anita Cheek Milner (Metuchen, N.J. : Scarecrow Press, 1977-1982. 3 v.)

While indexes to multiple newspapers do exist, they're not nearly as common as indexes to the contents of multiple periodicals.



Unlike newspapers, which generally have indexes to their own individual contents if they're indexed at all, it's more usual for periodicals to be indexed by separate periodical indexes which provide author and subject access to the contents of many -- sometimes hundreds -- of periodical titles. A commonly known and used index for this purpose is the Readers' guide to periodical literature which currently indexes almost two hundred general interest English- language (primarily American) periodicals. But the Readers' guide is also an example of an index of potentially great historical value, since it began in 1899 and thus provides indexing for many of the most widely-read American periodicals over the course of the twentieth century. Other examples include:

Some periodicals also provide their own indexes or have had indexes produced for them. These can be identified in Orbis and the card catalog by using the subject heading [Name of periodical]--Indexes.

For more specific examples of periodical and newspaper indexes for particular countries and time periods, see Bibliographic tools for research in history.


This material is based on the Web site created to support a series of colloquia in historical research offered by the Yale University Library. The initial site was prepared in August 1996 by Suzanne Lorimer, Susanne Roberts, Margaret Powell, George Miles, Fred Musto, Emily Horning, Cesar Rodriguez, Nancy Godleski, Richard Williams, Elizabeth Pauk, and Martha Brogan.

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