Press Tracer: Visualise Newspaper Lineage

||Written by Olivia VaneNovember 17, 2021Comments: 0

Last week we shared ‘Press Tracer’, a data visualisation to help trace the lineage of historical newspaper titles in the British Library.

One of the challenges making sense of historical newspapers held in the British Library is that they often change name (especially local papers). The Athletic Reporter in 1886 becomes The Reporter which in 1888 becomes The Midland Counties Reporter and General Advertiser, and so on.

Every time a newspaper does this, the Library creates a new catalogue record. This makes sense for a catalogue, but can be frustrating if you’re looking for a newspaper and it’s in lots of different places. Press Tracer is designed to help trace these lineages.

Searching, for example, for Leeds titles, we see The Yorkshire Post (which is still publishing today) was preceded by The Leeds Intelligencer which was established in the 1750s. There were four names changes before it became The Yorkshire Post. Press Tracer draws a timeline of these titles, and provides links to the British Library catalogue records for each (click the title name) and digitised copies (click the BNA markers to the left—BNA stands for British Newspaper Archive).

Press Tracer visualisation showing the title lineage of The Yorkshire Post
The title lineage of The Yorkshire Post


Example of newspaper page images from The Yorkshire Post and its predecessors
The Yorkshire Post and its predecessors

The design connects titles where there were name changes through history with branching baselines and timelines that cascade in a waterfall. When the titles align neatly we get a waterfall from one title to the next through time.

Press Tracer visualisation for newspaper titles from Fife, showing waterfall graphics aligned.
Waterfall forms between timelines of titles connected by name changes

But it doesn’t align perfectly every time. We used an automated process to link titles (there are 22,000 in this dataset) and occasionally there are errors in our linking. Read more on reliability at the bottom of this post. Sometimes newspaper cataloguing is just complicated. The tool, though, always lets you check the underlying cataloguing data by hovering over the <> icons that appear to the right of title names.

Press Tracer visualisation showing the waterfall design unaligned.
The waterfall design does not always perfectly align

Proviso—it’s better suited to looking at local newspapers, rather than the lineages of the big national papers, like The Times or The Guardian, where the cataloguing is complicated (multiple editions, weekend papers etc.).

Press Tracer is an adaption of a design we shared earlier this year—Press Picker—which was created to help with digitisation planning. Press Picker visualises the undigitised titles and shows their different formats held in the British Library. Rather than concentrating only on undigitised titles, this adaption of the interface shows newspaper title lineage across all titles, digitised or not. Read about Press Picker in our blog posts ‘Press Picker: visualising formats and title name changes in the British Library’s newspaper holdings‘ and ‘Press Picker code published‘.

Try Press Tracer yourself below. Dig into the code behind Press Tracer at https://observablehq.com/@oliviafvane/press-tracer.

Press Tracer




Key


Press Tracer key


Reliability

Titles connected by name changes are brought together in this interface using an automated process. It works well, but there are occasional errors. To check the named preceding/succeeding titles in the original data, hover over these arrows < > to the right of title names.

Name changes are recorded in the original data as free-text. In order to identify links across the dataset, we used string cleaning (computationally splitting the text data into words and handling punctuation and case) with Regular Expressions to find matching title names. If, in the data, title A is recorded to be continued by title B, we link to title C if the title names for B and C match, and if they both come from the same place (‘area of coverage’). But that’s not always unique. See the code we used to do the linking on Github.

Digitised newspapers

We highlight which titles are digitised: titles on the British Newspaper Archive (BNA) are linked directly, and those in the Burney Collection are marked. This interface runs off data from 2019, so more recently digitised titles are not linked.

Data

Press Tracer runs off the dataset ‘British and Irish Newspapers’, 2019, https://bl.iro.bl.uk/work/7da47fac-a759-49e2-a95a-26d49004eba8 , by British Library Contemporary British and British Library Collections Metadata. Read more about the background to this list in this blog post by Luke McKernan, Lead Curator News and Moving Image, British Library and in ‘Converting the British Library’s Catalogue of British and Irish Newspapers into a Public Domain Dataset: Processes and Applications’ in the Journal of Open Humanities Data.

Credits and Thanks

Press Picker / Press Tracer were developed by Olivia Vane, Kasra Hosseini and Giorgia Tolfo, as part of the Living with Machines project, and made possible due to the generous help of many people. Thank you Yann Ryan, British Library News curators, Luke McKernan, Stephen Lester, British Library Metadata Services, Jon Lawrence and Amy Krause.



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