NOTE: This post was updated Sunday, October 12, 2014 with details about the redesigned Historical Oregonian (1861-1987).
There is lots of information about history in books, but sometimes the best way to find out about the past is to look at materials which were created at the time you are studying. Newspapers can be a great tool for this kind of primary source research.
People investigating local history here in Multnomah County are lucky -- there have been many, many newspapers published in Portland, Gresham, and other local cities over the last 150 years. The longest-lived Portland newspaper, the Oregonian, is also considered by many to be the “paper of record” for the state, and Multnomah County Library cardholders can read, search and browse every page of nearly every issue of the Oregonian published 1861-1987, using the library’s Historical Oregonian (1861-1987).
Let’s try a search! Start by going to the Historical Oregonian (1861-1987) page on the library's website, click on the blue Begin using this resource button, and then type in your library card number and PIN.
Say you want to see articles about the Rose Festival parades from past years. Type the keywords “rose parade” into the search box at the upper left corner of the page (remember to use those quotation marks -- they limit your search to the phrase “rose parade” with the words right next to each other and in order). Now click on Search.
This gives you 1,781 results! Quite a lot. The reason it's so many is that your search returns every occurrence of the phrase "rose parade" in every article, headline, or advertisement in every day's paper from 1851 to 1987. Whew!
As you can see, the articles in your list of results aren't arranged by publication date; they're ranked with the most "relevant" article at the top. If you want change the ranking to see your list of articles in chronological order, click on one of the options listed next to Sort by at the top right of the results list. You can also change the ranking before you even do your search, by choosing the sort order you want in the Sort by dropdown menu up in the search area.
But however you sort the articles, you probably don’t have time to read 1,781 of them in one sitting. So let’s find some ways to get a shorter, more precise list.
One great way to narrow your search is by limiting to articles from a specific date range. To see articles about the 1952 parade, type the year 1952 into the second search box at the top of the screen (the one labelled "Date"). Click on the yellow Search button again to see articles published in 1952 that contain the phrase "rose parade."
This gives you a much more manageable list of 69 articles. If you find one you like, click on the snippet that shows the headline (or on the View article link), and you'll get a new page which shows the article.
Let's try a different way to narrow your search -- by adding a second topic. If you are a long-time lover of the Grand Floral Parade, you've probably been to at least a few parades held under cloudy or rainy skies. Portland in June, right? Let's look for articles about rainy parades.
You can start a new search by typing your new search terms into the search area at the top of the screen. This time, you want the phrase"rose parade" (with the quotes, just like before!), and the word rain in the first box. The Date box should be blank, but this time, change the Sort by box to say Oldest matches firstI. Now click on the yellow Search button again to see your results.
This gets you a nice list of 55 articles, arranged in reverse chronological order.
Let's take a look at one of the articles. Scroll down the page a bit and you'll see an article from the front page of the June 13, 1941 paper. Click on the snippet of the headline (it's zoomed in kind of far, so only the words "For Rose Parade" are showing). This gets you the full page so you can read the article.
It turns out, the article does include the word "rain," but only because the weather was forecast to be dry! The author says "the weatherman found no threat of rain to mar Friday's Rose Festival floral parade although some cloudiness is expected to continue." 1941, I guess, was a good year for parade-goers.
Here are some more tips and things to remember about using the Historical Oregonian (1861-1987):
- When you search this resource, you are searching the words and phrases that appeared in the newspaper. If you're looking for a topic that can be expressed in different ways, you might need to try different terms. For example: sometimes, journalists used the phrase "rose parade" to describe the big daytime parade that's always on a Saturday in June. But they might also have used the phrase "rose festival parade," or they might have said something like "the parade at this year's Rose Festival." Nowadays we have several parades every year, so it might also be good to search specifically for the "grand floral parade" or the "starlight parade." If you don't see the results you expect, try a different phrase or term. If your search finds only a few articles, read them and see if they offer any clues as to new search terms you can use that might get better results.
- These old newspapers are historical artifacts, and they reflect the culture, attitudes, and language of their times. Articles and advertisements from the past may stereotype individuals and groups, or use terms that are now considered derogatory and offensive. Historical newspapers may also use other out-of-date or unfamiliar terms, for example: filling station instead of the modern gas station, or automobile instead of car.
- Librarians are here to help! Ask whenever you have questions, or any time you'd like more searching tips. You can contact a librarian by email, chat, text or telephone, or of course ask the librarian on duty any time you're at the library in person.
Now that you have a little grounding in how the Historical Oregonian (1861-1987) works, take it out for a spin! And share your discoveries in the comments, if you like.
Do you have more questions about searching for historical newspaper articles? Are you working on a local history project? If you'd like specific advice or help with your research challenges, do please Ask the Librarian!