Frequently in the course of my research people ask me what sort of sources I use when studying provincial print culture. Most historians love a good primary source. There is a secret thrill at discovering something, long buried in a dusty archive, which will change the way people understand an individual or event. The discovery of a new set of sources can make a historian’s career and open up new fields of exploration. Less glamorously, amazing historical knowledge can be gained by examining existing sources in new ways, and mining tiny pockets of information from scattered and diverse source material.
One of the problems of studying provincial print culture is that source material is often difficult to find. Most of the surviving publisher’s archives come from the largest and most long-lived publishers: think John Murray, or Mathew Carey, or Longman and Co. (Though these larger archives can contain an amazing amount of material relevant to provincial print culture.) Very rarely do we find surviving archives for small printers and publishers in provincial towns. This is partially why so few have studied provincial print culture, and why so many are curious about my source material.
Simply put, provincial newspapers are one of my favorite, and most useful sources. Provincial papers are multidimensional sources. They can be used in a variety of ways and they provide information through their text, paratext, and materiality. Newspapers carry a wealth of details about their printers and editors. They can tell you about distribution routes, prices and subscribers as well as the political affiliations and business associations of their owners. Readers can learn about the capital available to the printers, and the quality of their type and paper supply. For scholars of print culture the importance of local newspapers extends beyond the information they convey on their pages. Their simple existence tells a story about the local demand for print, making them one of the most valuable sources for the study of provincial print culture.
For scholars of any area, sitting down and reading longer runs of local papers can give unparalleled access to the life of a community. The advertisements provide details of available goods and services. Editorials highlight local concerns. Even the foreign news can hint at the larger communication networks available to local readers. Taken together these things begin to reveal the rhythm of local life.
Amidst the mundane details of everyday life, small gems can rekindle our fascination with history and keep us eagerly reading. One of my favorite gems is the above advertisement. Though of little direct significance, Spottee the horse reminds me of the joys of reading the newspaper, and how much it can tell us about provincial communities.