Cambridge University Libraries just started a one-month trial of RetroNews, a database from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which provides access to about 2000 (primarily French) newspaper titles published between 1631 and 1950. Part of its content is available only by subscription, in contrast to the BnF’s freely accessible material on its digital library Gallica (only 150 of the 2000 RetroNews titles are also available on Gallica).
The subscription to RetroNews offers advanced access to the digitised periodicals and advanced search functions, in particular the option to download results in pdf or text format. It should also be possible to extract search results in csv or xls format; and to request the extraction of text and metadata of a specific search. RetroNews provides access to 4000 items of new editorial content produced by academics and journalists, including articles, interviews, videos, and podcasts / readings of the newspaper pieces by professional actors.
The treatment of digitised material through OCR (Optical Character Recognition) allows for searches in the text (although there will be inaccuracies). The text has also been subject to categorisation and large-scale extraction of places, people and events, through the Media Topics taxonomy (IPTC). Reading functionalities include the option to use “Luminosité inversée”, or inverted luminosity, which can help decipher the text when the digitised newspaper is of poor quality.
The “Titres de presse” can be searched directly, while the “Au quotidien” section lists the latest editorial content, and is related to current topics of interest. The rubric “Programmes scolaires” (based on the French schools’ curriculum) is available to all. The content of Retronews is multimedia, but contains a striking amount of both textual and visual material.
Below is a list of categories to browse RetroNews’s editorial content, which is available during the trial:
- “Cycles”, such as « Femmes artistes: des pionnières dans les années folles » (with highlights on Claude Cahun, Gertrude Stein or Sonia Delaunay), « Être un Noir de France pendant le moment colonial », or « la mode dans la presse française » (including pieces on Dress during the French Revolution and a History of Dandysm)
2. “Epoques”, time periods organised chronologically starting with Grand siècle (1631-1715), then Siècle des Lumières (1715-1789), Révolution (1789-1799), Consulat et Empire (1799-1814) (which includes sections on the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo; Egyptology; the reinstitution of Slavery in 1802; the sale of Louisiana to the USA in 1803; Napoleon’s death at St Helena in 1821…) etc.
3. “Thématiques”, with 15 large headings: Histoire de la presse; Arts (Littérature, peinture, théâtre, cinéma, sculpture, musique, opéra…); Catastrophes (Accidents maritimes et ferroviaires, incendies, massacres, bouleversements météorologiques…); Colonies; Conflits et relations internationales; Économie (Histoire et débats économiques, révolutions industrielles, luttes ouvrières…); Environnement; Éducation; Faits divers; Justice; Médias; Politique; Religions; Santé (Health); Sciences; Société; Sports et loisirs.
The tool « Fréquence du terme » (term frequency), available during the trial, offers users the opportunity to visualise and compare how often one or several terms occur in the database.
Creating an individual account (by entering your name and email) allows you to save “starred” pages (“Mes sélections”), extracts (“Mes extraits”) and annotations (“Mes annotations”). The items saved during the trial will be kept in your account for a period of 3 years. In your account, you can also save past searches, which will be available for the duration of the trial.
Given the amount of material included in RetroNews, the challenge is often how to sift it. Nevertheless, Retronews does not include all historical French newspapers: it started with titles selected by experts, and needs to be completed with the consultation of other titles, either only available in print, or digitised through other means (see Presse locale ancienne: a bibliography still in progress, which lists local French press titles and identifies available digitisations). Among the A-Z Databases: Francophone Area Studies Cambridge University Library databases, you can also use Europresse, which provides access to current newspapers but also to some of their archives.