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W&L Purchases Times of London Digital Archive

Patrons of Washington and Lee University’s Library may now read the digital archives of the Times of London, one of the best-known newspapers in the world, which has been covering world events since 1785.

The library has purchased a searchable online database of the Times that will enable students, faculty and employees of the University, as well as visitors to the library, to access its contents from both on-campus and off-campus locations. The purchase was made possible through the generosity of the Friends of the Library at W&L.

The archive spans 215 years of history, from 1785 to 2008, and provides full text and images from over 11 million articles, commentary and perspective. The library has also purchased the 1822¬–2006 digital archive of the Sunday Times, a separate newspaper with a rich history of investigative journalism.

“We have had our eyes on purchasing the Times Digital Archive for a long time,” said Dick Grefe, associate professor and senior reference librarian at the library. “Part of the appeal is that W&L’s curriculum is more international than it used to be, and we care about what the Times said about European, Asian or African history.” W&L already has the digital archives of the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

Grefe pointed out that the possibilities for student research are now greater than ever. For example, to research the origins of the current crisis in the Middle East, students can look back through the Times archive to the creation of Syria and Saudi Arabia at the end of World War I, to see why the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) considers the national borders created then as artificial.

“Students can see what people at the time were writing about the creation of Syria, not just today’s journalists looking for background on the current crisis. The perspective was different then, and the atmosphere and orientation were different,” said Grefe.

“One of the things that we librarians and faculty do is to constantly remind students of the possibilities for their research,” Grefe continued. “Acquiring these sources and tools is only half the battle—we also have to let people know that they are available. Given the chronological span of the Times Digital archive, I think a broad array of W&L curricular areas will benefit from this, including history, journalism, literature, the arts and politics, to name a few.”

The W&L History Department was the first to benefit from the Times Digital Archive, when Sarah Horowitz, associate professor of history, brought students in her course “Scandal, Crime and Spectacle in the 19th Century” to read blow-by-blow accounts of the development of detective stories and how crime developed in Victorian England, from Jack the Ripper to Sherlock Holmes.

The contents of the archive are not limited to the big events of history: researchers can even read a 1965 account in the Times of a visit to England by W&L’s lacrosse team.

Grefe said that the digital Times published before the 1920s are in the public domain and can be accessed by anyone. However, only large companies have had the resources to acquire the rights to digitize the microfilm records of newspapers and develop the software that allows people to search page by page, and in some cases article by article. “These digital archives make pretty good research material if you’re trying to get a feeling for an era, a year, an event or to track a person,” said Grefe.

The library’s contract with the publisher allows W&L faculty and students to access the W&L network to use the Times Digital Archive, whether they are on campus or anywhere in the world. Visitors to the library can also access the Times archive, other newspaper archives, Lexis Nexis and Ancestry.com and other historical and contemporary databases through several computers in the library.

“It used to be that people didn’t get very excited about accessing microfilm archives of newspapers,” said Grefe, “but everyone can understand and make use of this online version of the Times. We are extremely grateful to the Friends of the Library for helping us make these major purchases that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.”

Friends of the Library at W&L was established in 2004 and has 242 active members, including W&L alumni, faculty, staff and community members who support library activities. During the past 10 years, the Friends has given the library approximately $200,000 in support of new materials, resources, furnishings and equipment. Individual members have also contributed thousands of dollars to restore and preserve items in W&L’s Special Collections.