26 Ways to Become a Better Historical Newspaper Researcher – Alphabetically

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I have been doing old newspaper research for a long time, and it is not difficult. It just takes persistence and a bit of creativity to be successful. And experience and some knowledge helps too.

Here is a way for you to achieve more success – one letter of the alphabet at a time!

  • A is for Always write down the title of the newspaper, the volume number and date of publication and the page number where you found the article – WHEN you find the article. Otherwise, like a number of early obituaries that I have accumulated, that information I didn’t record and now I don’t know what newspaper they came from.
  • B is for Burial Information which is generally found in an obituary in the newspaper. BUT be careful – sometimes the final resting place is not accurate in the obituary. Maybe the family changed their minds; maybe the cemetery closed and all the graves were moved to another cemetery after the first one closed.
  • C is for Crowdsourcing – if the online site you are using gives you the opportunity to correct scanning and OCR errors – please do so if you find an error (and there are many!) Pay it forward.
  • D is for Divorces –  Divorces Filed and Interlocutory Decrees are NOT Divorces. Only Divorces Granted count.
  • E is for Exchange a “b for an “h”, and a “c” for an “e” when doing crafting your search criteria. Often the OCR process when dealing with old fuzzy newsprint or poorly scanned microfilms can mix up these two letters.
  • F is for Fulton New York Post Cards – a free site created and maintained by ONE man, a volunteer who has amassed an Online Newspaper Database that is currently 3 times the size of the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection. My hero!
  • G is for Get Ready to have a thick skin when you find that your Great Great Uncle was a murderer, a rum runner or a pimp!
  • H is for Heaton’s Index to Digitised British and Irish Newspapers Online
  • I is for Is the online newspaper database based on fuzzy searching? It is important to know as you get more proficient since the type of search may or may not dictate HOW you search. You might want to refer to this article – When is Fuzzy Search Too Fuzzy? Elephind Tells Us!
  • J is for Jump to specific pages in the same newspaper title. For example, if obituaries are usually published on Page 15 and you know a person’s death date, jump to page 15 for that date and the few days following. Often the index may not produce the result that you want so intelligent browsing will produce results.
  • K is for Keep an open mind. Search every single section of a newspaper. You would be surprised what you can find if you are open to your ancestor appearing in any and every section of the paper. What about classified ads? Might tell you the name of a business that they owned. How about ads for jobs but not Help Wanted – Help Offered. In old papers, people would put an ad for jobs that they were seeking. This will tell you what skills that they had. Even those ads for miracle elixirs and cures might have your ancestor in it – sometimes with a photo.  My great grandfather appeared in an ad hawking a miracle stomache ailment cure.
  • L is for Legal Notices and Land Applications and Land Sales. Check out the Legal section of the newspaper for these, divorce, bankruptcy and business sales.
  • M is for Marriage – issuance of a license is NOT a marriage. Maybe the wedding didn’t take place or wasn’t recorded. But the “Marriage Licenses Issued” section in the Vital Statistics part of the paper is not proof that a wedding occurred.
  • N is for Names of women in older newspapers. Most of the time if they were married they were not referred to by their given name but as Mrs. Robert Smith – their husband’s name.
  • O is for Obituaries, in my opinion the “holy grail” of newspaper research. There is so much information that can guide your other research that can be found in an obituary. See 30 Reasons Why Searching for Obituaries is Like Finding Gold
  • P is for Politics – in older newspapers, precinct captains and precinct workers were named; several of my own ancestors participated in helping people vote. A good way to discover other activities of your family tree inhabitants.
  • Q is for Quit thinking that all newspapers have been digitized, and for those that have been, indexed as well. Find your nearest genealogy or university library and discover what they have in their collection. Poring over newsprint without an index is tedious but if you know someone’s date of death and are looking for an obituary, these manual searches may be your only option.
  • R is for Read – read the Newspapers! section of this website to find out a lot more about researching historic newspapers.
  • S is for Subscribe. Yes there are a lot of free newspaper online sites and going to a library unless it is far away is free. But there are subscription sites like Genealogy Bank and Newspapers.com and others. And you don’t have to subscribe all the time. Get a few month subscription if you can, do a bunch of research and then maybe pick up the subscription again in a year or two. That is unless you have thousands in your tree and want to get newspaper articles about all of them.
  • T is for Tedious, because searching online or offline through newspapers is tedious work. Make sure that you do this research when you are well fed and well rested, because you need to be at the top of your game so your searches are the best they can be. You don’t want to search the same thing over and over again because you were not in tiptop shape mentally.
  • U is for University of Pennsylvania’s List of Online Newspapers available in America.
  • V is for Verify that the birth location is not based on a term often used in obituaries – “native of.”  Just because it states that a person is a native of Berlin, Germany does not mean that they were born there. They could have been born 200 kilometers away and moved to Berlin when they were three months old and spent the next 40 years there; hence someone uses the term “native of,” not knowing any better.
  • W is for Wikipedia’s List of Online Newspaper Archives
  • X is for Xtra – extra thought must go into saving the articles that you find online. Is the image large enough? Is it readable later? Are there options with the online site to download the image in different formats? Think ahead so you don’t have to do the search again at a later date.
  • Y is for YouTube – check out my YouTube Channel where there are over 50 video tutorials about searching newspapers for articles about your ancestors.
  • Z is for Zebra – black and white – just like newspapers.

So there you have it. There are a lot more hints but get these down and you will become an expert before you know it.


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5 Comments

  1. The link for the letter “H” takes me to your research. Could you please send me the Heaton site? Loved this article and your Newspaper blog, in general. Hate searching newspapers but you inspire me to keep at it.
    Thanks

    1. I can relate to G in a BIG way! I found out my 5th cousin once removed killed his three children — ages 4, 2, and 4 months — and attempted to kill his wife — in 1952. Took a while to sort through that one. I blogged about it pretty extensively: http://bitly.com/bundles/o_4ap9lbrola/1

  2. Also with regard to death notices, even after you find one, keep checking for more info for a week or two after that date. I have found follow-up articles with more info than was contained in the first notice. The editor of the paper wrote a nice editorial about my 2x great grandfather that included personal observations about his character and a sweet family story related to him be my great aunt.

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