The ONE Absolute BEST Way to Find More Ancestor Articles in Historic Newspapers Online


Other than making sure that you are searching in the right place geographically and using a date range that fits your ancestors lives, what follows is the ABSOLUTE BEST WAY to find more ancestor articles when searching online historic newspapers.

If you do newspaper research online as part of your genealogy and family history pursuits, then you have certainly been puzzled by some of the search results (or lack thereof) that you have received.

Creation of newspaper images and the application of the OCR process does not always result in what you might expect in the index which is used to match against your search criteria.

There is a simple explanation for this, and it all has to do with quality:

  • Quality of the original material – was the newspaper old and brittle when scanned?  Was it yellowed?  Ripped or torn? Creased? Did it have dirt on it or lots of ink spots?
  • Was the scan performed that creates the digital image and the index, from the original paper or from a microfilm of the paper, or worse a copy of the microfilm?  Every additional copy or scan degrades the resulting image and when the OCR process is applied, the index suffers.
  • Quality of the OCR software.- some are more accurate than others.
  • Quality of the writing in the original newspaper.  Did the author get your ancestor’s name spelled correctly?
  • Quality of the typesetter – did the typesetter get every word from the author set up correctly?

Thus what you are searching probably won’t be a perfect digital database that represents what was originally written by the author and newspaper publisher.

What can we do about it?  There are lots of things to try and this article deals with changing the letters in your search criteria.  For example – if the surname you are searching for is “Wilson” and the letter “n” is often converted to the letter “m” in the index from the OCR process, why not search for “Wilsom”?

I guarantee that changing your search letters will lead to an improvement of at least 5 to 10% in search results.  I heard from one reader that changing letters and letter pairs got them a 20% improvement!

So what letter pairs are often confused and exchanged in the index?

  • rn and m  (ar n and em)
  • h and b
  • h and n
  • Capital D and O
  • i, l, 1, /, !, and I are all often interchanged
  • 0 and O
  • c and e and o
  • r and n
  • [, ] and l (el)
  • nl and m  (en el and em)
  • R and B
  • n and ri  (en and ar eye)
  • v and y 
  • S and 8
  • S and 5
  • Z and 2
  • G and 6
  • G and O
  • B and 8
  • K and |<
  • Y and V

My suggestion?  Change your search criteria and exchange the letter string you are entering in the search box to include these alternative letter and letter pairs and see what happens.  In other words – deliberately misspell the name or word. You will be pleasantly surprised!

For other ways to improve your search results and to learn much more about becoming an expert newspaper researcher, check out the Newspapers! Page.  And by the way, on that page you will find links to over 15,000 free online historic newspapers from all over the world.


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    1. Lisa,
      These tips work for any country’s newspapers that use the Latin Alphabet (a, b,c, ……) such as in American, Australian and British newspapers.

  1. In my searching of the Australian Trove database it always fascinates me the way the OCR technology interprets some of the text, but it has never occurred to me to make use of this in my searching. Good work pulling together this list!
    The last few weeks I’ve been trying to find death notices in Trove – I’m going to go back and retry some of my searches using your alternative spellings.

    1. Some newspaper sites off “fuzzy” searches… Choosing a search that is one, two, or even more letters off from the search term will usually garner more results.

  2. A few more suggestions about substituting punctuation. “:” (colon) sometimes substitutes for “i” (lower case ‘eye’). “|” (pipe symbol on the keyboard above the backslash) can substitute for “l” (lower case ell). And sometimes “+” (plus) could be a lower case “t” (tee). I even found a number of cases where “$” (dollar sign) substituted for “s” (ess). It’s possible some of these might be reserved operators in some search software, so they may not behave as expected all the time.
    I find punctuation substitutions particularly frustrating. I realize OCR isn’t perfect, but you’d think it could start with the fairly reasonable assumption that exclamation marks rarely appear in the middle of words.

  3. One other tip that worked out this week – searching the Surname and the town the event occurred in — helped me find multiple obituaries — for some reason the OCR search didn’t pick up the person’s first name which was within six words from the surname but faded as the obituary was on the right side of the newspaper where it was faded.

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