What You Must Know to Succeed at Historical Newspaper Research

Before you start researching old newspapers, or if you wish to increase your skills and improve your results, please take a moment and read below a few things that will help you understand what you are dealing with,  This will not only improve your results, but can lessen your frustration.

Most people think that all they have to do is enter a first name and a last name in a search box; hit Go and up will come all of these old newspaper articles about their ancestors. Unfortunately it isn’t that easy.

A very important thing to know is about scanning and Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Newspapers are printed on paper (and not very high quality paper). Paper does not hold up well over time and can yellow, get brittle etc. If the online database scans directly from paper it can be an issue because of aging and condition. Also ink spots, folds and creases do appear and they can disrupt the accuracy of the digitization and recognition process.

Many newspapers have been scanned in the past to microfilm. Great! When the online database tries to digitize the microfilm, a scan of the microfilm has to be performed. But then again, maybe the microfilm is a copy of a previous microfilm reel or a copy of a copy. Now we are dealing with at least second and often third or fourth generation copies when the OCR process is applied.

The OCR process is simply a way to convert the ink dots on the newspaper to digital form. That is a series of characters that ultimately will make a word, etc. So if your ancestors’ name is “Washington”, and the article includes that word, one would hope that the OCR process will convert all those dots that make up the letters of the word “Washington” to the same letters in the digitized database. And therein lies the challenge. The resulting database content depends on the quality of the scanned image that is “fed” to the OCR software, as well as the capability of the software itself. I guarantee you that the intended word “Washington” will show up in the database in some instances as “Washingtom” or Wa5h1ngt0n” or maybe even “W&)*^q#om*”. The last example is no joke. This is what you are faced with. You will need to have patience.

Let’s discuss a couple of things that if you take the time to read them, will enhance your online search experience:

  • All online newspaper websites are not created equal. Some are easy to use and others are not so easy. You will get frustrated at some and enjoy others more. Be aware of this ahead of time.
  • There will be lots of instances where you swear that an article should exist but it doesn’t and you can’t find it.
  • It is important to know the dates of newspapers that are available in an online database before you start searching. If you are looking for articles in the Sacramento Bee for the year 1892 and the database that you are searching has newspaper pages available from 1895 through 1922, you are wasting your time if 1892 and only 1892 is your target. It seems simple but it is easy to forget to check dates first.
  • Plan your research and research your plan. I am a believer in stream of consciousness type research or ad hoc researching, but it should not be the main course of your research “meal.” Think about what you are searching for before you start. And a written plan is not a bad idea.
  • It is a good idea to use a Newspaper Research Log, where you can include your planned research including the targeted person, event, etc. Included will be your search results, including where you searched.

Your attitude must be in the right place. This is rewarding research if you mentally prepare, have a plan and believe in having fun.

Thus, understanding the challenge and arming yourself with a positive attitude is half the battle. The remaining battle is to outsmart the OCR process that produces a less than optimal result. Another challenge is to know how people wrote articles, using abbreviations, nicknames, misspellings and the like. (There are several Quick Sheets dedicated to showing you ways to improve the creation of your search criteria). Your job if you are successful is to craft your search criteria, knowing that the index often bears no resemblance to the article as it was originally written. If you can do all of that and keep smiling, then you will find what if you are looking for, if indeed it is findable in the first place.

Here is a list of newpaper-related Quicksheets that will help you.

Good Luck. Keep a positive attitude. Be persistent.

Happy Hunting!

2 replies on “What You Must Know to Succeed at Historical Newspaper Research”

Wow! Can’t thank you enough for all the work you have done and then to so generously pass it along. Please know how much I appreciate the work you have done.

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