We hear all the time how newspapers are dying. But don’t let that fool you. Their value to researchers remains high. News items, especially in small towns, are a glimpse not only into our ancestor’s lives, but into the world they lived in. How much would it have cost for shoes or for that new Model T that Grandpa was so proud of? What were the political feelings of the time, and how do they differ from ours today?
Researching in local newspapers can also help answer many of the questions we have about our family. Look for:
- Marriages, anniversaries, and births
- Probate and Estate settlement announcements
- Visits from out of town
- Military troop movements for soldiers from the town
- Accidents and tragedies that would have affected your family
Where can I find newspapers? First, contact the local library, historical society, or county historian in the area your ancestor lived. Ask about indexes to newspapers, and if they are online, on microfilm, or in paper only. Occasionally, if they are on microfilm, you can request an inter-library loan through your own county library for a small fee. I have found unpublished index books created by local historical societies that cannot be found anywhere else.
Are newspapers online? Many newspapers are online, but not necessarily the ones you need. Some are indexed and some are not. Some of the popular places to check for the paper you are interested in are:
- Newspaper Archive ($, free to use at LDS Family History Centers)
- Fold3.com ($, free to use at LDS Family History Centers and in many local libraries)
- Ancestry.com ($, free to use at LDS Family History Centers and in many local libraries)
- Genealogy Bank ($)
- Check your local library. They often subscribe to historic newspaper sites that may be associated with surrounding areas.
What is OCR? Online newspaper projects often use a system known as Optical Character Recognition software. It allows newspapers to be word-by-word indexed and searchable. It isn’t perfect, especially since the type face or copy quality of the newspaper may cause words and letters to be mis-identified. When looking for my 5th Great-grandfather’s obituary at a site for Western New York papers, I had a hard time. His name, James Whitman, finally came out as “Jamas” before I could identify it. Be creative and patient in your search.
Don’t give up. Newspaper research can be time-consuming, and is dreaded by avid genealogists. However, it is also one of the most richest sources of information. I finally found where James Whitman was buried. No, not in his own obituary. I found it in the third of FOUR obituaries for his daughter, Anna. I knew that people often had multiple obituaries, but Anna was apparently very popular. The third obit stated that she was being buried next to her parents. That was the key. Anna has a headstone, but two plots lie unmarked beside her. Now we know. What will you find out, with some research into the newspapers of your ancestors’ times?