Newspapers are often an under-utilized resource in genealogy, a treasure trove of unique information. The obituaries, social columns, news bulletins, various notices, and even advertisements are invaluable for their ability to tell us things we would have a difficult time finding elsewhere, as well as giving an authentic look into the culture of the time and place. In my own research, I have personally encountered more than one research mystery that only became clear when I searched for the relative in a newspaper database.
Why, then, have they so often been underused? Most of this stems from their uniqueness and inaccessibility. Newspapers have been created throughout history by various towns, individuals, organizations, religious groups, and political factions. They are not a government record (like the census) that could be easily rounded up and made available. Because they are published on such a regular basis, having a complete collection of a historic title can also be difficult – not just because newspapers have always been considered disposable, but because the paper on which most newspapers are printed does not lend itself well to preservation.
Often, to find a newspaper, a researcher has had to go to the Family History Library or write letters to local genealogical societies in hopes that someone would kindly look up that obituary for them (and that they even had the paper to begin with!). This is still a commonly used method.
Fortunately, this difficulty is being addressed at a rapid rate. Many newspaper websites have sprung up over the last few years, filling that void. Some are free (such as Utah Digital Newspapers or Wyoming Newspapers), though most are subscription databases. One recent site in particular is striving to make an unprecedented contribution.
Elephind.com is a new, free tool for the genealogist’s kit. Functioning as an aggregator, it brings the newspapers from many different collections into one place and has the potential to save researchers real time, since they no longer have to visit multiple websites to know what’s available.
In the words of Elephind’s creators, the service admittedly isn’t “there yet”; it currently has a little over 2,600 titles and does not currently pull from any of the main subscription newspaper databases like NewspaperArchive, Genealogy Bank, or Newspapers.com. It should also be noted that though Elephind itself is free, you cannot view the newspapers themselves there. It just acts as a directory, notifying you of the existence of that article elsewhere. When you click on the link, Elephind takes you to that host’s website, which may or may not be free.
Those caveats aside, it is an extremely exciting development and can only go up from here! Even now in its relative infancy, the database contains wide-ranging collections from the U.S. Library of Congress to the National Library of Australia, and even local public libraries. Interested patrons can join a mailing list through which they are any time a new collection is added.
The search function allows you to narrow your query by place, time period, and newspaper name. Non-English newspapers will also be included. The website is user-friendly and includes tips for searching and a small “getting started” tutorial. In saving researchers time and money, a site like Elephind makes genealogy much more accessible. It allows family history researchers to prioritize where to spend their money without having to commit first.
Overall, it is a much-needed development in the genealogy world that will be watched and used with great interest over the coming months and years. The preservation of newspapers is an important undertaking, and one that is being facilitated by increasing advances in digitization and public awareness. Elephind is now one more resource in Legacy Tree’s repertoire.