A Step-by-Step Guide to Researching Historical Newspapers
For many record groups used by genealogists, there are intuitive molds of sorts for getting started. The U.S. Census is taken on the “0” year every decade. American vital records are usually documents controlled on the state level. The type and availability of church registers is determined by a denomination’s beliefs.
But historical newspapers? Well, they break the mold as a record group—with not only diversity of content but also a multitude of sources that need to be used harmoniously for a researcher to feel confident that all the bases have been covered and enough evidence has been gathered to constitute genealogical proof.
Framing the Search
There’s been an absolute explosion of historical newspaper pages being made digital (and searchable with optical character recognition or OCR technology), but there are offline resources, too, and getting the maximum out of newspapers requires some savvy and planning.
Like any genealogical search, it starts by formulating a specific goal and then using “time and place”—the time frame of your research and the geographic place in which it happened—to determine what overall genealogical resources are best (for instance, are there civil vital records for the time and place? Or do you need to rely more on church registers for births, marriages, and deaths?). Historical newspapers almost always will be part of your research plan if you’ve educated yourself about all the different types of things that will appear in their pages—the list runs on and on, from business openings and “who visited who” social columns (which were the nineteenth century’s social media!) to estate sales and other legal notices.
Even when it comes to recordings of death, realize that newspapers can provide more than the standard obituaries. There may also be paid death notices, with more or less information than the obit. A person’s passing may be mentioned by a columnist. An unusual manner of death may have warranted an article.
Quick and Dirty?
Then you need to decide whether you want to start with a “quick and dirty” or more methodical search. No judgment either way … you are the one who knows how much time you have for genealogy! In a “quick and dirty” search, you start by examining free collections of digitized historical newspapers, such as Chronicling America, state newspaper project sites, local library sites, and the Old Fulton NY Post Cards site.
After this, you’ll want to look at what paid sites—such as Newspapers.com, GenealogyBank.com, NewspaperArchive.com, and Accessible Archives—have for your time period and geographic area of interest as a way of determining whether they are worth the subscription price for you to invest.
Searching Historical Newspapers? Make a Plan
After you’ve exhausted “quick and dirty” searches—or if you want to be more methodical from the start—you can use the U.S. Newspaper Directory (found at Chronicling America) or WorldCat (with more up-to-date listings than the directory if your time of interest is close to the present day) to come up with a definitive list of newspapers to seek out through free, subscription or publishers’ websites. And digitized newspapers are only the starting point. Many newspapers are not digitized or the OCR that makes them searchable has defects.
Use the U.S. Newspaper Directory or WorldCat to see library holdings of newspapers on microfilm or paper form. You should also seek out published and unpublished abstracts of events and clippings scrapbooks from newspapers; many unpublished abstracts can be found in county historical and genealogical libraries.
Finally, expand the time period to account for “this day in history” articles and enlarge the geographic area to include the birthplace or former residences of the person you’re researching.
Researching Historical Newspapers Step-by-Step
The following is adapted from The Family Tree Historical Newspapers Guide (Family Tree Books, 2018) by James M. Beidler.
Step 1: The starting point for your research is formulating a specific goal and then using “time and place”—the time frame of your research and the geographic place in which it took place—to determine what resources are best.
Step 2: Reach out to look for a list of all newspapers in the right area with the following tools, the U.S. Newspaper Directory and WorldCat. Based on what you find, search or browse free newspaper collections (Chronicling America, state newspaper sites, local library sites, and Old Fulton NY Post Cards (which despite the name has more than postcards and isn’t limited to New York newspapers!), and then look for any coverage of the newspapers you want in the subscription databases (Newspapers.com, GenealogyBank.com, NewspaperArchive.com, and Accessible Archives).
Step 3: Once you’ve exhausted all the online collections of newspapers, you’re not done by a longshot. Many newspapers are not digitized or the OCR that makes them searchable has defects. Your process becomes one of going through additional possible sources of newspapers:
- Pay attention to where the U.S. Newspaper Directory shows the microfilm or paper copies of a title (many of these will be state libraries and some academic libraries).
- Seek out published and unpublished abstracts of events and clippings scrapbooks from newspapers. You’ll find many unpublished abstracts in county historical and genealogical libraries.
- Learn the OCR pitfalls that may affect your searches and do new searches to account for them.
- Are ethnic and foreign language or international newspapers relevant to your search? If so, make sure you have captured them in your searches of the U.S. Newspaper Directory
Step 4: Still looking for more? Go back to your original premises for time and place and consider the following:
- Expand the time period to account for “this day in history” or other “look back” articles.
- Enlarge the geographic area to include the birthplace or former residences of the person you’re researching or to account for other newspapers that may have reported on an event.
Putting It into Practice
For our example, we’re looking for information about someone in the town of Aurora, Beaufort County, North Carolina, in 1942 (that’s our Step 1 “time and place”—check and check!).
Proceeding to Step 2, searching the U.S. Newspaper Directory on Chronicling America for “North Carolina, Beaufort, Aurora” brought back just one hit, The Pamlico News (Bayboro, N.C.), in neighboring Pamlico County. Unfortunately, this newspaper only began in 1977, likely too late to help, unless they do some sort of “50 years ago today” type feature with items from other newspapers.
Based on there being no newspaper shown in Aurora, it appeared that newspapers serving that town may have been based not only in Beaufort County but also Pamlico and Craven Counties. So essentially, we went to Step 4 (“Enlarge the geographic area”) and the directory was searched for each of the counties (without putting in a town name), which resulted in three viable entries:
- Washington Daily News of Washington, Beaufort County
- The Sun Journal of New Bern, Craven County
- The Free Will Baptist, a religious newspaper based in New Bern
Looping back to Step 2, free sites (including DigitalNC’s online newspapers) as well as the leading pay sites included only a partial run of the Washington Daily News from 1909 to 1916, too early to help.
With online copies eliminated as an option, Step 3 was activated and some local library resources located; the Craven County libraries have a full run of the Sun Journal on microfilm and the Beaufort County libraries have an online obituary index (from unspecified newspapers) available. Contacting the libraries for access options is the best deal in this case!