Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Old Newspapers are a valuable, often overlooked resource that can provide a treasure trove of genealogical information for the savvy family historian.
In the days before the internet could give us the latest news at our fingertips, newspapers were how our ancestors learned about current events and connected with each other. Learning how to use newspapers will help bring your ancestor’s stories back to life, and provide great rewards for your research.
Newspapers were the “Social Media” of their time – everything from national news to local happenings and gossip was printed in each edition. As a result, newspapers are an excellent resource for historical and social context. They help paint a picture of our ancestor’s lives.
Newspapers serve as an excellent substitute for vital or other records. If a birth, death or marriage certificate is eluding you, try looking in the local paper- perhaps you can find your research subject’s birth, engagement, or wedding announcements. Additionally, an obituary might reveal an ancestor’s previously unknown military service, which can lead you on to a whole new avenue of research.
Newspaper notices such as these will often provide much more information than what can be found on a birth, marriage, or death certificate, and can help you learn more about your ancestor’s colorful past. That marriage license may not tell you that Great-Aunt Gret played the organ at Cousin Fanny’s wedding ceremony, and that death certificate won’t reveal that Uncle Frank was an avid bowler and a champion poker player! Newspapers often reveal parts of our ancestor’s lives that might have been forgotten over time.
Newspapers reveal not just local life events- they also help in understanding the bigger picture of the world our ancestors lived in. Was there a war going on, and how did the locals feel about it? How were the local and national politics having an impact on the community? What were the “hot topics” in the opinions section? Old newspaper advertisements can also reveal much about our ancestor’s daily lives- what were the popular fashions of the time? How much did a pound of ground beef cost? What “brand new” household goods and items were on sale? Even something as mundane as the weather can have a big impact- was there a drought or flood happening? Was it much hotter or colder than normal? How would this have affected your ancestor?
How to Find Old Newspaper Articles Online
There are many great resources online to find old newspaper articles, without leaving the comfort of home! For those sites that require a paid subscription, it is always a great idea to check with your local library to see if they have a subscription to the site that is available for free use by patrons.
And when choosing a paid archive website, always compare their offerings against your research needs, so you get the most benefit from your subscription.
Here is a list of some of the best online newspaper archives:
- Newspapers.com is probably the most well-known newspaper archive website, Newspapers.com contains more than 12,200 newspapers from the 1700s through the 2000s. This site (along with many of the other subscription sites) also utilizes Optical Character Recognition, or OCR, making it easy for you to search their archive by using keywords. Read my full Newspapers.com review.
- GenealogyBank contains over 11,000 big city and small-town newspapers, many of which are exclusive to their website, providing you a greater variety of research options. Read my full GenealogyBank review. Also, check out my article Newspapers.com vs GenealogyBank.
- MyHeritage’s newspaper collections include not only American newspapers, magazines and journals but also newspapers from Australia.
- NewspaperArchive has U.S. archives that stretch back to 1700s Colonial America, and they have international newspapers from 27 countries, including some from Africa and the Middle East. Read my full NewspaperArchive review.
- FindMyPast is well-known for their vast British, Irish and Australian record collections. They also provide access to newspapers from all 50 U.S. states, Washington D.C., and several other countries.
- Google Newspapers contains newspapers from the U.S. and all over the world, stretching back into the 1700s. The archives are arranged alphabetically by publication name, and are not OCR-searchable, so you will need to have a specific date or date range in mind when conducting your research.
- Fulton History allows you to search over 47 million newspaper pages from the U.S. and Canada for free. The site offers specific search parameters to help you find what you’re looking for.
- Chronicling America is sponsored by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This site offers free digital images of historic newspapers from 1789-1963.
- Paper of Record is one of the pioneers of newspaper digitization. Their collection includes both U.S. and international newspapers, with a large collection of historical papers from Canada and Mexico.
- Newspaper Abstracts consists of newspaper abstracts and extracts submitted by registered users, and includes papers from the U.S. and Europe. You can even help by contributing news items.
- Many larger newspapers provide their own online archives, including the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. Keep in mind that you may need a paid subscription to search these websites.
Online Finding Aids for Newspapers
The following websites provide historical information about newspapers, and where to find them. Be sure to check these websites before you start your research, to better understand which newspapers were published in your target area, when they were published, and where you can find them now.
- Chronicling America has a comprehensive U.S. Newspaper Directory, providing information about American newspapers published from 1690 to the present.
- Many State Archives and libraries list their holdings online, or have sites for their newspaper archiving projects. For example, The California Newspaper Project, and the New York State Library’s list of newspaper holdings are excellent resources.
- WorldCat is the go-to website to find research materials available at libraries around the world. WorldCat can also help you find historical newspapers available for in-library research.
Search Tips for Online Newspapers
So how do we actually search old newspapers? While researching old newspapers can be fun and entertaining, it can also get frustrating when you must search through dozens of pages to find what you are looking for. Here are some tips to make online newspaper research easier:
- Take advantage of OCR – with Optical Character Recognition, many websites allow you to search using keywords. Use OCR capability along with Boolean searches and a date range for optimal search results.
- Boolean searches- paired with OCR, Boolean searches can help you narrow down your results even further. Boolean searches allow you to search with variables such as AND, NOT, and OR. Does the website allow you to search for John AND Smith, or John Smith NOT John Jones, or John Smith OR John Jones?
- Search within a date range- If possible, try to search within a date range. If you don’t know the exact date your ancestor died, searching for your ancestor’s FANs can help you gain a valuable hint.
- Use the FAN principle for research- Friends, Acquaintances, and Neighbors can greatly help in your search, especially if you do not know the date of your research subjects’ birth, marriage or death. Search for the FAN relations instead, and see if your ancestor is mentioned in their newspaper announcements. Was your great-grandmother the “late sister” mentioned in Aunt Susie’s obituary? Then grandma probably predeceased her. Was Cousin Jane the “Mrs. Fred Jones” in Uncle Floyd’s wedding announcement? She must have married Fred prior to the event! Discovering these pieces of information can help you narrow down the date for your research subject’s life event.
- Your town may have had more than one newspaper- Remember, even small towns may have had more than one local newspaper. Be sure to use the finding aids listed above, search multiple websites, and even check newspapers from surrounding cities, to be sure you don’t overlook your ancestors.
Researching Newspapers Off-line
There are still many newspapers that have not yet been digitized and placed online. You may need to visit a physical repository in order to find that elusive ancestor. The finding aids listed above can help you locate and learn about off-line newspapers for research.
Often, libraries will keep a collection of local newspapers available for research. Call the local library in your research area and ask the reference librarian if they maintain any local newspaper collections. You can also contact the local genealogical or historical society, as they may keep collections of their area’s newspapers.
If you are unable to visit a repository in person, you may be able to send a research request. Many libraries, historical societies, and state-run archives provide research services, sometimes for a fee. Be sure you understand what is needed for your request prior to sending it- does the repository require a request by mail or telephone only? What is the charge per research hour or per requested item?
Prior to visiting a repository, make sure you understand their newspaper collections and how to research in them. If the collections are on microfilm, understand how the film is organized so you can select the correct roll to view. If the papers are bound or boxed, find out if you need to provide a reference or call number when you arrive. Some repositories, such as archives or research libraries, may have specific rules or guidelines to follow- be sure to understand what will be required before your visit. Will you be allowed to bring in a laptop, or a notebook and pen? Can you take photographs? Will gloves be required in order to handle delicate items? Remember, always ask for help if you are unsure of how to handle the materials or how to operate the microfilm reader, so that you don’t cause any damage.
Here are a few tips for researching newspapers on-site (these tips also come in handy for online newspapers that are not keyword-searchable):
- When researching microfilmed or actual newspapers, having an exact date, or narrow range of dates, will be key. Keep in mind that many older newspapers were published weekly, not daily. The FAN principle can come in handy if you don’t have an exact date for your ancestor’s event- if you have dates for a close relative’s birth, marriage, or death, try searching for that relative first, and see if you can find any leads on your research subject.
- Many newspapers from the late 1800s and forward had a specific section or page for obituaries. Additionally, some newspapers would print a list of residents who had died throughout the year, at the end of the year- so don’t forget to review the December 31st issue of your newspaper.
- Birth, engagement and wedding announcements were often listed on a “community news” page. This news and gossip section can often provide a wealth of information about your ancestor and is worth a look. Often there are mentions of whether someone had fallen ill or had recently left the hospital, if someone had just returned from a vacation, or even if a local was hosting their usual Tuesday night bridge game!
- An unusual death- for example a murder or an accident- might actually appear on the front page of the newspaper. If you suspect your ancestor died in such a way, remember to scan the front few pages, along with the obituaries.
Newspapers are an incredibly valuable genealogy resource that can be the key to bringing your family’s story to life. Learning where to find them, and how to use them, can unlock great discoveries that may have otherwise been lost to time. Newspapers can also serve as a substitute for missing records, or lead you on to new research paths.
Including newspapers in your genealogy research will offer a unique glimpse into the lives of your ancestors that many other records simply cannot offer!