Of course, if you've been doing most of your genealogical research online, searching old newspapers may seem like a daunting task. So perhaps you'll come up with excuses like your family wouldn't have done anything newsworthy, or the issues of those old newspapers are long gone, or–and this is the flimsiest–the town your ancestors came from probably didn't have a newspaper. Forget those excuses and let's see what you can find.
Of all the items people read in local newspapers, the obituaries, commonly known as the obits, are the most popular. Many turn to them first before reading the news. So that's where you should begin because the obits contain a capsulized description of a deceased person's life, as well as a list of their survivors.
During the last quarter of the 19th century, the society page appeared as more people gained wealth and prominence in the community. Here, you'll find wedding, as well as birth and anniversary announcements. Like the obits, you'll discover tidbits about the couples lives and their parents. And while papers earlier than 1870 contained less personal information and didn't group these announcements together, some careful searching will uncover details you may not have known previously.
The other side of researching newspapers are the social history details you'll find. Articles on the front and second pages, for instance, will help put your ancestors into historical context. The news of the day affected everyone in one way or another–and it may explain why your ancestor did one thing or another. And news doesn't have to be limited to wars, political elections, and national crises. Changes in the weather, severe storms, natural disasters–all played a part in shaping your ancestors lives, and, ultimately, yours. In fact, local newspapers concentrated on local news and happenings of the day. Many were just a step above gossip sheets.
And don't overlook the advertisements. Perhaps your ancestors had a business and ran ads in the newspapers. You'll find a lot about the local economy through the prices in the ads, from the price of bread and milk to the clothes your ancestors bought and wore. Some ads promote local events, such as a bake sale or a church bazar.
But finding these items may be more like looking for a needle in a giant haystack. To get started, you'll need to know when and where your ancestor lived. The more you can narrow these two facts down, the easier it will be. Remember, if the town in which your ancestor resided changed names, it won't be on current maps. To find it, you'll have to consult one of a number of gazetteers.
Obviously, people tossed most old papers out with the trash, so how and where can you expect to find copies. To assist researchers, many old local newspaper have been microfilmed or put on microfiche, stored in a local or county library. If you still live in the same area as your ancestors, you should go to your local library and ask the reference librarian what newspapers they may have on file and how to access them. If they don't have the newspapers for a particular town, ask the reference librarian to check other libraries for you–perhaps your county or state has a library–from which your local library can get copies of the microfilm on interlibrary loan. Or you can drive to your state archives to access the papers you need there. And don't forget county and state historical societies. Most will be happy to help you find copies of these old newspapers.
If the library route fails to dig up old local newspapers, turn to newspaper directories, such as Ayers Directory of Publications, Clarence S. Brigham's History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, Lubomyr R. and Anna T. Wynar's Encyclopedic Directory of Ethnic Newspapers and Periodicals in the United States, and Winifred Gregory's American Newspaper 1821-1936. These will tell you which libraries have editions of particular newspapers for given time periods.
Since no one saw the need to index old newspapers, you'll need to pick a particular time frame–the narrower the better. Begin by searching for an event for which you know the date, such as a marriage or a death of an ancestor. Then ask for the microfilms that encompass that time frame and scroll through each issue page by page. This can be tedious, so don't plan on doing it all at once. If nothing else, you'll gain an understanding for the time and place in which your ancestors lived–little day-to-day details that will help you flesh out their lives. In addition, you may run across photographs of historic events in which your ancestor took part. And by all means, check out the Letters to the Editor, from which you'll gain an insight into how your ancestor's contemporaries thought about life in their times.