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The Value of the Newspaper: A Unique Window on the Past

The Maine Newspaper Project, which has inventoried all known state newspapers dating back to the 1785 Falmouth Gazette, probably sums up these newspaper project best. The MNP web site notes, "Each time a newspaper disappears from the public eye, a unique window to the past closes forever."


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I once overheard a microfilm user complaining loudly in the middle of a large library about newspaper advertisements being included on microfilm. Personally, I have always found newspapers to be priceless snapshots of real life and treasures for genealogical research - and that certainly includes the advertisements.

A paid advertisement tells us far more about local history than we might find through any other source. Sometimes it will answer your question about why a young man or woman was living with a family they were not related to back in 1897. Read the help-wanted ads in the local newspaper and you may discover the head of the household had advertised that they were looking to hire someone to cook or help on the farm.

Every town has its ethnic and religious heritage. Church service times have traditionally been listed in the newspapers. But just because a church doesn't exist does not mean there are no followers.

A late 1800 newspaper in Shelbyville, Illinois reveals a culture that remains largely undocumented. On various Jewish holidays, a local department store in this town of only a few thousand people advertised that they would be closed. There is no temple or synagogue in Shelbyville and there is no known record of there ever being one, even though there is a large German population, as documented by census returns. Without that advertisement, one might not be aware of the Jewish emigrants that were in Shelbyville at that time.

Of course, the traditional obituary can be a goldmine. Not only does it list relatives and biographical data about the deceased but you can also learn a little more about their circle of acquaintances from the pallbearers and other data. Wedding announcements and anniversary notices likewise provide a flurry of names. A good researcher will document this information independently but having this collection of information all in one place is like a roadmap to a person's life.

If you have searched for newspapers in the past - whether you read the advertisements or not - it might be worthwhile to revisit newspapers as a genealogical tool. This is especially true if you found the newspapers you were looking for were difficult or impossible to gain access to.

An ongoing national newspaper project continues making more newspapers available to you. The National Endowment for the Humanities is working alongside libraries, historical societies and the Library of Congress to locate and preserve newspapers across the country. The project is known as the U.S. Newspaper Program and has been quietly making newspapers available to us since 1984. You can go online to find what newspapers have been added and what the schedule is for the future.

In Illinois, the project dates back to April of 1987. That is three decades of newspaper collecting, archiving and preserving. After all, they are busy archiving Illinois newspapers back to 1814 when Matthew Duncan began publishing the Illinois Herald at Kaskaskia when it was the capital - and it has moved twice since then! Illinois has enlisted some help from the world of genealogists. The ILGenWeb Project and Illinois Trails are participating.

Every state in the union is participating, and often cooperating with historical libraries and other groups. In Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society has served as a co-sponsor according to the Library of Virginia website. The Council of Historical Libraries of Delaware (CHILD) were among the sponsors for Delaware newspaper archiving.

Few states have completed their archiving for the project. This means there is an ever-increasing number of newspapers available for research. The U.S. Newspaper Program is definitely a site to bookmark if you're still looking for that elusive newspaper that no library seems to have a copy of.

These are not just your mainstream newspapers. Alaska has a functioning search engine of more than 209,002 newspaper files in its database. Looking for your relative who joined the goldrush to Alaska? Maybe you'll find a mention of them in a local newspaper in the Alaska Newspapers Index. Puerto Rico is participating with a Spanish site.

Not only are newspapers being inventoried, they are being added to the Online Computer Library Center, Inc. (OCLC). Louisiana State University has made their collection searchable through FirstSearch WorldCat. If you have ever searched an electronic card catalog at any library you probably have used OCLC or WorldCat.

Adding the newspapers to OCLC and FirstSearch WorldCat means they become searchable, although complete text searching continues to be somewhat limited, probably due to the vast number of newspapers in existence. Whether the newspapers are text-searchable or not, each site provides information on what newspapers exist on microfilm or in other forms. You'll also find information on how to obtain copies of microfilm or purchase printouts.

Some states are actively working toward digitizing newspapers so they can be searched as well as viewed via the internet. The Wyoming State Library announced in January of this year they will begin digitizing 275 newspaper titles published from 1849 to 1922. They plan to make access available via the Internet for free with searchable news, obituaries and other newspaper content.

Actually this next phase has already kicked into gear with the Chronicling America newspaper database.

The Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities have created this searchable and digitally readable database of newspapers from 1900 to 1910 for California, District of Columbia, Florida, Kentucky, New York, Utah and Virginia. The project is fairly new and, let's face it, there are a lot of newspapers out there! Watch for more digital newspapers to be added.

The Maine Newspaper Project, which has inventoried all known state newspapers dating back to the 1785 Falmouth Gazette, probably sums up these newspaper project best. The MNP web site notes, "Each time a newspaper disappears from the public eye, a unique window to the past closes forever."

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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