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Digging Through History’s Pages: Using Newspapers and Other Periodicals to Find Ancestors

Many of your ancestors lived in the time of print. Find out how their local newspapers and specialty publications can give you additional information, beyond birth and death notices, for your genealogical research.


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You already know that newspapers are a great source for birth and death notices, but have you explored everything that local papers and specialty periodicals can contribute to your family research?

If branches of your family stayed put in their communities for years, there's a good chance some of them appeared in the local newspaper. Photos and articles may give you their occupations, hobbies, weddings, court cases, achievements and even links to other relatives.

Social columns still run in some newspapers consisting of items like, "Mr. and Mrs. John and Elsie Hanover came from Ithaca, New York, to visit nephew George Hendricks and his wife Julie (Eisenhower) Hendricks in Brodhagen on Saturday". These concise accounts of family connections and locations can provide new and exciting clues to the family tree.

How Specialty Periodicals Can Aid Your Search

With the amount of information readily available today, there's no reason to stop at local newspapers. Many public libraries offer subscriptions to databases of specialty collections. Researching African-American ancestors? There may have been an African-American newspaper in their area, such as Philadelphia's The Christian Recorder (1861 – 1902) or The Baltimore Afro-American (1893-1988). Accessible has the 1861-1902 run of the Recorder (excluding 1892), and the ProQuest Historical Newspaper Archive offers The Baltimore Afro-American, among others.

Beyond Military Records: Civil War Publications and Stars and Stripes

If some of your ancestors fought in the Civil War, go to your library and see if they offer the First Search Service. First Search allows you to search the Online Computer Library Center's (OCLC) database of illustrated Civil War periodicals. The database contains 49 publications, including 15 campaign newspapers. "Many of the publications are now rare and hard to find," advises the OCLC on its website, "with an item sometimes extant only in a single archive."

Maybe your ancestors fought in the war, just not the Civil War. Stars and Stripes, the periodical serving the US military, has a searchable database of most of its material from 1948-1999. The publication is still in the process of adding more digitized material; the European edition of Stars and Stripes started in 1942, and the Pacific edition in 1945. If you can't find something in the digital archives, the Stars and Stripes library will search the entire archive for a fee of $50.

News from the Old Country: UK Newspapers

If your family tree includes ancestors who lived in the United Kingdom in the 19th and 20th centuries, consider a look through Proquest's UK newspaper archives. Titles include:

- The Scotsman (1817-1950)
- The Irish Times(1859-2007)
- Weekly Irish Times(1876-1958)
- The Guardian(1821-2003) - The Observer (1791-2003)

Where Can I Access These Publications and How Much Will It Cost? is a subscription service which boasts "tens of millions of newspaper pages from 1759 to present." The cost is $9.95 for one year of access. For a quick initial search, try Google. The Google News Archive Search allows you to pull up articles from a variety of sources. Some of these articles will be subscription-only, however, and you will be asked to pay the newspaper to access them. Fees vary by article, but are usually less than $10.

Instead of paying, however, visit your local public library and see what news archives they have access to. Free access to Proquest and First Search are beyond valuable in gathering articles. If your public library doesn't have access, try the nearest university library. Many universities open their libraries to non-students, although some universities charge a fee for usage.

Old-Fashioned Newspaper Searching: Microfilm and Local Experts

For the many genealogists who logged years in front of microfiche machines, typing in a name and having a massive digital database do the searching for you is a god-send. Yet, even with the rapid rate of newspaper digitization (and the impending obsolescence of microfilm), sometimes microfilm is the only way to read historical newspapers.

The United States Newspaper Program is an effort between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress to catalog and microfilm all U.S. newspapers from the 18th century to the present. The microfilms are available through inter-library loan. On the project's website, each state is listed with a brief description of its holdings and contact information for the state archives.

Visiting state or local archives may get you the most benefit when searching old newspapers and periodicals. The newspaper in your ancestor's community may still be running, but based on personal experience, it is not a good idea to ask newspaper staff to search their archives for you! Most small local newspapers have few staff, and many times the archives are either for reporters only or aren't kept in the newspaper office anyway.

Or maybe the newspaper your ancestors browsed every week ceased publication, in which case the archives may be the only place to find old copies. Most importantly, each archive comes equipped with human beings who are both experienced archivists and knowledgeable locals. In a time of digital databases and plentiful global information, it's good to remember that people familiar with the area can sometimes be the best search engines.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

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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