Canada, Problems with Using Newspapers (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Newspaper Records  by Ryan Taylor. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Some Difficulties in Dealing with Newspapers

Very early Canadian newspapers were probably printed on high-quality rag-content paper. These newspapers, bound flat, have often survived in good condition. Later in the 19th century and into the 20th, the quality of newsprint was downgraded as print runs became larger. This paper has not aged so well. It has become yellow and brittle, and crumbles when it is handled, especially in its bound format which results in large, heavy volumes. This makes research using the originals awkward.

Past Vernacular

Newspapers are written in the vernacular of their own age. Reading papers from a century ago, we are struck by the ‘quaint’ language, as people who see our papers in 2150 will think the same. Most of the time, we can understand the gist of what is being said, or have quick reference to a dictionary to clarify things.

Certain conventions were used in the BMD columns of newspapers, to save space. In referring to the date of events, we find phrases such as ‘On the 10th inst.’ or ‘On the 30th ultimo’. ‘Inst’ is short for ‘instant’ and means ‘this month’, so the phrase given can be read as ‘On the 10th of this month’. ‘Ultimo’ is Latin and refers to the last month, so the phrase given can be read as ‘On the 30th of last month’.

The nineteenth century habit of shortening names is also common in these announcements. Most of these will still be obvious—Jos. for Joseph, Wm. for William—but the use of Jno. for John (Latin again) may be less comprehensible. If you encounter a word or name of this kind that you cannot translate using a dictionary, ask the librarian or archivist, who should be familiar with them.

Many of these announcements will not contain an actual date. Those that say a couple were married ‘recently’ (as too many do) are very frustrating for genealogists, but many others will state something along the line of ‘on Tuesday last’. It may be possible to count back from the date on the masthead[1] to figure out Tuesday’s date.

Many genealogists find it useful to carry a single-sheet perpetual calendar, of the kind that can be found in some telephone books or in many genealogical newsletters, in their research kits. The library reference desk may have one handy, or look for The book of calendars or a similar tool.

The ‘intimate tone’ aspect of newspaper writing sometimes results in news items which mean very little. An Edmonton Bulletin notice of 23 February 1881 read in its entirety: “A meeting of the shareholders of the Edmonton Milling Co. was held on Tues. last.” With no further details, it does not convey much to us now. The Alberta Star of 18 April 1908 reported: “Messrs. C. F. Harris and W. C. Ives were in town a couple of days last week. There is scarcely any need to tell you the object of their visit.” For the modern reader, the object of their visit will remain forever a mystery.

Newspaper Survival

The survival rate of the physical newspaper has been affected by the quality of the paper and by the short life of many publications. We expect to find copies of the old newspapers in the office of the ongoing publication, but if the newspaper dies, what happens to the bound volumes? It could be that a succeeding title will keep them for reference, or that an interested local historian or relative of the publisher will store them at home.

However, many early newspapers have vanished. Until the microfilming projects of the 1960s ensured that the single surviving copies of some newspapers were multiplied and made available in a number of institutions, there was a danger that others would also disappear.

This also accounts for the fact that for many publications, only single or scattered issues are left. They were saved by someone because they contained an item of family interest and eventually found their way into a library or archives.

A note of hope is possible even if you find that the publication you most need appears to be missing. The current writer once investigated a missing year of the Canada Museum und Allgemeine Zeitung, published in Berlin [Kitchener, Ontario], 1835-1840. The first two years and the last two were in the Kitchener Public Library collection, but the middle year was missing.

In Herbert Kalbfleisch’s history of German-language newspapers in Ontario, he claimed to have seen all five volumes of the paper in the 1950s. Thinking that if the newspapers had survived for 120 years, they might still be around, the librarian involved found Kalbfleisch and asked if he remembered where they were. He did: a private collector had owned the missing volume. The son of the collector said it had been given to the Université de Montréal library. When they were first approached, the library denied having any German-language newspapers, but they agreed to look. They telephoned back a few days later, astonished, to say the bound volume of the Canada Museum was indeed in their collection, unknown.

Arrangements were made to have it microfilmed, and the complete run, on film, has now been restored to its original home in Kitchener.

This is probably an unusual story, but it does give hope to any researcher looking for a lost newspaper.

The quality of the microfilm can occasionally cause difficulty. A great deal of filming which took place in the 1950s and 1960s, when microfilming was still a new process, was done in a substandard way from our point of view.

There are a number of reasons for these difficulties. The already aged newspapers which were filmed may be slightly out of focus. The poor original print may not translate well to our modern readers’ screens, if the much-used hand-set type was chipped, or did not print clearly. The newspaper itself may be in bad condition. More often, the microfilm reel we are using has been doing its duty for a couple of decades and is reaching the end of its useful life. It may be scratched or faded.

Ways to Handle Problems with Films

Is there anything the reader can do under these circumstances?

  • Ensure that the marks you see are on the film, not dirt on the lens of the machine. Lenses can be cleaned. If the film itself is dirty, it too can be cleaned, with great care. Cleaning of both lens and film must be done by the archives staff.
  • Ask the librarian or archivist if there is another copy of the reel that can be used.
  • Look at the film in another institution, whose films may not receive as much use. A local newspaper will be used often in its own public library, while a university library’s copy may be more pristine. Other institutions may also have acquired their reels recently, and the newer reels will be easier to read, having been produced using modern processes of developing.
  • Enquire if the paper has been filmed a second time since that original work. Many inadequate early films have been replaced by later filmings of a higher quality.

Flaws in Newspapers

There are times when the newspaper itself is at fault. If there was a flaw in the original printing, this will result in difficulties in reading the film. If the page was wrinkled at the time of filming, a line of type may be illegible, and this is inevitably the line that contains the date you need.

Sometimes the newspaper which has been filmed is defective itself. The founder of Oshawa, Ontario was Akius Moody Farewell and his memory is much honoured there. He had a brother who also settled in the area. One of the brother’s descendants worked for the local newspaper in the mid-20th century, and she made it her aim to try to eradicate the memory of Akius Moody, so that her own branch of the Farewell family would seem more prominent.

To help this aim, she went through all the back issues of the newspaper in its library, snipping out references to Moody’s family, including his own half-page obituary of 1869. These are the copies which were used for the filming, which does affect any research Farewell family members might want to do in the paper.

If the fault in the microfilm lies with the original newspaper, try to find an alternative version of the original. This may be difficult. If the flaw can be helped by access to the original—the wrinkle in the page could be smoothed, or the defective type made clear by closer examination—use a directory of historical newspapers to find out what library or archive owns original copies, and then approach them to solve the problem.

Libraries and Archives

Most libraries and archives who own original newspapers make them available only in microfilm form. Handling the originals leads to their further deterioration, aside from the fact that it is very messy (from the crumbling pages), and the books are large and heavy to handle.

You will find that many libraries keep the newspapers in deep storage, perhaps wrapped in acid-free paper. Presenting the problem of the wrinkled page courteously and allowing the archives time to access the original and consult it, should lead to satisfaction all around.

Current Newspaper Offices

As mentioned above, many earlier researchers did their newspaper work in the offices of the paper itself. The ‘morgue’ or collection of past issues was stored in the office and, in the interest of public relations, outside researchers might use them if they weren’t in the way of the reporters.

This has changed. Most newspapers no longer store paper copies of their old issues on site, or use them much in their work. Like the rest of us, they use the microfilm copies, or online resources they have created themselves.

In addition, the explosion in genealogical research since the 1970s means that newspaper offices were swamped with requests either to view the back issues or to look things up for people who were far away.

These businesses are not in the position to provide research facilities or to do searches themselves, and even before the switch to online creation of the papers, they had stopped welcoming people to look at their morgues.

  • The local public library or archives is the place to look for old newspapers. The largest collections of these back issues can be found there, and it is easy to determine where they are from the published bibliographies of newspapers which exist for most provinces.

Another approach which many researchers take to current newspapers is to write asking them for assistance in finding someone or answering a question. In the case of larger, urban papers, this is a waste of time, as they have no interest in publishing these requests.

Most of them may well emphasise a larger view at the expense of local information. The publisher of The Kitchener-Waterloo Record in 1981 dismissed the suggestion that his paper, which serves part of southwestern Ontario, was a regional paper. “We consider ourselves a national newspaper,” he said, and so the material published would reflect this.

Small Town Newspaper Queries

Small-town newspapers, on the other hand, might welcome a local query, and might print it, considering its news value. The smaller the town, the more likely this will be. If a researcher chooses to approach a small newspaper with a query, it would be wise to remember:

  • Keep the query short, omitting any extraneous explanations.
  • The whole letter with the request should not occupy more than one page.
  • Type the letter, do not hand write it. Sending it electronically (via email) is better, because it does not require retyping at the other end. Most newspapers have websites, which can be located after a simple search using Google, Yahoo! or similar search engines, and a ‘contact us’ email form is often available there.
  • Be sure to include your own name, postal address and email.


  1. 1 Masthead refers to that part of the top of the first page which includes the newspaper's name, date and publication information, and any other identifying material the publisher wants to place there.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Newspaper Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.