United States Digitized Newspapers (National Institute)
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 US: Newspaper Records by Rhonda McClure. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Newspapers On The Internet
Finding What’s Available
The Internet can be compared to a giant library, open twenty-four hours a day. As such it is important that you understand what methods are available for searching for newspapers, or any information you are looking for, online. This can be done through directories and general search engines. Of course, for genealogists, in addition to free web pages, there are a number of compiled sites, some of them subscription based, that also offer newspaper records. Finally individual libraries may have made certain newspaper items available online.
Directories are an easy way to look for something when you already know the title. For instance, if you know you are looking for the Louisville Courier-Journal then you could visit a directory and see if you can find a link.
For genealogists, one of the largest directories is Cyndi’s List. With more than three hundred thousand links, broken up into one hundred and eighty-seven categories, it is easy to see that there is probably something for everyone.
When using Cyndi’s List, when you know what you are looking for, you can attack it either from the locality or the subject. In this case, using the Louisville newspaper example, you could either go to the Kentucky page of Cyndi’s list and see if there is a link there, or you could go to her Newspaper page and see if you can find it there. Sometimes you have to check both places, because it might be listed on one page but not the other.
Directories can also be used when you know a location but not necessarily specifically what you hope to find, provided the directory is divided up in some useful manner, subject and locality are the most popular methods of arrangement.
When working with any directory, remember that you begin with a very broad subject and burrow down to a narrower subject. Using Cyndi’s List, this would look like:
- Going to Cyndi’s List
- Selecting the Newspapers link from the Categories page Selecting the History link at the top of the Newspapers page
- Clicking the History of Newspaper Publishing in Illinois which takes you to a webpage on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that gives you the information
Whenever you are on the Internet, remember that links often take you to a completely different website. If the site is one that you find useful, it is a good idea to write down the URL or save it using the Favorites/Bookmark option found in your browser so that you can return to it at a later date.
There are also some unique compilations of newspaper links. These are especially useful when looking for newspapers rather than general genealogical research.
General Search Engines
General search engines are a great way to find newspapers in general that might have websites. These can be both contemporary and historical newspapers.
General search engines though often require finessing when searching. Putting in the term newspaper by itself is not an effective way to use these online catalogs to the Internet, which is what the search engines really are. Instead you need to qualify that search term with a locality or a surname you are hoping to find in the newspaper.
General search engines are often a great place to find obituaries published in contemporary newspapers. Combining the name of the individual with the search term obit and see what you find.
Subscription sites, such as Ancestry.com, are another avenue when it comes to finding newspaper data. One misconception that I want to take a moment to address about subscription sites in general. Many people think that if they use a general search engine that they are also searching inside these specialty sites with databases. This is usually not the case, and certainly is not the case when it comes to databases that require a fee before you can view the information.
General search engines search regular open websites. Anything that is in a specialized database, regardless of cost involved, is usually not available through such a search. Instead you must use the search engine found on the subscription site or other website that has the database.
Subscription sites are not better or worse because there is a fee attached either. What the subscription sites do offer is perhaps more data for your search. Also the subscription sites have more money and can actually digitize the original images from microfilm. They may also be able to partner with another company to get more records.
As a result, we are seeing more and more newspaper images online that have been somewhat indexed and are therefore more easily searchable. Remember though that spelling counts when using computers, especially when searching databases, so it may still be necessary to view the pages of the newspaper one at a time. The good news here is that you can do it from the comfort of your own home, rather than fighting the clock or other researchers who want to use the same microfilm reader that you have just recently been able to get on.
You may also more thoroughly read the newspapers when you can view the images from home. It is not like you won’t get back to that repository any time soon. As such you may actually spend a little time reading articles or notices even though your ancestor is not immediately noticeable in the article, thus giving you insight into the community in which your ancestor was living.
Libraries are another option when it comes to accessing newspapers. You may find that you can use the subscription sites from your local library free of charge.
Libraries themselves are also beginning to make certain popular records available online. You may find that some of the newspapers have been added to the website.
In general when it comes to searching the Internet for newspapers, whether contemporary or historic, transcript or digitized image, it is a good rule of thumb to use all the resources available. Don’t assume that a search will yield negative results. The Internet is always changing and growing and more data useful to genealogists is finding its way onto the Internet.
Historic Newspapers vs. Contemporary
One reason that genealogists tend to dismiss the Internet as a source for newspapers is because we are looking for historic newspapers. Most of the newspapers that have made databases of past issues available on the Internet, even for a subscription fee, have only done recent issues, going back only fifteen or twenty years. While this is useful when looking for death dates of relatives who you have lost track of in the twentieth century, most of our newspaper research is to supplement research we have already done or substitute when records we would have liked to use are not available.
Historic newspapers are often part of specialty sites, and usually come with a fee attached. This is to offset the cost incurred in computerizing the information to begin with. The cost being much more if the newspaper information is actually displayed as images rather than text.
There are some volunteer organizations, such as USGenWeb , that make information from historic newspapers available, usually as text files, abstracts, and so forth. They may have abstracted the obituaries or the marriage and death notices for a set of years from a given newspaper.
Understanding Index Limitations
Whenever you are working with the computer and computerized indexes, it is important to remember that you may need to alter your research approach. When we are working with an index in the back of a book, we can skim through the names looking for possible matches. When you are searching a database with the computer it will do exactly what you tell it to do. If you tell it to look for SMITH, then it will only look for SMITH, not SMYTH, SMYTHE, or SMITHE.
The more time you spend working with a database’s search engine or the general search engines mentioned earlier, the more you will learn what works or how you need to phrase the search or what choices you need to make in the search engine to get desired results.
Most search engines offer a wild card search. This is a character that when inserted in your search term tells the computer to look for a variety of spelling variations. Typing in SAND* my look for SANDBORN, SANDERSON, SANDIES, etc. While not all of the hits might be appropriate, you have a much better chance of finding potential variant spellings with this approach.
The wild card character is often unique to the search engine in question. There should be an FAQ file or other online help that gives you this information and tells you how many letters you have to have before the wild card and how many letters the wild card character will replace.
If you do not find the name you were searching for, do not assume there is nothing there. Instead you may need to rethink your search approach or see if there is a way to scan the data in a more general way to see if something jumps out at you based on your ability to evaluate what you are seeing as opposed to comparing character with character as the computer does.
Transcription vs. Digitized Images
Many of the volunteer projects are going to publish their information in a transcription format, that is straight text, either an abstract of the pertinent details or a word-for-word transcript of the article or notice.
Digitized images give you a picture of the page of the newspaper as though you were holding the newspaper or viewing it on microfilm.
The difference between the two is that the transcription may have additional errors, those added during the transcription phase. The digitized images will not have any new errors, but it is always possible that the original newspaper was in error. Typos creep in to everything we do today, they were present in the past too—sometimes more so because of the way in which the newspaper was printed.
Whenever possible the digitized image is a record of choice. Of course, in some instances the indexes for such databases may only show you the whole newspaper page, requiring you then to go through that page finding the name on the page. Other indexes may not consider the name as a “whole” name, simply showing you a newspaper page because it had both the names John and Smith somewhere on the page, as opposed to a man named John Smith.
The Internet makes researching more convenient in many ways, but with that convenience has come some interesting trade offs both in how we search and in what we search. Anything that is not a digitized image, should, as soon as possible, be verified with other records or the original record in the case of an abstract. Of course, this rule of thumb is not just limited to the Internet. Any time we are working with published abstracts we should try to find the original, even when it comes to newspapers.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.