United States Strategies for Searching Newspapers, Newspaper Repositories (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 US: Newspaper Records  by Rhonda McClure. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Strategies for Searching Newspapers

Once you have found the newspapers you need, the next step in the process is to go through them. Many people find this the most daunting aspect of using newspapers because they are concerned with the amount of time it will take to go through daily issues of a newspaper looking for the desired information on an ancestor.

In general, as you work with a given newspaper you will find that there is a certain pattern to the layout. You will need to spend a little time going through the first couple of issues to see what kind of information the newspaper includes. Knowing that the newspaper keeps the meeting notices near the marriage and death notices will help you as you begin to skim subsequent issues.

Remember that the format is not etched in stone. Layout from issue to issue will change, one day the meetings, marriage and death notices may be on page three and the next day they have been moved to page five. However, because you have a block of text with headings that you are looking for, you don’t have to actually read every page, but just skim them looking for the column that contains what you have come to expect for those types of entries.

Using Indexes

There are some indexes that may save you time in working with the newspaper. For instance, if you are researching California families, then you may want to see if you can get access to the California Information File, 1846-1986. The original collection of index cards for this file is found at the California State Library in Sacramento. There is a microfiche version of it at the Family History Library, but it cannot be circulated to local FamilySearch H Centers.

Another statewide index is to Connecticut newspapers, and is part of the Hale Collection, which was compiled under the direction of Charles R. Hale. This index mentions death and marriage notices found in Connecticut newspapers.

Finding indexes like these is a matter of familiarizing yourself with the resources available for the specific states and counties in which your ancestors lived. This is found through diligent learning about the records, repositories, finding aids, and more that exist and have been developed. Information about states can be found in many general books, such as Ancestry’s Red Book or through the research outlines available through the Family History Library and its website.

One index that is used when looking for published genealogies is the American Genealogical-Biographical Index (AGBI). While the focus of this is to include those family histories found in published volumes, the index has also included the genealogy column published for many years in the Boston Transcript newspaper. Unlike the other things we have talked about in regard to newspapers, the Boston Transcript actually had a genealogy column, in which a lot of useful information about families, many in the New England area, was shared and discussed.

Using Abstracts

Most genealogists are familiar with record abstracts. Individuals and genealogical societies all over have done a lot in abstracting vital records, cemeteries, census and more. Some of them have abstracted newspapers as well. These abstracts may be the only access you will have to a given newspaper, though whenever possible it is a good idea to go from the abstract to the original. When any record is abstracted, it generally means that someone, the editor or coordinator of the project, has determined what information will be included and how. This could affect how you read the entries and how you evaluate what you are seeing as you use the published abstract. Published abstracts are found in many libraries with genealogical collections. Some of them may be available via inter-library loan if your public library doesn’t have the book needed. Searching online library catalogs and reading information on the library’s sites about their inter-library loan policies will help save you time when wanting to get abstracts or even newspapers on microfilm.

Notice. Will be sold on the first Tuesday in April next, at the Court-house in the town of Sparta, Hancock county, a Negro man by the name of Bob, about 28 years old... John S. Lattimer, Ex’r of Robert Lattimer, dec’d. March 11, 1828.

Hancock County, Georgia Newspaper
Abstracts, Hancock Advertiser 1826-1830
abstracted by Faye Stone Poss
(Snellville, Georgia: Faye Stone Poss, 2002), page 71

Notice in the above example that there is the use of an ellipsis, the three periods, which usually indicates that information has not been included in the abstract that was included in the original. You will not know that for sure though until you look at the original newspaper. Abstracts do save time, and in some instances, not only do they supply you with the issue in question, but they also give you the page on which the entry was found. This means once you have located the newspaper, then you would be able to turn right to the notice in the newspaper.

Library Resources

In general, when it comes to newspapers, you will be dealing with one type of library or another. Either the library you visit will already have the newspapers or you will be requesting them from another library to be sent to your local public library.

Library of Congress

We have already seen many of the ways that the Library of Congress has aided in the microfilming and cataloging of newspapers to aid researchers. In fact in the scanned section of a page fromNewspapers in Microform used earlier the code DLC means that the Library of Congress has issues of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

If you happen to be visiting Washington, DC you may want to investigate which of the newspapers you are interested in that are available there and see what you might be able to get done. You can also use inter-library loan through your local library to request reels of microfilm. To do this, you must first visit the Library of Congress Website, and search their online catalogs for the newspaper in question. The Library of Congress has also embraced the digital age we are now in. They have digitized some newspapers in their Memory Collection.

Specialty Libraries

Like the wide variety of specialty newspapers there are a number of different repositories that are included here in a general way. Genealogical libraries, university and college libraries, state libraries, state archives are all different types of libraries that you are likely to visit in your quest for newspapers.

Some of them will offer inter-library loan, but many will not. In that case, you will either have to visit the library yourself or you will have to hire a professional researcher to do the work for you. If you do not have specific dates for events, such an approach can end up being an expensive process. The library catalogs for most state libraries and archives are now online, which makes searching them much easier. Those that don’t offer an online catalog may have posted a guide to some of their holdings, including the newspapers they have.

Before going to any specialty library, be sure to find out what you can and cannot bring with you. Some archives are protective of their collections and limit the types of things you can bring in to just a pencil and some paper. Others allow you to take in your computer. All if this is now usually posted on the websites of the various repositories. You might try looking for a Frequently Asked Questions section on the site.

The Family History Library would be considered a specialty library. It lends microfilms for a nominal fee to its branch FamilySearch Centers where you can view them. While they do not make it a point to microfilm newspapers when their teams visit localities, however, this does not mean there are not newspapers on microfilm, and they do have a wide collection of published abstracts on their shelves.

Public Libraries

Public libraries are your connection to many other repositories. Inter-library loan is a powerful resource that few use, but that can bring you many resources, including newspapers on microfilm.

Some larger public libraries may also have an impressive collection already of certain newspapers. These are often the larger city newspapers and the collections may not be complete. This is another reason to refer to a catalog such as the Newspapers in Microform when you are traveling to the cities where your ancestors lived.

Public libraries are also working their way onto the Internet, and have made at least partial catalogs searchable online. They do not always have their microfilm collections included in the general catalog, so do not assume that the library has nothing if a search does not reveal what you were looking for.

Individual State Repositories

Research of any kind in genealogy requires approaching it with a plan. The same is true when working with a specific record type, such as newspapers. You will find that you must usually understand the records available through the repositories in the states where your ancestors lived. Unlike the other records that are usually found at specific jurisdictional locations, such as vital records at the county courthouse, the newspapers are often found in many different places from the city level up to the state level.

Special Focus of the Repository

Understanding the focus or mission of the repository is useful in understanding what newspapers they may have. Some of the specialty repositories may be archives for religious records or regional records. In the case of a regional archive, you would need to determine which archive was responsible for holdings of the county where your ancestors lived.

Much of this information comes from reading state guides and articles written by fellow genealogists, as well as the previously mentioned resource outlines by the Family History Library.

Additionally there is a lot of information now available on the Internet, some from the repositories in question, while other information is posted by fellow genealogists wanting to help.


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 wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.