Introduction to Canadian 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 ($).

Introduction To Newspapers In Genealogical Research

Canadian newspapers are an important source of genealogical information, not only hard date and place information, but also background material which will add to the interest of your family history, and also may supply hints which will lead to other resources. Vocabulary

Keep in mind whenever you are using newspapers in genealogical work, that there is a great deal of specialised vocabulary used in these publications, either in reference to parts of the newspaper or in reporting the news. These words should not intimidate us, as we can easily determine how they are being used; many of the terms will be explained as we go along. Also, researchers should always ask themselves what information is being offered in any item. It may not always be obvious how much we are being told.

Since much newspaper research is done in libraries and archives, it would be good to start by mastering the library vocabulary for these types of publications. We are familiar with the ordinary word ‘newspaper’ and this is also used in libraries. They also use ‘serial’, an umbrella term for publications which come out from time to time, perhaps on a regular basis (weekly, monthly) but perhaps irregularly also. They always look the same, and have the same purpose and name.

Newspapers are a kind of serial, as are periodicals, which we usually refer to as magazines. Libraries receive a great many periodicals, some popular (such as Time or People) and others quite academic (such as The Queen’s Quarterly).

The term ‘journal’ is often used for these academic periodicals, but in the past it was applied to newspapers, and has also been used as a synonym for periodical. In the genealogical world, periodicals are often divided into newsletters, for more ephemeral publications, and journals, for publications with longer articles.

There is no clear line between the two, and a great many genealogical newsletters contain lasting information which researchers will want to consult decades after publication.

All of which is confusing. Basically, remember that libraries use ‘periodicals’ and ‘serials’ for these titles, and may also use ‘newspapers.’

A periodical is published from one date to a later date. This time period is called a ‘run’ and the copies of the periodical owned by a library are called its ‘holdings’. So, if a library owns all the published copies of a periodical, we say, “They hold the complete run.” These two terms are common phrases you should know. A Cultural Barrier

One of the great difficulties genealogists face in using records such as old newspapers is the cultural barrier which exists between ourselves and the past. Our ancestors did things differently and thought differently then. If we interpret their records using our own points of reference, we will make errors, either of fact or of understanding. Trying to see the documents as our forebears did will help us to create family histories which are richer in detail and which will be able to mediate between history and our present-day readers with confidence.

For this reason, there is a great deal of historical background or explanation included in this volume. Interpretations of vocabulary or of historical customs in this text are meant to help researchers understand what they are reading in the newspapers they find. Use of Newspapers

Newspapers are often either underused or misused by researchers. Why is this? First, even weekly newspapers, published over many years, present us with a massive amount of material to work in. People find the prospect daunting and feel they do not have the time to spend on it. Secondly, finding the appropriate newspapers to work with may not be obvious or easy to accomplish. We may all wish to wait until someone else does the necessary indexing.

As with so many genealogical records, however, there is a great deal of satisfaction in doing the research, not only in finding the data about our family but also in the historical understanding which results from this up-close view of the past which contemporary documents afford us. And best of all, we will almost certainly make discoveries about our family which we did not expect, some of them opening further avenues for research.

The importance of the local newspaper cannot be over-emphasised. For many, the newspaper was the only reading matter which came into the house, and even for those who did not read, they might access the information in the paper by having it read to them. It is less likely that anyone read books aloud to them.

Newspapers are voices of the past which speak to us directly. Small-town newspapers, in particular, were the vehicles of people who had religious and political convictions, and the newspapers gave them a platform through which to air their ideas. They could also write about any person or event which interested them, giving their own opinions on the subject. We may have been taught about the virtues of ‘objective’ writing in school-day English classes, but much of journalism, past and present, is loaded with the personal feelings of the writer. The advantage to the researcher is that the highly-coloured writing provides us with a more detailed glimpse of the past, perhaps of our own relatives, and events in their lives.

This kind of personal writing also has an intimacy, the voice of the long-dead writer speaking directly to us, which is enticing to read. The 1886 Edmonton Bulletin for example has a familiar and intimate tone as if the editor was sitting in the next chair, chatting to us. It also has the assumption, a small town characteristic, that you know what he is alluding to without his explaining in full. Thus, the researcher finds the experience to be especially pleasurable.

In the 26 November 1881 issue of the Edmonton Bulletin there is an account of a church social to welcome the new Presbyterian minister. It consisted of a tea and spread of food, and entertainment in the form of recitations and songs. The report ends, “...was followed by ‘Duncan Grey’ by Mr. Petrie. That such a piece was permitted to be sung in such a place on such an occasion reflects little credit on either the management, the performers or the audience. It was derisively encored.” This outspoken comment on a church function would not be found in our more genteel day, and it whets the appetite to know what it was about ‘Duncan Grey’ that was so inappropriate, and whether Mr. Petrie was a racy character or had merely blundered in offering this song. Any relative of Mr. Petrie’s would want to investigate further.

We all know about the birth, death and marriage announcements, as they are printed today and perhaps through some research in other eras also. What about the unexpected information mentioned above? A 1912 issue of the Orono News disclosed that Harold Lunn had a sore ear, the result of having stuck a pencil in it and the end coming off. He had visited the doctor and was on the road to recovery.

Although this does not provide any hard genealogical information (beyond the fact that the family in question was living in this town at this time), it does provide an interesting story to use in the family history. It may also answer a question about why grandpa was a little deaf in his old age.

If you are dealing with the history of a famous person or well-documented family, you can afford to be choosy about which data you keep or use. Most of us, however, are descended from people whose mark on the world was made at a less noticeable level. In that case, we are probably grateful for any scraps that come our way. Thus a researcher looking for information about Harold Lunn may well find that the pencil in the ear story is a gem to be kept, not discarded as uninteresting. The Newspaper in the Community

As pioneer settlements were established, some connection with a newspaper followed not long after. Just as we turn to CNN or the local news each day to find what is happening in our world, the pioneers wanted to know what was going on near them. At first, they would probably depend on a paper from some already-established town, perhaps at some distance.

But once their town came to have the population to support a printing office and newspaper, there would be some enterprising journalist ready to start it up. The presses would constitute a considerable investment and it may be difficult to see how a small-town newspaper was economically feasible, but no matter. They did exist, even if for only short periods of time, and are there waiting for us.

Small-town newspapers in the nineteenth century contained the following sorts of material:

local politics
national and international
stories other local information

The advertising was the most important for the proprietors, because it paid the rent. The extent of the international stories will depend on the editor’s interests. It may be startling to find a discussion of events in Kraków in a small paper in Saskatchewan in 1911, but if the editor has connections in Poland, naturally he will air his views. It may be that international stories reflect the ethnic makeup of the community, as well.

National news, of the kind we still hear, will have some place, also. However, both the national and international stories will interest the genealogical researcher least of what they find in newspaper searching. Few things are more dry and tedious than day-to-day politics of the past.

The other stories—local politics and local news items—will provide more interest. The political stories may well contain references to our ancestors, even if they were not politicians themselves. They may have expressed views on the issues of the day, or may be named as being affected by events. The news items may well be about someone we know, such as the pencil in the ear above, and researchers will want to save those. In the remote towns of the pioneer era, people’s worlds were more restricted than ours, when we have connections with Caribbean islands, New York, Toronto and Buckingham Palace every day.

The people whom the pioneers knew best, and were most interested in, were their neighbours, and so the news items about those people in the paper were of prime concern to them.

The newspaper was the voice of the community, telling residents about what concerned them and, for us, recording the happenings. Newspapers in the past did not consciously act as historical repositories—their concern was to present today’s news for today’s consumption. By the following day, the newspaper was being used to wrap up potato peelings or to light the stove.

Today’s newspapers may be more self-conscious about their historical role, but they still see themselves as primarily reporting the day’s events for immediate use.

So, when we read old newspapers we are hearing about life as it was lived, day by day. Stories may well be less complete than we would want, because both reporter and reader had an understanding of the background of events and people which we do not.

Also, we may be following a trail of events over days or weeks, and find the conclusion is missing. Perhaps the editor tired of the story, or it was so well known, printing it was not deemed necessary. The present-day researcher misses out.

Perhaps that is part of the fun of reading old newspapers. The researcher is caught up in a series of events in the same way we are now, watching a famous murder trial unfold through the reports of daily sessions.

All the better if the story has some family connection, but be prepared: when you start reading old newspapers, you inevitably start reading things quite outside your normal interests, simply because they are so fascinating!

The Development of Newspapers

The first newspapers began in the early 18th century. They were painstakingly composed using handset type and hand-cranked presses, so the runs were small and issues appeared infrequently.

Only a small percentage of the populace could read, so the audience was limited, but copies were shared among the readers.

They might also be read aloud to those who could not do so for themselves. Because of the nature of the papers—aiming for an elite and not being concerned with a quick series of events, but more opinions of a broader nature—there may be not as much concern for genealogists in these early newspapers.

Late in the century, newspapers began to take on the face we know better today, with advertising and local stories, and certainly in the early 19th century, the population of Canada exploded and so did the number of newspapers.

As universal education became more common, there was a greater need for newspapers too, as they were one of the primary reading tools for the newly-literate.

Newspapers which began as weeklies might progress to twice-a-week, then daily as the population of their area grew. Some daily papers had a weekly digest version, in which a summary of events could be found for those who did not wish to read the dailies or did not wish to pay for them.

By the 1920s the daily newspapers of even small cities across Canada included more international news, national politics and the various departments which are part of any modern paper—sports, cooking, ‘women’s pages’ with sewing and bridge instruction, comics and descriptions of current films.

Although they have altered in appearance with changes in printing technology, newspapers of the early 21st century are very similar to those of eighty years ago.

The principal difference is that stories about the doings of Queen Marie of Romania have been replaced by stories about the doings of Britney Spears.

Newspapers in Canada

Naturally the first newspapers were in the earliest settled areas in Canada. Settlers in the interior might not see any newspapers, or would receive those from the principal cities. Since their points of interest might still lie back in the old country, many pioneers were happy to receive packets of newspapers from home, sent by relations, and did not bother with domestic news at all.

Thus we find that the letters of the Scottish community in Ayr, Ontario in the 1870s are full of references to political and social events in Greenock and Edinburgh, Scotland, gleaned from newspapers sent by brothers at home and shared with everyone in town. There are few, if any references to political events in Toronto or Ottawa.[1]

Many settlers in remote areas might subscribe to big-city newspapers specifically hoping to obtain world news, or to ‘remain in touch’ despite their location. Thus we find displaced Englishmen who would have subscriptions to London newspapers, people in the Maritimes reading Boston papers or those in Ontario receiving New York publications. Obviously, although these people regarded those far-off newspapers as their source of news, there is no point in genealogical researchers looking in them for information about their ancestors. Their Canadian readers were looking for international information, not local, by reading them.

As cities developed within Canada, their newspapers would become the resource for distant readers to obtain national and international information, but again, readers in Parry Sound would be unlikely to insert their birth announcements in Montréal or Toronto publications. (We should note that families with more elevated social connections, and consequently with friends in Toronto or scattered throughout Ontario, might well have a birth announcement placed in the newspaper there for general distribution. Again, this would not apply to most people’s families.)

For some, religious newspapers, which were sources of general news as well as spiritual materials, would take the place of a geographically-oriented newspaper, because it contained the information needed from a paper and also connected them with others of a similar bent elsewhere in the province.

Today, most people receive their newspapers delivered at home or they pick them up at a news stand. It is important to be aware that in the past the usual way to receive the newspaper was through the mail.

There were special, low rates for sending newspapers (not only as new publications, but also those packets of gift papers sent from brother to brother or friend to friend, mentioned above). Thus, a subscription to a newspaper, local or faraway, was very similar to magazine subscriptions now.

It was customary for it to come through the post and was also affordable. Few people nowadays could afford the several hundred dollars a year it would take to subscribe to a faraway daily.

As recently as the 1970s, weekly newspapers in small towns were distributed this way, even to local subscribers. The current writer received copies of The Russell Banner of Russell, Manitoba this way, first while living in town and later in Ontario.

This fact is important for genealogists because, when we consider the question, “What newspaper did our ancestor subscribe to?” we may wonder if it is a paper much farther afield than the nearest town, for reasons of religion, political bias, or because of it containing specialised information.

An emigrant from Aberdeen living in rural British Columbia might discover that the editor of a newspaper in Halifax was also an Aberdonian, who consequently included a lot of Aberdeen news in his paper. The British Columbian might subscribe to the Halifax newspaper simply because of that. Whether he would place his own news items in that paper is another matter (but he might, as a way of reaching other old friends resident in Canada).

Which Newspaper?

If your relations lived in a town with a newspaper, then the choice of what paper to consult is clear. If they lived in the country, particularly in a remote place, the choice might be more difficult. This is especially true on the Prairies or in the interior of British Columbia, where distances between towns can be great. Here are some suggestions:

  • Look at a contemporary map, to see where the roads and rivers run. The most likely publication place for the newspaper is the place where the family did its shopping and picked up its mail.
  • Consult a local directory. Farmers’ directories told the post office associated with people, and it may be surprising. The six Lunn brothers living in the Sandy Hook area of Durham County, Ontario in the 1890s all lived within a mile of one another on the same road which divides Manvers and Clarke townships, but some had their mailbox at Kendal and some at Pontypool. To find what directories might help you, consult Mary Bond’s Canadian directories, 1790-1987: A Bibliography and Place-Name Index (National Library of Canada, 1989). This is a listing of the directories in the collections of NLC and the National Archives of Canada library at that time. It can be used as a guide (not a definitive list) to what directories are extant. A most useful feature for family historians is the place-name index, which runs to 23,000 entries, which will assist you in determining which directories include the smaller place which interests you.
  • See where the railways went. Since the railways carried the mail, the easiest newspaper to obtain may have come from slightly farther away, but on the train. This may also have affected where people shopped.
  • Consider where people came from. If they had moved a short distance they might continue to subscribe to the newspaper from the former home. An example of this is a community of people who lived north of Listowel in Perth County, Ontario. Listowel had a healthy newspaper, but these people’s birth and death notices did not appear in it. Instead, they published in the Elora newspaper, to the east. The reason was that they had all come from the Elora-Fergus area initially, and their friends and family lived there, so that paper would have been filled with news of interest to them. Even if they had moved far away, their notices might well continue to appear in the home town newspaper for a while, since they would want to inform people there of events in their lives

Studying the Newspaper

Once a researcher chooses which paper to read, and obtains the microfilm, there is a great deal of material to go through. It is unwise to rush. There is an advantage to doing this research now rather than twenty or thirty years ago, because many newspapers have been microfilmed and are now available on interlibrary loan and it is no longer necessary to travel to the area when the paper originated to look at it.

Some researchers may still regard researching in original newspapers as preferable to microfilm. This is not the case. Old bound newspapers are unwieldy and fragile. Even in the best circumstances, where racks are provided to hold the bound volumes upright, each turned page may sprinkle crumbs of newsprint on the desk.

Whether upright or flat, the volumes are too large to be read comfortably; note-taking is difficult (writing while leaning on the books themselves is forbidden), to say nothing of the smell. Although some people find reading microfilm hard on the eyes, it is certainly better than reading originals.

In the days before most old newspapers were found in libraries or archives, researchers had to go to newspaper offices to see old issues. These were usually kept in a corner of the office or even the printing room, where the reader had to balance the large and heavy books between knees and piles of boxes, and still try to take notes. In the end, there is little romantic in the process.

The only difficulty in reading microfilm occurs if the library concerned has not invested in a modern reader. This has more to do with their budget than anything else. Most libraries will provide competent equipment.

While genealogists may concentrate on the birth, death and marriage announcements, it is wise to remember two things. First, many newspapers do not have a ‘column’ or special place in each issue devoted to these announcements.

If you look only for this column, you will find yourself cranking through whole years of newspaper without stopping. Secondly, there is a great deal of other information which might be useful to you hidden in the news columns or advertisements.

It is dangerous to take the approach of an archivist at one provincial archives, who showed a researcher the cabinets containing newspaper microfilm with the statement, “Pioneer newspapers didn’t contain much genealogical information, anyway.” This narrow view of what constitutes ‘genealogical information’ displays a misunderstanding of family history research as we practise it in the twenty-first century, where all data about a family, not merely birth, death and marriage dates, are viewed as adding to our knowledge.

Having obtained a microfilm on interlibrary loan, the researcher can take as much time as needed to give a cursory look to every page of each issue. It will be clear immediately that a great deal of it is not of interest—the international politics, doings in Ottawa, the weather—but the local news should be examined carefully. In the ads, especially in small-town papers of the past, you will notice that a great many of the ‘professional cards’ repeat themselves exactly week after week. These are the notices from lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants and various stores.

The same ad could be placed for many weeks at a minimal cost. The reason for this was that the typesetting had only to be done once, so after the initial week, there was no further expense for the printer to add the notice to the paper. Some ads, which changed, might be interesting as background or historical information.

Some events might generate a series of news items, and if your family is involved, you will want to collect them all. Deaths are a good example, and the series of possibilities will be discussed in the coming modules, but other newsworthy events might also be noticed more than once. Weddings generated a series of reports: engagement, bridal showers, the wedding itself, a list of wedding presents, the couple’s return from honeymoon and the bride’s first ‘at home’ might all warrant notice.

In local news columns for small communities, the progress of someone’s illness might take several weeks, and in court cases, the whole process of crime, investigation, arrest, trial and sentencing can be followed.

In the newspaper where the editor prides himself on an intimate style, as mentioned above, there can be allusions in one story to connected events in other parts of the newspaper or in previous issues. For the researcher, these allusions may not be easy to follow, but if the story is of sufficient interest, they can stimulate us to more intensive searching to follow up. As an example, a man’s accidental death in 1894 was described in the local newspaper, the account ending with a reference to the fact that his wife was in jail, which readers would remember from the trial three weeks earlier. The older newspaper had a long account of the woman’s crimes, which might never have been discovered without the allusion in the description of the mortal accident.

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[2] 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. These letters are in the collection of the Waterloo Historical Society, Kitchener Public Library, Kitchener, Ontario.
  2. 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

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