Use Newspapers Archives for Family History

By Lisa Louise Cooke

Newspapers present a wide assortment of information that will enrich your family history, whether you are looking to find out who attended your great grandmother’s 7th birthday party or a list of those who attended her funeral, .

Since the first newspapers were published in the early 1600s, thousands of big city and small town publishing houses around the world have published millions of pages ripe with anecdotes to family heritage. Determining which newspaper was published in your ancestor’s location at the time they lived there can be daunting, but possible with findmypast's collection of newspaper archives that span the globe.

However, unlike other genealogical record collections such as vital records which are issued by the government starting at a particular point in time, newspapers are produced in the private sector, and come and go without a promise of accuracy.

I recommend getting a “big picture” overview of newspaper availability with the newest online tech tools, in my book How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers (Lulu Press, 2012). It’s critical that you are fully aware of the kind of genealogical information that newspapers contain so that you don’t miss a thing. Newspaper archives online at findmypast.com provide treasures well beyond obituaries!

Start Your Search for Old Newspapers Online

Explore the most expansive collection of newspapers online with findmypast.com's exclusive collection of British newspapers and U.S. and World newspaper archives,  which contain a bounty of ancestry all fully searchable by name. date or keyword. This saves you the time of trudging through physical archives or newspaper archives online in order to find the exact region that might pertain to your family tree. 

Instead, newspapers dating back 300 years and spanning more than 120 million pages worldwide. The OCR technology allows optical recognition of keywords in order to elimate the guesswork of vintage publications. Learn about community traditions, your great-great grandmother's wedding ceremony (including who attended and what kind of cake was served) and how The Great War affected the street you grew up on.

Go here to learn tips on how to best use the findmypast newspaper archives search toolbar.

 findmypast's newspaper titles cover the following countries:

  • U.S.
  • Canada
  • Great Britian
  • Wales
  • Scotland
  • Germany
  • Denmark
  • France
  • Japan
  • South Africa
  • Jamaica
  • China

Other newspaper archives resources:

Data Visualization is a growing trend online and Stanford University’s Rural West Initiative at the Bill Lane Center for the American West uses this technology in a stunning way. 

The website plots on a map of more than 140,000 newspapers published over three centuries in the United States. The data comes from the Library of Congress' "Chronicling America" project, which maintains a regularly updated directory of newspapers and a large collection of digitized pages.

One online tech tools for identifying the newspapers you seek is the Data Visualization: Journalism's Voyage West project at Stanford University’s website. The Data Visualization map begins at the year 1690.

As you move the time slider (at the top of the screen) to the right and come forward in years, newspapers begin to appear on the map represented by dots. The larger the dot, the more newspapers concentrated in that area. Set the slider at the desired year.

When dots begin to appear in an area of interest on the map, click the zoom tool found in the upper right corner of the screen. Click and drag the screen to reorient to the correct area. Continue zooming in until you are close enough that you can distinguish between the dots. Hover your mouse over a dot and the newspapers in existence in that area in the time selected will appear in the lower left corner of the screen.

Each newspaper listed in the Details box is hyperlinked to the Library of Congress Chronicling America catalogue entry. Discover where you can view the paper by clicking on the ‘Libraries That Have It” link at the top of the listing. 

The News Knows No Boundaries

Once you’ve made note of the newspapers associated with the town you are interested in during a particular year, explore the surrounding area dots and newspapers. The news knows no boundaries, and it’s very possible that the news you seek was reported in a neighboring area. 

These are ideal for using keyword searches to draw out additional papers in areas not obviously associated with your ancestors that may have picked up applicable stories. Online databases can also help you span the boundaries of time. 

For example: This became very clear to me as I searched for the marriage announcement of an ancestor. While the newspaper edition which featured the original printing of the announcement was not available online, the website’s search engine picked up the story when it was rerun 75 years later in the same small town’s paper as part of a weekly history column!

The lesson: Don’t skim past a search result that has the right names but appears to have the “wrong” date or location. You can never be sure if a result is a match until you look at the actual article.

Genealogy Gems in the News

In my online radio show The Genealogy Gems Podcast, I strive to help listeners think outside the box in order to uncover precious genealogical finds. When it comes to thinking outside the box with newspapers, it usually means thinking past the obituary.

Funeral notices and obituaries are the news items most commonly searched for, and yet newspapers contain so much more! Here are just a few of the gems to keep your eyes peeled for:

  • Society news (ex: birthday parties, club meetings and events, out of town visitors)
  • School related events (honor rolls, theater productions, graduations, etc.)
  • Classified Advertising (ancestor’s businesses, personal ads…)
  • Immigration and Naturalation related events (i.e. ship sailings, naturalization ceremonies)
  • Legal Notices (divorces, sales, purchases, probate…)

Save copies of digital newspapers 

As you peruse old newspaper archives it’s easy to get engrossed in what you are reading. Whether you are scrolling through microfilm or surfing through digitized pages online, as soon as you make a discovery, make a habit of copying (or grabbing a screen shot) of the front page of the paper you found it in.

Screenshots of newspaper archives serves two important purposes

  • It creates documentation for your genealogical source citation
  • It gives you the big picture, both locally and nationally of what was going on at the time the article was written.
  • With a bit of patience and a dose of tenacity you can get the scoop on your family history!