Newspapers and Genealogy

James M. Beidler /

  1. What do we look for in newspapers as genealogists?
            Vital events – births, marriages, deaths (obituaries and death notices)
    1. Notices of family reunions
    2. Genealogy columns
    3. Articles about ancestors
    4. Shipping notices, estate notices, etc.
    5. Perspectives on the times
    6. “Things found on the way to something else”
Today’s online newspaper offerings
    1. – “Historical Newspaper Collection”
    1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers

Black Newspapers Collection

Civil War Era

    1. NewsBank Inc. – “America’s GenealogyBank”

    1. Accessible Archives
    1. Google News Archives
    1. Pennsylvania Civil War Newspapers
  1. Other Web sites
  1. Directory of Digitized Pennsylvania Newspapers
    1. Library of Congress – “Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers
      1. Scans 1880-1910
      2. Information 1690-present

- (+) U.S. Newspaper Genealogy by George G. Morgan
The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by George G. Morgan. Please do not forward it to others without the author's permission.
Newspapers are the chronicles of life in a community. The size of that community is determined by the scope and interest of the publication and by the population which that newspaper serves. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, focuses on financial and investment news and serves a specific niche, while the New York Times has a global news scope and provides information for readers with many different interests. Other publications may confine their focus and content to a narrower audience. This might include the Christian Observer, America’s oldest Presbyterian news publication that dates back to 1913. Let’s look at where and how you can glean valuable information from some major online newspaper collections.
Modern genealogists are fortunate to have at their disposal so many newspapers that have been digitized and indexed. Many of these are available on the Internet in various places. has well over a thousand newspaper titles available in its Historical Newspaper Collection as part of an annual subscription. Other digitized newspaper collections may be available through your local public library and through academic libraries. If you have a valid library card with that institution, you may be able to access these database collections remotely from your home computer. Otherwise, you may have to visit the library and use its computers to access the materials.
ProQuest LLC, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is one of the largest providers of digitized newspaper products. Its ProQuest Historical Newspapers™ program contains every issue of each title, including the complete paper, cover-to-cover, with full-page text and article images in easily downloadable PDF format. Its titles include the New York Times, Atlanta Constitution, Chicago Tribune, and others. ProQuest also has two other important portions of this collection, the Black Newspapers Collection and the Civil War Era. The Black Newspapers Collection provides access to the New York Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier, Los Angeles Sentinel, Atlanta Daily World, and more. The Civil War Era is a collection of newspapers and pamphlets covering the slavery and anti-slavery movements of the 1840s and 1850s, all the way through General Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and the end of the U.S. Civil War. While equally as important, the Black Newspapers Collection and the Civil War Era databases are not as widely available as the ProQuest Historical Newspapers collection. Libraries’ and archives’ budgets and size of interested patron populations may prevent them from having all of the ProQuest collections. You may have to search in other areas and repositories for them.
America’s GenealogyBank is a product of NewsBank, Inc., headquartered in Naples, Florida, one of the premier providers of Web-based services. America’s GenealogyBank contains more than 97 million articles spanning the years 1690 to 1977 from more than half a million issues of more than 1,300 historical U.S. newspapers. It also includes a Historical Books collection with 11,700 digitized and indexed books published between 1801 and 1900. The Historical Documents Collection contains materials from 1790 to 1980, including military records and casualty lists, pension requests, the American State Papers (1789-1838), genealogical content from the U.S. Serial Set (1817-1980), and more.
Google, producer of the world’s most highly used Internet search engine, has also been involved with digitizing and indexing newspapers. The Google News Archives is available for free at The St Petersburg Times [Florida] recently announced that its entire archives, 1901 to 2007, is now available at the Google News Archives. To search for content from its newspaper, the press release instructed users to enter “st. petersburg times” followed by the keyword(s) for the search in the search box. It works well but, unfortunately, there is no list of the publications included in the archives. The Google News Archive is in its early implementation stage and may require some fine-tuning. However, please use it and provide feedback to the company. In addition, you will find that Google’s service provides access via subscription to for some of the other digitized newspapers. Both Google News Archive and can uncover many details. For example, I found information about my favorite aunt’s social activities between 1938 and 1944. What a wonderful addition to my understanding of her life events!
Newspapers have been using computers since the mid-1980s and may therefore have an archive of text (or full-page images). These archived materials may be available at the newspaper’s website. However, you can usually expect to pay a small fee to access and print the materials you want to obtain.
Search Suggestions
Digitizing newspapers is a difficult process. It involves scanning the page to generate a digital image, and it also requires the use of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to “read” every word and to generate an index file. The newspaper printing process itself can compromise the accuracy of the content of that index. Newsprint paper can vary in quality, but it was never intended to last for a long period of time. The paper is porous and may absorb ink differently on different pages. OCR software attempts to recognize each character, but this may be difficult due to shadows in the porous newspaper, different rates of ink absorption, smeared ink, discoloration of the newsprint, and stains. Some of the indexing may be compromised as a result. As you search newspaper indexes, consider the imperfections that may have been introduced by the OCR process.
Before you search any digitized newspaper collection or database, make the time to read the help area and search suggestions. These will tell you how the collection is organized, how the specific search works, and how to get the most out of your search. For example, one collection may support proximity searches while another may not. (A proximity search is one in which two words are searched and results are presented when the words are adjacent to one another as well as within x number of words. For example, a proximity search for “John Smith” might result in matches to “John Smith” and “John A. Smith” and “John Augustus Smith”.
Look at the Advanced Search facility and the fields on which you can conduct searches. Read the Help section for information on maximizing your search effectiveness. Don’t be afraid to use alternate spellings. If the database allows the use of wildcard characters as substitutes for possible spelling variations, use those as well. The Help text will tell you what is and is not supported.
Don’t limit your review of the search results to announcements of births, marriages, and deaths. Remember that public notices are published in newspapers following an individual’s death in order for the estate to collect and pay debts. Consider using shipping notices in port cities to determine the dates on which specific ships or ships sailing between specific ports arrived and departed. Look for tax lists and delinquency listings published in newspapers. Society news can render fascinating details about an ancestor or family member, especially in older newspapers. Use religious newspapers, trade and union publications, pamphlets and tracts, and any other digitized, indexed materials.
Newspapers and other printed resources can be an incredible source of everyday details about your ancestor. They can also provide insights into the lives of residents in a specific location at a point in time. The digitization efforts with newspapers and similar publications that have been done and that are under way promise to open up more and more details of our ancestors’ lives. Make sure that you investigate the availability of digital collections and invest some research time into these great electronic resources.