The information found on the pages of old newspapers hold a wealth of clues for anyone with an interest in genealogy or history. Headline news and obituaries appear side-by-side with society columns and patent application notices. Community reports include everything from who is visiting who, to lost farm animals. Advertisements offer a fascinating glimpse at prices, styles, and interests of the time. Unlike the facts and dates recorded in official government documents, the information found in old newspapers was generally recorded because it was what people of the time found important. As such, newspapers provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives our ancestors lived that almost no other historical resource can.
Optical Character Recognition - Good or Bad?Most historic newspapers online appear in digitized format - digital images created from microfilm copies or, in a very few cases, from the original newspapers themselves. In addition, many of these newspapers have been indexed as digital databases using OCR (Optical Character Recognition) to take the images and turn them into searchable text. OCR works by recognizing the letter shapes on a white background, and by matching those shapes with known letter shapes that are in the program's memory.
Because many of the newspapers of greatest interest to genealogists are old, the content is difficult to digitize due to the wide variety of inks, type faces, and font sizes. There is often less contrast apparent between text and background on the aged papers, and the old ink may have caused the letters to "bleed" together a bit, making it harder for the OCR program to interpret the letters correctly. In addition, fading, wrinkles, ink blots, and other imperfections on the original page can interfere with OCR results.
For those of us using these historic newspapers online, this basically means that name and keyword searches (most of which rely on the results of the OCR software) will often yield less than expected results. It is important to realize that these every word databases have not been indexed by a human eye, and adjust your search strategies appropriately. Yet because hand-indexing is so time consuming and expensive, OCR offers an affordable alternative. Even a less-than-perfect index, is better than no index at all.
Search Tips for Online Newspaper Databases
Search by Surname Only
Exact names can often be difficult to find in digitized newspaper databases, either due to the drawbacks of OCR technology, or because nicknames, abbreviations, etc. are so common in print. Unless you are searching for a very common surname, like SMITH, then a search by surname only may turn up a variety of items of interest - if not for your ancestor, then for other relatives living in the same area.
Search by Date and Newspaper
Despite the benefits of technology, one of the best ways to find content in old newspapers is to look through the newspaper page by page. This is especially helpful when you're looking for something such as an obituary or marriage notice for which you know the location and date. Learn which newspapers were published in your area of interest, and use the online search or browse feature to go directly to the newspaper for the day, month and year of interest. Be sure to check several days in either direction! Obituaries and funeral notices, for example, may appear anywhere from a day to a week after the actual date of death.
Search by Keyword
Instead of searching for a surname that OCR will often bungle beyond recognition, I will often search a specific newspaper title for common keywords such as "obituary" or "marriage." Be sure to include a search for alternate keywords such as "death notices," "funeral," or "wedding announcements" as well. This technique can be especially helpful for locating relevant pages in larger newspapers such as The London Times. It can also be used to narrow down name or surname searches, such as "toman obituaries."
Where to Find Historic Newspapers OnlineWhile many of the largest historic newspaper databases available online are part of a subscription offering, more than you might expect are available for free access. One of the biggest options for many American readers is the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database. This is a subscription database purchased by many libraries and universities nationwide, who then make it available to their patrons and students for free. Check with your state or local library system to see if you have online access to this great resource.
Next up are the many wonderful state newspaper projects. Generally, you can find links to such sites and databases (if they exist) through the State Library or via a Google search. Good examples include Historical Newspapers in Washington, Georgia Historic Newspapers Search, and Northern New York Historical Newspapers. In almost all cases, such newspapers are made freely available for online browsing and searching.
Newspapers outside of the U.S. are available online as well. The London Times has been digitized from 1785 to 1985 and is available through participating libraries as a digital database. If you don't have access to the London Times Digital Archive through your local or state library, the Godfrey Scholars subscription program through the Godfrey Library in Connecticut includes it among its many hundreds of online databases. Additional British newspapers can be accessed through the British Library Online Newspaper Archive.
If you do a lot of research, you may find it beneficial to plunk down some money for a subscription database. Some of the largest include NewspaperArchive, GenealogyBank, and the Historic Newspaper Collection at Ancestry.com. Links to these and other newspaper collections discussed in this article, along with other online historic newspaper collections can be found in my list of Historic Newspapers Online.
If you're not sure where to start, I often find the Google News Archive Search to be helpful as it allows you to search across many online newspaper databases at once, both free and subscription.