Digitized versions of historic newspapers are an outstanding source of genealogical information. Yet, since many such newspapers are made searchable using imperfect OCR technology, actually finding the information you seek can be problematic. Search features vary greatly by newspaper archive, which will impact the search features available to you, but these tips should help you dig details on your ancestors out of just any digitized newspaper collection.
1. Search by Surname OnlyExact names can often be difficult to find in digitized newspaper databases, either due to the drawbacks of OCR technology, or because misspellings, 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. If a surname only search turns up too many results, add other identifying facts such as a location.
2. Use Subject Keywords
Instead of searching for a surname that OCR will often bungle beyond recognition, I 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. I often browse the newspaper in which I'm interested for the approximate date of my search first to see what terms were in use in that newspaper for that particular time period (i.e. death notices, deaths, obituaries, etc.).
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."
3. Search by Date and NewspaperDespite 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 weeks after the actual date of death.
4. Don't Limit Your Search to Births, Marriages & ObituariesWhile adding subject keywords such as "deaths" or "obituary" can be an important tool when you're specifically searching for death notices, you should also try your search without those terms. Use name alone or name and location to turn up interesting news articles that might concern your family. You might be surprised what you find!
5. Search for Family MembersIf your ancestor had a common last name, or last name searches just aren't turning up that obituary you know just has to be there, a combination of given names (first names) of various family members can often do the trick. Try searching for your ancestor's first name, along with the first names of his parents, or his spouse, or his children (based on the type of information you're trying to find). If you are searching for an obituary and you know the married name of a daughter or two, a search on that surname, plus a given name or two may do the trick. Use the less common given names for best results!
6. Search by AddressLast names can often be misread by OCR technology, which means that many of the articles or notices which mention your ancestor will not be found by a name search alone. One search method that often works for me in this case is to incorporate the individual's street address into my search. Wedding announcements and obituaries, for example, often mention this key detail. If you don't know your ancestor's street name use other search techniques to locate an article that mentions it, and then try this technique to locate additional newspaper mentions. Try a variety of searches for best results. Examples for an ancestor that resided at 11 Lock St. include: lock st, lock street, 11 lock, etc.
7. Use the Clues You Find to Expand Your SearchI can't even begin to count the number of times I've located an individual I'm searching for mentioned in a newspaper as a "cousin of the bride." While that particular article may not have a lot of information on my focus individual, it is chock full of new names and places to search for. Almost anything can provide potential "search fodder." A company name, cousin's name, occupation, etc.