Roslyn Torella is a genealogist and a family historian. Her grandparents hailed from Molise and Roslyn grew up in Lowellville, OH. She spends much of her writing time sharing stories of the history of her hometown and helping others find their ancestors.
One of my favorite genealogy sources are newspaper articles. I have found a great deal of information about my ancestors’ lives through newspaper accounts. The obvious types of accounts that are likely to be recorded in a newspaper are obituaries, birth and wedding announcements, however, if you limit your search to just these, you may be missing out on some interesting details about your ancestors. This month we are going to explore what interesting things can be found in a local newspaper, tips on finding online newspapers and how to request articles from a library. There has never been a better time to add newspapers to your genealogy tool kit. Over the past decade, millions of newspaper pages have been digitized making them available for online searching.
Old newspapers from my grandparents’ days have helped me tell their story. I am able to get a sense of what was happening around them in their community and the world and how this may have impacted their lives. I have also used newspaper reports to prove or disprove a family story and to uncover some long-hidden family secrets. For example, a friend of mine never met her paternal grandmother. All she knew was that her grandparents divorced when her father was five and he was raised by his father, which was unusual in the 1930s. She had also heard stories about her grandmother standing on the corner watching her children from afar but never making contact. Unfortunately, my friend’s father died when she was a teenager and she never had a chance to ask about his mother. Using the subscription newspaper archive site, www.newspapers.com, I was able to find an article that described in detail her grandparents’ divorce and included verbatim witness testimony. After nearly four decades of questions she finally knew why her grandfather was awarded custody. Amazingly, I was able to find this information in less than five minutes just by typing her grandmother’s name into a search box. It’s not always that easy. When searching in an online archive, you may need to try several different keyword approaches, such as an ancestor’s full name in quotes, their surname or their surname and the city. If you get too many results due to a common surname, trying limiting your search within a specific timeframe.
There are both subscription and free newspaper archives. The most popular subscription sites are www.newspapers.com, www.genealogybank.com and www.newspaperarchive.com. Other genealogy subscription services such as www.ancestry.com and www.findmypast.com also have newspaper records. If you do not have a subscription to these sites, check your local library or LDS Family History Center (www.familysearch.org/locations/) which may have an institutional subscription that you can use for free.
There are many free archives. The U.S. Library of Congress’ https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov contains full images of searchable newspapers published between 1880 and 1922. Another free archive is https://news.google.com/newspapers which has many digitized newspapers. Unfortunately, the search feature is not functional and to use the site, you need to select a newspaper from their home page and search it page by page for a particular date, but don’t let this discourage you. If you have a general idea of a date to search and your local newspaper is available, you can find a wealth of information. A website that originally focused on New York’s Fulton County also has free searchable newspapers, http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html. Finally, check out this blog which has a huge list of newspapers organized by state, http://www.theancestorhunt.com/newspaper-research-links.html, some are subscription only.
Not all old newspapers have been digitized for online searching which means you may need to visit a local library to access the newspapers in their microfilm archives. I have spent many hours at my local library going through reels of microfilm. It can be tedious, but worth the effort. To make the most of your visit, do as much research as possible about the person, topic or event you are researching. If possible, try to narrow down the time period you are searching to a year, month and day or range of days. This will save you time at the library. If the library that holds a newspaper microfilm with an article that you are seeking is not local, you can call the library and ask a librarian to look for it for you. There may be a small fee and the library will either email or mail the article to you based on your preference. Use www.google.com to search for a local library in an area where your ancestors might have lived and then locate the library’s website to see if they list their newspaper holdings or a phone number for inquiries. A two-minute phone call to a library 300 miles from my home resulted in a copy of the newspaper article that described my great-grandfather’s 1940 unexpected death and uncovered details that no living family member knew.
One last tip, if you are going to visit a library take along a USB flash drive. Many libraries will allow you to copy a newspaper article from microfilm onto your USB drive at no cost.