January 3, 2016 by auntkatefirmin
As mentioned in the New Year post, newspapers have been my friends this year. Some of the finds were pure dumb luck but a number were the result of steady research and fine-tuning my strategies. In this post I will share some ideas about how to be more successful when searching digital newspaper archives. (There are also index-only sites for newspapers and similar publications which I am not including here.)
-Don’t limit yourself to one source only. For example, different newspapers from the same region may be found in more than one digital source and different papers may report the same event from a different angle or clue you in to an event that scanned poorly in the other paper. There may be a regional or state archive, such as the free Historic Oregon Newspaper archive, which has different coverage than a commercial site such as newspapers.com. When reasonable, check all logical sources, which may include the newpaper’s own site.*
-Ask a librarian for help.This can be particularly productive if you happen to have information from another site such as a full citation for an obituary. There are tools that list the names of newspapers, what area the newspaper covered, what dates the newspaper was printed, and where you can find that newspaper in microform or digital form. The enterprising researcher can find the same information, but that requires a more detailed explanation than a blog post.
-Just as you do when searching parish archives and similar records, check the date coverage. If you’re not finding something, like an funeral notice that you suspect was published, it’s possible that not all the issues of a particular paper were digitized or that the source you are using doesn’t include that paper, that year, or is just missing a day. Explore the site you are using to review the coverage and alternate names that the newspaper might have been published under.
-If you have a nearby university library or research library make a visit to discover what online newspaper subscriptions are available there. (The library is also likely to have various digitized books & journals but that’s another article also).
-Successful searches are highly context sensitive. Once you have found a relevant article or two take a look at how the article is worded and what is included. Especially for women the phrasing of the names is highly variable: is it Lucy Smith, Mrs Charles Smith, Mrs C A Smith, etc? Is there supplemental information such as a home town or street address that is consistently included? Depending on the time, place, and article content how the names are presented and what information is included will vary greatly; if you’re searching for Charles Smith and the style in that era is simply Mr C Smith you’ll obviously miss out. I’ve had great luck in some instances using a street address in combination with a surname to narrow the results. I’ve even found articles searching with the street address in combination with a date range, which uncovered items that weren’t found because the surname had scanned poorly, was too common or too similar to another word or phrase. Occupations or obscure home towns can be helpful in narrowing a search.
-Be creative. I’ve had to think of workarounds when the name “Firmin” turned up the phrase “firm in,” the surname Hoger turned up the name “Roger,” and other side effects of the keyword-based search process and the amusing results of the optical character recognition software gave unintended results. Sometimes the advanced search will give you options to exclude a word or phrase and that can help.
-Observe whether the articles appear in a consistent category or with a consistent heading such as “death notices” or advertisements. Like every option for narrowing your results, this must be used with caution as the categorization may not be consistent. Still, if you are getting so many results that you can’t review them all this may help. Also review the wildcard options for each site so that you can catch common misspellings or name variations such as Harriette and Harriet.
-Take advantage of what you know so that you’re not overly dependent on searching only by name. Once I narrowed down the arrival date and port for a particular individual I was able to find relevant information in the shipping news sections of papers that specialized in that type of news. Often the early papers do include passenger lists, however between misspellings and overly common names, it can be easier to find what you are looking for by searching using a date and the ship name than using a surname.
-Be realistic. In some eras, some locations, and for some sections of society you’re just not likely to find much that’s specific to your family. After a bit of searching you’ll get a sense of what was “news” or if your ancestor was too far off the beaten track. Maybe it’s enough to read the headlines for the day your ancestor was born, married or died.
The wealth of information available online does mean that for each digital archive you’ll need to learn a new interface. Each site has different method for narrowing the search and for creating a file you can save that includes all the relevant citation information so that you’re not scratching your head next year wondering where you found that article.
Dig in! Please comment with your favorite resources, strategies and finds.
*Remember that local historical societies and libraries probably have small local newspapers on microform that you won’t find too many other places.