Genealogy Guide to Historical Newspapers

For our ancestors living in America, local newspapers were their primary source of information since as far back as the early colonial days.  Long before radio or television, newspapers were the way to keep up-to-date with what was happening in their community.  Most folks would read a newspaper cover to cover, looking forward to the date the next issue comes out.

Now, historical newspapers can provide family researchers with a glimpse of the past as they struggle to understand how their ancestors lived.  Newspapers often reflect the political leanings and views of the community as circulation size and advertising space rates depended on their ability to cater to their readership.

Newspapers are particularly valuable to family researchers because they can fill in voids left by missing or destroyed official records.  Notices of births, engagements, weddings, obituaries, foreclosures etc. provide unique opportunities to find details not normally a part of government records.

Finding Historical Newspapers

Locating old newspapers can be a hit or miss proposition.  The main reason being that newspapers tend to be small circulation, local and widely dispersed across the country.  For ancestors living in a rural area, a bit of digging may be required to find the historical newspapers that served that area. 

Also, there is no guarantee that copies of the smaller papers even exist anymore.  The disposable nature of the media means most newspapers were discarded soon after reading.  The cheap paper they were printed on tended to degrade quickly leading to many newspapers being lost to time.

Several approaches to finding historical newspapers are outlined below:

Approach 1: You know the Newspaper’s Name

If you are familiar with the newspaper in your ancestor’s town, then you are way ahead of the game.  You just need to contact them directly or go to their website to search their archives. Defunct newspapers will often have a paper archive of their issues housed in a local library.

Approach 2: You know your Ancestor’s County/City

The Online Historical Newspapers Website is meant to be a place where you can find links to all the online historical newspapers in one place.  Although this website is a work in progress, they have managed to pull together a pretty impressive list of resources.

The county in which your ancestors lived is a vital piece of information in tracking down local newspapers.  A good starting point would be a Google search of the state and county where they lived with historical newspapers in the search box and then follow where the leads take you. 

Otherwise, try searching Cyndi’s List Newspaper Category which has an extensive newspaper category.  They may have just the link you need.

Approach 3: Search Available Free Online Archives

In this approach, you search for your ancestor’s name in several of the larger free online old newspaper collections listed below.  With the recent push to digitize and make records available on the Internet, many newspapers are coming back to life as searchable digital images for genealogists to rediscover.

Chronicling America
http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/
The Library of Congress’ portal to newspapers has two important areas of content: digitized newspaper pages (1836-1922) from 25 states and Washington, DC, and an index to all known newspapers published in the United States and where to find them today.

Elephind.com
http://elephind.com/
Perform text searches on historic digitized newspaper archives from around the globe.  They claim to have a collection of more than 3 million newspapers.

Bowling Green State University - U.S., Canada, and World Newspapers
http://libguides.bgsu.edu/USNewspapersInternet/
Find links to websites arranged alphabetically by state.

Approach 4: Search Fee Based Services

In this approach, you search for your ancestor’s name in one or more of the fee based subscription services such as Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com, Newspapers.com or NewspaperArchive.com.  Each of these services have significant historical newspaper collections that are well worth looking through.  Most of these services will allow you to search their collection to gauge how many hits you will get before signing up, but it is an individual decision whether it will be worth the subscription price.

Conclusion

The approaches described above should be enough to find generally available resources that have been digitized and made available via the Internet.  Sometimes, the resource you are seeking has not been digitized, no longer exists, or has not been made available online.  These cases will require much more digging and legwork and possibly an onsite visit to physically review a collection.  The bottom line is just keep looking until you either find what you are seeking or come upon a dead end.


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