History’s Headlines - Using Digital News Archives in Genealogy Research

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Joe Hanneman

Until the advent of film scanners and optical character recognition software, the treasures of history written in the world’s newspapers were largely locked in time, unless a genealogist had access to microfilm and knew the dates and locations for the persons in question.

Billions of stories, from major news events like wars to the local gossip columns, represented a vast untapped historical resource. At the same time entrepreneurs were starting genealogy-research web sites, others were starting the massive task of scanning billions of microfilmed newspaper pages. That effort has paid vast dividends, and today’s genealogist has amazing ability to search the news of history.

To get started on your digital newspaper research, it helps to have a strategy and a means to store and manage your findings. Here’s how to get started:

Locate the Sources

Both private companies and research libraries are owed much of the credit for bringing historical newspaper archives online. There are many sources for searching digital news collections in the U.S. and around the world. Some require rather pricey individual subscriptions, but thankfully many can be accessed free through your local public library.

  • Elephind — With nearly 150 million news pages from almost 2,800 newspaper titles, Elephind is an easy-to-use free search engine. It draws upon collections from the National Library of Australia, National Library of New Zealand, the U.S. Library of Congress and a variety of colleges and universities.
  • Chronicling America — The U.S. Library of Congress has 11 million newspaper pages covering 1836-1922. This collection can also be searched via Elephind.
  • Google Newspapers — Google embarked on an ambitious project to digitize hundreds of newspapers, but discontinued the project a few years ago. Fortunately, the database remains and genealogists can still browse or search the contents. You can browse the extensive list of available papers and conduct name or keyword searches. Some of the functionality of Google newspapers has been lost since the company stopped supporting the project, so you might have to wade through a lot of potential matches to find articles that match your interest. Or you can select a paper and browse by date.
  • GenealogyBank​ — This subscription-based site has more than 1 billion searchable U.S. newspaper pages from 1690-2014. Annual subscriptions cost about $70 USD. The image viewer allows you to print individual articles or even save entire pages as PDFs.
  • NewspaperArchive.com — This online collection from Heritage Microfilm has more than 7,400 newspaper titles from the United States and 22 other countries. Subscriptions range from $80 USD to about $200 per year. The lower cost plans are good for little more than searching. If you want to review many pages and save PDFs, the pricier plan is what you need. You can also access NewspaperArchive in many libraries and as part of services offered by Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and other genealogy platforms.
  • Newspapers.com — This site, owned by Ancestry.com, has a searchable collection of more than 156 million newspaper pages from more than 4,200 newspaper titles in the United States, England, Ireland and Australia. Access costs $90 USD for the basic plan or $140 for “Publishers Extra,” with an additional 59 million news pages.

The U.S. Library of Congress has a list of other newspaper archive resources. The International Coalition on Newspapers has a global listing of newspaper digitization projects. Readex has a diverse collection of newspapers and other printed resources, available at many libraries and universities.

You can also find some of these sources included as part of genealogy platforms such as Ancestry, MyHeritage​, FindMyPast and others.

Searching the Archives

Finding news coverage of an ancestor, a hometown or an event will depend in part on the search engine at the sites you access. Most have both basic and advanced search options. You might find better success searching for people by using the “exact phrase” option or by putting quote marks around your search term.

Make sure to try spelling variants for both given names and surnames. News articles often contain errors. You might be surprised how far off they can be. If you’re not having luck doing a name search, try just a surname and add keywords related to the person or family. Since optical character recognition depends on both the software and quality of the scan, you can’t assume all names or terms were indexed. So be creative.

If you use paid resources like Newspapers.com, remember that many online collections have exclusive rights to certain newspapers. That means to be thorough, use as many tools and databases as you can. If budgets are a concern, access the sites at a local public library or university library.

Saving Your Work

There are many viewing and editing tools available on newspaper archive sites. Each works a bit differently. One good way to make sure you get the articles you need, and the bibliography information, is to save the entire news page as a PDF. Not all sites (such as Google) allow this, but it is a great option to help you build your own database.

Some news archives will embed the newspaper’s name and date in the PDF file name, a very helpful feature. Others just assign some seemingly random number that will mean nothing once it is store on your local computer. If you are saving a news page related to an event or person, put that into the file name as you save each page. It will help immensely later when you go to find things. For example, if your ancestor ran for mayor in the 19th century, your file name could be: “Election_MilwaukeeJournal_1880_03_27.pdf”.

As you collect PDF news pages, use a database manager or genealogy site to store the pages. These types of software programs have artificial-intelligence features that will scan and index the words on the news pages and make it easy to search your own news database. The best known and regarded genealogy sites can also be used, Ancestry.com and MyHeritage.com

Thousands of newspaper pages are scanned and put online each day, adding to the billions already available. With a plan, persistence and data management, you’ll find that yesterday’s news can be today’s headlines.

Now that you know what to look out for, it’s time to pick out the genealogy provider for your family history. Click here to read our comprehensive expert reviews.

About Joe Hanneman

Joe has worked in the fields of journalism, communications, and marketing for more than 30 years. In 2015, he set up the Treasured Lives blog, focusing on historical investigative journalism, genealogy industry information, and features on historic advertisements and news articles.


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