Genealogists: Get the Scoop on Your Family History in Newspapers

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Her fist went up and came back down with a resounding “Yes!”  In the most recent episode of the NBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are? Susan Sarandon experienced the rush of locating an ancestor’s obituary in the newspapers preserved on microfilm.  (Watch the episode now)

It’s an exhilarating feeling to feverishly scan the microfilm reader screen and have your eyes zero in on a familiar name.  But just how did Susan (or should we say the show’s experienced researchers) figure out where to look?

The burning questions of newspaper research are:

  • Which newspaper should I look in?

  • Did newspapers exist in the area at the time of the event I am researching?

  • If so, where would those historical newspapers be housed now?

  • And if I can figure out where they are located, how do I access them?

Newspaper research is not for the faint of heart, and a good dose of tenacity will serve the researcher well.  But these precious periodicals offer some of the most riveting research leads and historical context available.

I recently conducted a webinar (an online class) called Getting the Scoop From Old Newspapers (the recorded webinar is available to Genealogy Gems Premium Members for viewing at ), which addressed the unique nature of newspaper research.  Just when my students had gotten comfortable with the genealogical research process, and search methods for online subscription database sites, I delivered the news that they would have to think way outside that research box in order to be successful in locating the elusive article they sought.

You have to get your hands dirty with more than newsprint ink to “read all about it” in old newspapers.  Here are some of the key concepts to keep in mind:

Only a tiny fraction of newspaper pages are digitized

That being said, the Internet is still the first place to go in your search.  There are websites tucked into the corners of the Web that can answer many of the questions we posed above and lead you to the physical location of the desired rags.

Old newspapers come in a variety of forms

Your great grandfather’s obituary could be transcribed or indexed in a book, microfilmed, digitized online, or resting in the original folded paper.  Each search requires a fresh approach and the understanding that you may be lead to any of these storage types.

There may be more than one version of the article you seek

Susan Sarandon may have been thrilled to locate her grandmother’s obituary, but she didn’t have to stop there.  Coverage of a story was not always limited to just one newspaper.  A small-town paper may have picked up a story from the local big-city paper and possibly even put it’s own spin on it.  And an article about her grandmother’s passing could have also run in a close relative’s hometown newspaper or in the city where she might have spent many years previously.  If you really want the entire scoop, dig deeper.

Reported events are not limited by time

One of the favorite stories I shared in the webinar was the genealogy gem I found decades after the event.  In fact, after extensive research I finally determined that the marriage record from 1926 that I was looking for was going to be nearly impossible to find (unless I happened across it in someone’s basement) because it hand never been microfilmed.  I checked with the State Library, the State Archive and the local public libraries, none of which had any original copies.

However, all was not lost.  While searching through an online subscription newspaper website I decided to just do a general search on the name of the bride without specifying the year of the marriage.  Bingo!  The local town paper runs a popular column called “Twice Told Tales” in which they reprint articles from long ago.  And there in 2001 they had re-run the item from January 28, 1926 describing the nuptials.  The moral of the story: when struggling to find the past, look to the future.

A Newspaper Goldmine

The Family History Library in Salt Lake is an ideal place to mine for newspaper gems.  Before you go:

Create a game plan

Download the free Research Worksheet from my Family History podcast website (episode 23).  Follow the completed worksheet example and fill in the blanks.  The worksheet will keep you focused and prevent you from getting lost while you’re on the trail of that all important article.

Visit the online library catalogue

Conduct a Place search for the location of the newspaper and the results will indicate if any newspaper records are held at the library.  Print out the listings for the items you plan on pursuing.

Get acquainted with the library

Listen to Family History: Genealogy Made Easy podcast episode 16 featuring Don R. Anderson, Director of the Family History Library.

Listen to The Genealogy Gems Podcast, episodes 80 and episode 82 featuring Irene Johnson on making the most of your visit to the Family History Library.

When you get there:  Ask, ask, ask!

The staff at the Family History Library is extremely knowledgeable and anxious to help.

With some pre-planning, creative thinking, and a good dose of tenacity you’ll be shouting, “yes!” too.

Read more from Lisa Louise Cooke- click here.