Genealogy Search Tips

6 Tips for Searching Historical Newspapers

Search Historical Newspapers to Discover Information about Your Ancestors, Relatives and Friends

Historical newspapers are a great source of information about a family's important historical events - a birth, high school graduation, college graduation, marriage, death, military service, pandemics (like the 1918 Flu) and more.

However, there are many cases where important information is contained in newspaper articles but the articles cannot be found by traditional search. In most cases this occurs when the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) text does not accurately relect the text in the newspaper article. So we have some tips on how to modify your search terms when this happens.

Search Historical Newspapers

If you are searching an historical newspaper that is displayed online as an image then you are searching the text generated from Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software. Usually the OCR text is printed below the image of the newspaper page.

So if you don't see your search term in the newspaper page displayed on the screen you can use your browser's "Find on Page" feature to locate your search term in the OCR text. Then you will be able to find where the article appears in the newspaper page.

Even if the window for the OCR text is very small and your search term does not appear in the window the "Find on Page" will locate your search term and slide the scroll bar down so that you can see your search term and the entire article.

You can also copy the article's OCR text and save it as text in one of your files.

Microfilm Readers

In recent years many libraries and historical societies have upgraded to more advanced microfilm readers that provide a much clearer view of microfilmed pages. Instead of printing a page with the microfilm reader's printer you can usually print the page to a laser printer. So the quality of a printed page is much better than in the past.

These newer microfilm readers are usually connected to a computer - so you can copy and save a page or part of a page to the computer. For example, you might view a newspaper page that contains an obituary and just copy the section of the page that contains the obituary to the computer.

Many of these computers are online and so you can email your saved copies to yourself or others. You can also upload your copies to a cloud based web page on Google Drive, MicrosoftOne and other similar sites.

In most cases you can also insert a flash drive and save your copies to the flash drive.

Search Historical Newspapers

Many online historical newspapers are digitized copies that were generated from microfilm copies of the original newspapers. So these newspapers are images of printed information and and they are not in the text form that is common in more recently, published online newspapers.

Computers cannot read the text in these images and so the text must be extracted from the images so that an index of key words can be generated and used in response to search queries. Typically Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software is used to extract the text from newspaper images. Using the generated OCR text computer algorithms then create indexes that can be used to find relevant newspaper articles in response to search queries.

However, if some of the OCR text is not what appeared in some newspaper articles then parts of these articles will not be indexed correctly. For example if the name "Johnson" was extracted from an article as "Jahnsen" then Jahnsen and not Johnson will appear in the OCR text and index for that article. So a search for Johnson will not find the article even though Johnson appears in the article.

So try common misspellings and other related terms when searching historical newspapers. You might find some articles that would not be found because the OCR text is incorrect. See our discussion of Historical Newspapers, Books and Optical Character Recognition (OCR).

Find Historical Information

Think of an historical event that affected members of your family - like World War I, World War II or other military conflicts. Or perhaps the 1918 flu pandemic (the Spanish Flu) that killed over 50 million people worldwide.

More and more historical newspapers are now indexed by keywords. So just enter the historical event that interests you and search the historical newspaper database.

Find Historical Information

Think of an event that is part your family history - a birth, high school graduation, college graduation, marriage, death or other event. Then find a local newspaper that was published at the time of the event.

More and more historical newspapers are now indexed by keywords including surnames. So just enter the surname for the year or other date that interests you and search the historical newspaper database.

Find an Obituary

Sometimes you know the year of an ancestor's death but don't know the month or day. Try to find a local newspaper that was published weekly during the year of your ancestor's death.

There may be no index or an available index might not be very complete and so you might need to look at each edition of the newspaper until you find your ancestor''s obituary. A local library might have microfilm copies of the newspapers and it might also have copies of the newspapers online. Check the local library's website to find out what online resources are available.

© 2019 All Rights Reserved.