Not all newspapers are the same. They differed then and differ now in frequency of publication and in their focus. They include these:
- Daily newspapers: published in larger communities
- Weekly newspapers: small-town newspapers or a local competition to the daily
- Ethnic newspapers in native languages
- Religious newspapers
- Legal newspapers containing legal notices and court calendars
Seldom will you be accessing the original newspapers. Because of their size, the fragile newsprint, and the scarcity of copies of early issues, access to the originals is usually restricted. Libraries across the country have microfilmed many of their holdings; these are often available on interlibrary loan.
A guide to current bibliographies, indexes, abstracts, and other sources of value for newspapers is in Ancestry's The Source.
Newspapers in the Area
Many newspapers have undergone numerous ownership changes. Others are no longer published, but their back issues may be preserved. Try the latest edition of Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcasting Media (formerly Ayer Directory of Publications). It will lead you to newspapers still in existence and provide background on their predecessors. If the newspaper you seek has gone out of business, it will not be listed in Gale but might be in a former Ayer list.
Some state libraries with extensive newspaper collections have compiled special lists by county and by town for those available. Look for those in your library's reference section.
Checking for an Index
A surprising number of nineteenth-century newspapers have been indexed in recent years. Not usually every name, but certain subjects and the principal names are indexed. Often the items indexed were primarily those involving births, marriages, and deaths. Determine whether there is an index for the newspapers in your area of search. Try entering the name of that newspaper in your computer's browser and see what comes up. For example, I entered at random “Reading Pennsylvania newspaper” to see if anything would come up for Reading, Pennsylvania. I quickly found the Reading Eagle. A variety of articles were available online, including obituaries, some anniversaries with charming photos, and others. The newspapers on the Web are often searchable for a variety of topics. Give it a try.
Even if an index has not been published for the newspaper, a local group may have created an unpublished manuscript or card index available at their library or genealogical society.
After you determine which newspapers were published in the area and whether they are indexed, you need to identify which repository has the newspapers and whether you can borrow the microfilmed issues on interlibrary loan. Ask your reference librarian for assistance.
Reading Every Word?
Nineteenth-century newspapers are difficult to read; often all the local items are combined into one long continuous column. It is hard to immediately locate the item you seek, unless you are fortunate enough to be working with a newspaper that headed its columns “Births,” “Marriages,” or “Deaths.” There is a shortcut to finding notices when indexes are lacking. Determine the name of the community in which your family lived. That leads you to the local columns. Community columns included diverse items all mingled together. Residents who took trips, visitors from out of town, who was ill, deaths, social events—all were listed one after the other without break. The community notices can be particularly valuable when listing visiting relatives from out of town or noting the trips residents made to other localities to visit their kin.
Topics to Target
There is so much that can be of assistance in genealogy, regardless of whether they are nineteenth- or twentieth-century newspapers. You may find these:
- Obituaries and death listings
- The family thank-you after a funeral
- Birth announcements
- Marriages and anniversaries
- Church news of members (particularly births, marriages, and deaths)
- Sales of property
- Legal summons and citations
- Estate notices
- “Left my bed and board”
- Went west
- Unclaimed mail at the post office
- Letters to the editor
- Visiting family and community events
When you are trying to get information from a county in which the courthouse burned, the newspaper can help fill some gaping holes.