Your family didn't necessarily have to be famous or wealthy to make the news — at least not after the introduction of the penny newspaper in 1833 made newspapers easily available to the masses. Important life events such as births, marriages, deaths, and funerals often appeared in the local newspaper, as did land transactions, court proceedings, school achievements, and other information on the everyday life of the area's inhabitants. Beyond the names and dates, newspapers frequently contain firsthand accounts of important events and issues, and reflect popular thinking and cultural attitudes of the time. Even the advertisements are enlightening, offering insight into local fashion, trends, and the cost of living.
Prior to the Internet, using historical newspapers to research family history was generally undertaken only by the most tenacious researchers. They just weren't easily available, often existing only on microfilm at the local or state library. Newspapers also don't typically come with an index, so newspaper research generally involves a lot of research and guesswork just to select the newspaper and issue(s) most likely to contain information of interest. Once the search has been narrowed to a particular newspaper and time period, newspaper research can still involve hours spent in front of a microfilm reader scrolling through page by page, skimming line after line.
Don't limit yourself to births, marriages, and obituaries when researching your family in old newspapers. Some of the best finds may come from the society and neighborhood columns, where you can get little snippets about visiting relatives, children joining the military or leaving for college, people suffering or recovering from a serious illness, and trips to visit friends and family in other towns.
Online access to historical newspapers has changed the scope of newspaper research, making it much more easily available to anyone interested in their family history. Many publishers and organizations have recently undertaken the digitization of historical newspapers in order to preserve and provide increased access to their rich history and commentary. The entire archive of the New York Times — dating back to its first issue in 1851 — is just one such example of the many historical newspapers that have been made available for viewing via the Internet. These treasures of digital history present a great source for gaining knowledge about your family and the time and place in which they lived.
In addition to increased access, the digitization of historical newspapers allows for easier research with tools such as zoom, pan, and full-text search. The full-text search does come with a caveat, however. Most digitization projects use optical character recognition (OCR) technology to automatically recognize text within the digitized newspaper images. This process is much quicker and more cost-effective than manual indexing (can you imagine the effort the latter would take?), but does lend itself to inaccuracies. This is especially true for older newspapers where the typeface was a bit more flowery and may be harder for a computer to accurately decipher. Search results may include extraneous “matches” on words that the OCR technology believes are optically similar enough that they could be your target word. As a result, searching in historical newspaper databases can require quite a bit of creativity and patience, but the rewards are often immeasurable.
To locate historical newspapers online, first learn what paper(s) covered the location and time period in which you're interested. Then do a search for the paper by name and location plus terms such as archive or historical. There are also websites which link to online papers and collections organized by state, such as “Historic Newspapers Online” (
ProQuest Historical Newspapers
This collection of full-text and full-image articles from prestigious U.S. newspapers was first created in 2001 with the digitization of the New York Times. Other major newspapers now included in the fully searchable database include the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Constitution, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, New York Tribune, New York Amsterdam News, Pittsburgh Courier, Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor. Every issue of each title includes the complete newspaper in downloadable PDF format and full-text search with a variety of advanced search options. This collection is only available through subscribing libraries and institutions, and is not available for individual subscriptions. Check with your local, college, or state library to see if they subscribe to any or all of the newspapers in this collection. Many offer free in-library and remote access to their patrons.
This subscription-based service is one of the largest historical newspaper collections available online. The NewspaperARCHIVE database (
Historical newspapers are available as part of the
A product of the information provider NewsBank, GenealogyBank (
Chronicling America: Historical American Newspapers
A joint project of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress (LC), the National Digital Newspaper Program is a twenty-year plan to create a national digital resource of historically significant newspapers from all states and U.S. territories. The project's website, Chronicling America (
For every newspaper you can access online, there are hundreds more only available in libraries and other repositories around the world. Sites like Chronicling America (
Newspaper archive company SmallTownPapers (
Volunteers have transcribed and placed online more than 50,000 pages of abstracts and extracts from historical newspapers at Newspaper Abstracts (