For those who may have hit a dead end in their family history research, newspapers can provide some resuscitation. Old editions provide insight into the everyday life of ancestors with a rich source of information ranging from birth announcements to obituaries.
Newspapers are the journal of a city, according to Barry J. Ewell, founder of mygenshare.com, a website for individuals interested in learning, sharing and discovering family history.
"A lot of the places our families lived were small communities and the newspapers were really the background of telling the story of the community," Ewell said.
The effort to digitize newspapers is massive. According to Tom Kemp, director of genealogy products for GenealogyBank, a newspaper digitization archive, there are more than 1.3 billion articles on Genealogy Bank alone. In the meantime, 30-40 million new articles are added every single month, while hundreds of people across the country work on making the text searchable.
Newspapers.com, another digitization effort, keeps a rolling count of the total number of newspaper pages uploaded, with is currently approaching 40 million. It includes more than 1,100 historical newspapers from across the United States, ranging in date from the 1700 to the 2000s, with millions of additional pages added every month.
At Ancestry.com, which has more than 2.5 million paid subscribers who have created more than 46 million family trees containing more than 4 billion profiles, the "Historical Newspaper Collection" is part of an archive that containts billions of historical records that have been digitized, indexed and put online since 1996.
On a larger platform, the National Digital Newspapers Program, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, is a long-term effort to build an online, searchable database of U.S. newspapers. All the archives currently available for individual states can be found at www.local.gov.
One such state archive is the Utah Digital Newspaper Project accessible at digitalnewspapers.org. A collection of more than 1 million pages of historic Utah newspapers, it has been hosted by the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library since 2002 and can be searched by keywords, article titles, weddings, deaths and births. Several similar state archives are available across the nation, including the Arizona Digital Newspaper Program and the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
While the efforts to digitize are not yet complete, a massive effort is clearly underway.
Kemp believes newspapers are the next big thing for the genealogy world.
"We're only now discovering these resources were in papers because most people didn't have access to them," he said. "It's brand new territory.
"Now that it's searchable, bang, people find their documents. It's never been easier."
While obituaries are always a staple in searches, newspapers — especially community-sized papers — often included other information such as marriages, births, service projects, church callings for a variety of religions, Mormon missionary service, church activities, passenger and stagecoach lists, and other details relevant to family history.
According to Ewell, the obituary is just the beginning of information to be gleaned from newspapers.
"The best advice that I have, and I've had hundreds of genealogists tell me this: search every page of the newspapers during the time period that their ancestors lived in the community," he said. "I found if I just relied on the obituary, I'd get a few names and places, but when I searched every page, I've found hundreds of absolutely essential clues."
Ewell also suggests that people think about an individual in terms of 360 degrees. They had their own family, friends and neighbors whose progenitors might have more information. When Ewell finds connections between his ancestors and other people, he often looks for genealogists who have the same surname and contacts them, asking about their ancestors and possible connections to his own.
Kemp also has a few tips to offer. He warned about overloading Internet searches.Comment on this story
"Keep it simple," he said. "People have a tendency to want to put in everything they know about a person. Don't do that because a newspaper article might have abbreviated things."
He recommends entering in a surname and a rough coverage of years or putting in the most unusual part of a name to narrow your search. Ewell also suggested entering in the surname and location of the individual you're searching for.
"Genealogists are digging and finding things they've never found before," Kemp said. "It's an amazing day for genealogy."