Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Newspaper Search Tips & Tricks

Digitized newspapers are great. You can find so many more things in a digitized newspaper than in one merely indexed because the computer can search every line of the newspaper for your search terms.

The only problem is that your results will only be as good as the quality of the original print. If the text is faint or too much ink makes the letters unclear, you will likely not find what you are looking for. This is why it is important to search in multiple ways to increase your chances of pulling out as many references to your people as possible.

Of course, you will probably want to start by searching for a particular person. If you are searching for someone in the Kalamazoo Gazette through GenealogyBank go ahead and fill in the first and last name fields and the keyword “Kalamazoo.” You may also want to narrow the search to results just from the state of Michigan if you find too many hits from outside the state (which may happen if the name is common). Another way to search is to put the person's name in quotation marks in the keyword field, though if there are middle initials the hit won't show up.

As I previously mentioned, your results are only as good as the original news print. Even if you searched by first and last name you will find results that did not appear there when you search by last name alone. I know this can be tedious (I did it for nearly all of my surnames that lived in the area), but if you find more results it can be worth the effort to do the extra searches.

To make this task more manageable you have several options. If your people only lived in the area during a certain time period you can include a year range in the appropriate box. Or, if your ancestors lived in the area for all or most of the years covered you can sort the results from oldest to newest (or vice versa). This is what I did and in a few cases it took me several sittings to work my way through them all. When I searched for “Flynn” in “Kalamazoo” and sorted with oldest results first, I looked through results to the end of a particular year and made note of that. When I had time to continue, I simply picked it up in the following year by filling in the “year” field (1897-1922, for example).

Unfortunately, this strategy sometimes won't work or yields so many results that it really isn't worth the effort to wade through them all. If you, like me, have surnames that are common surnames or even common words like Lane, Lemon or Brown you know what I'm talking about. I can't tell you how many references there are in the average paper to lemons. In these cases you may have to stick with simple first/last name searches.

If you have someone with an unusual or rare first name you can try searching for that without the surname. This worked to find a few additional articles about Solon Lane, the bigamist in my tree. Keep in mind that first names aren't always included. Sometimes people were only listed with their first initial (e.g. Mr. S. Lane).

In some cases you can search for things your ancestor did in order to find references not pulled out through name searching. For example, I knew that my distant cousin, Henry Harrigan, listed his profession as a base ball player in the 1880 census. By searching for “base ball” and putting in a year range I found him mentioned by name in notices that simply weren't picked up when I looked for his name (even searching by surname alone). I also found a few additional references when my search terms were ball, nine, kalamazoo. Back in the late 19th century, a baseball team was often called a “nine” for the number of players on a team. Another possibility is to search for a term related to your ancestor's occupation. While I didn't find any additional references to my relative who was a drayman, you may get lucky.

Just remember to be flexible and try as many combinations or names and other terms as possible to extract every possible reference to your people. As with searching other databases too many search terms will limit your results. It can be time consuming to search by surname alone, but it is certainly easier to sort through results in this way than to scroll through page after page of microfilm until you are woozy.

If your ancestors lived in Kalamazoo between 1868 and 1899 take a look at the newly digitized KalamazooTelegraph, available for free on the Kalamazoo Public Library website.

For some ideas on what you can find with diligent searching in digitized newspapers see my posts Digging for Dirt, Beyond Obituaries, Casting a Wide Net and Adding Context.

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