Newspapers: Important Resources for Your Research
By Carolyn L. Barkley
Columnists have written articles on genealogical topics for many years. Although today we often automatically think “virtually,” it is helpful to know about newspaper columns, both past and present, and how they can support our research. These columns, combined with other content of genealogical interest, make newspapers an important resource.
While many of us know whether or not a genealogical column appears in our local newspaper, we may not know if such a column appears in a newspaper in the geographical area of our research. If one does, what type of information is included: how-to information concerning local records, local historical events, or biographical vignettes? Do they accept queries? An even more basic question is how to find out what newspapers exist (existed) in our area of interest. There are many published bibliographies of newspapers, some broad in scope, some limited to states or regions. For current publications, check Ayer Directory of Publications (Ayer Press, annual publication) at your local library. For historical titles, both Winifred Gregory’s American Newspapers 1821-1936: A Union List of Files Available in the United States and Canada (H.W. Wilson, 1937) and John Van Ness Ingram’s A Checklist of American Eighteenth Century Newspapers in the Library of Congress (Government Printing Office, 1936) will prove helpful. Anita Cheek Milner’s Newspaper Genealogical Column Directory (Heritage Books, 1989), although currently out-of-print, is another resource to consult.
You will also want to search “Cyndi’s List” under the topic of “newspapers.” Twenty-two pages (if you print them) are available, including information about several current genealogy columns and columnists: “Louisiana Ancestors” appears in the Times-Picayune (New Orleans) with archived columns available online at http://www.nola.com/ancestors/; Mic Barnette writes a weekly column that appears each Saturday in the “This Weekend” section of the Houston Chronicle with online access at http://www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Delta/7552/; Tom Mooney writes a genealogy column that appears in the Times Leader in northeastern Pennsylvania; and Terry Day and Donna Potter Phillips write for the Tri-City Herald (Washington state). (Please note that the links from Cyndi’s List to the latter two columns are broken). An alphabetical list of links to a wide range of newspapers and newspaper collections, current and historical as well as national and international, is also available on “Cyndi’s List,” as well as a link to “My Virtual Newspaper” with links to newspapers by country and state. A search for Virginia newspapers provided 58 titles. A search for “genealogy” on a few of the Virginia sites brought a variety of responses including obituaries and an article from Danville on Sen. John McCain’s genealogical ties to that area
Once you have identified potential newspaper titles for your research area, Google their sites and then search the sites for “genealogy.” Do they publish a regular column? Do they have occasional genealogical features? Do not limit yourself, however, to current publications. You may want to contact the papers directly to determine if they published such information in the past and when such columns might have appeared. Where is the newspaper archive located? Is it available online or on microfilm? State libraries, archives, and historical societies often have significant collections of newspapers. Be sure to check if there is there an index to the newspapers, whether published or online (or in the librarian’s file drawer). How much was indexed? Does the newspaper accept queries? Some newspapers may publish genealogical queries; others might require that you purchase a classified ad. Try a Google search combining the name of a state and “genealogical query columns.” By doing so, I was able to locate a list of twelve Alabama newspapers with genealogical query columns. You may also want to check PERiodical Source Index (PERSI), published by the Allen County Public Library Foundation. While your library may have printed volumes of this index on the shelf, more efficient searching can be found at heritagequest.com. Check with your local library to see if they provide remote access to this subscription service, on your home computer, by using your library card number.
If your local paper does not include a genealogical column, consider writing a column yourself and talking to the editor about the possibilities. Take a sample column with you when you meet in order to provide an example of your writing skills and subject. If you are writing, or plan to write, a column, you may want to join the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors. Recognizing today’s wide-spread interest in genealogical information, this organization fosters excellence in writing and provides editorial standards for genealogical publishing. The Society sponsors an annual Excellence-in-Writing Competition with categories for published newspaper columns, magazine articles and columns, unpublished research stories, and an “evaluative category for want-to-be-writers. In addition, a listing of newspaper columns is available for Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Washington State, Denmark/Canada, as well as a link to archived copies of Myra Vanderpool Gormley’s former syndicated column in the Los Angeles Times.
In addition to columns printed currently or in the past, other information in the newspaper will be useful in fleshing out the “rest of the story.” Don’t stop with reading the obituaries and death notices. Read the social columns. Who was visiting? Who were they visiting? What anniversaries or birthdays were being celebrated? Read featured stories about local events that your ancestor may have attended or may have been involved in. If you know that an individual’s cause of death involved a train, automobile or construction accident, the event would have been reported and additional information provided. If you have a questionably law-abiding ancestor, read the police blotter. I once solved a research problem by reading that an individual had died from a fall while in jail following “an extended spree.” This information, definitely not related by the family itself, only appeared in this brief police blotter report. Read all of the birth, marriage and legal notices. In current newspapers note the obituaries for individuals who might be related to your ancestor.
Several reference works have compiled genealogical information from newspapers, including Robert W. Barnes’ Missing Relatives and Lost Friends (Clearfield, 2008), which includes information from advertisements for missing persons from newspapers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia. Such ads often included a place of birth, date and last place of residence, and relationship to the person posting the notice. State-wide collections, such as the Charles R. Hale collection of vital records (Connecticut), can be very helpful and save time in identifying information (always then go and read the original notice) from newspaper notices.(Family History Library US/CAN Film 3076-3433).
Newspapers, whether those printed in our time or those from the past, can provide a great deal of information that will supplement our knowledge of individuals and the events of their time. They can provide helpful information on how-to research in a specific geographical area, as well as provide us with intimate views of the history of a community.