How to Find Newspapers
A sensible place to begin searching for the newspaper of interest is at a home or library computer. With the help of a search engine such as Google, it is usually possible to locate newspaper titles. There is no doubt that millions of newspaper pages have yet to be digitized, but the number of areas already covered is amazing. In addition to fully searchable page images, indexes and abstracts to newspapers are constantly being added by libraries, genealogical and historical societies, government agencies, commercial entities, and individuals. Ease of access and use of online newspapers makes them an obvious source of first resort. Plugging the term “newspapers” and the place of publication into a search engine is likely to turn up a variety of possibilities to investigate. Additionally, you could search Google's own collection of digitised newspapers directly (Google News Archive).
As individuals, genealogical societies, and local and state archives are continuing to digitize newspapers, it’s a good idea to periodically check various websites in order to see what progress is being made in the area of your interest. Cyndi’s List includes a great number of newspaper sources, and RootsWeb.com hosts thousands of geographically arranged pages, many of which include indexes to various newspaper sources.
Whether using the Internet or not, one of the first steps in the process is to identify papers that served the area of interest and that have hopefully survived. The same basic reference tools that help us in using periodicals guide the intelligent use of newspapers. The three most needed tools are bibliographies (What was published?), inventories of library and depository holdings (Where is it?), and indexes (How do I find what I want in it?).
Locating local newspapers of the past can be a little more challenging, but certainly not impossible. A visit to the website of the library or archives of the state in which an ancestor lived is a good starting point when using the Internet. Many states have inventoried newspapers, and the titles and publication dates are usually alphabetically arranged by county on the sites.
Researchers interested in early newspapers have been particularly well served. Papers published between 1690 and 1820 are thoroughly described in Brigham’s History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690–1820. The Readex Corporation, in conjunction with the American Antiquarian Society, has for many years sponsored the Early American Newspapers Project to make available in microform all of the newspapers described by Brigham. The project gathers volumes and issues from various holding libraries to make the files as complete as possible, then microfilms them for distribution to libraries. They were originally issued on a proprietary medium called Microprint (similar to a large microcard), that required special readers and copiers, but they are now available on microfilm. The series, which is continuing, will most often be found in larger research libraries. Also, many of the libraries holding files of pre-1820 newspapers have microfilmed those files and made them available to the larger research community. More recently, Readex, a division of Newsbank, posted Early American Newspapers, 1690–1876 online. Based largely on Brigham’s work, this collection offers a fully text-searchable database of over one million pages, including cover-to-cover reproductions of historical newspapers, including the Boston Gazette, Gazette of the United States, New-York Evening Post, and others. This collection is available to members of the New England Historic Genealogical Society and at some public and university libraries.
County histories can also be a good place to learn what newspapers were published in a county. In them, newspapers are often accorded lengthy treatment, from the earliest in the county until the publication date of the history. If a newspaper is still being published, it might be possible to use an Internet search engine to track it down, as more and more currently published papers have a Web presence. Otherwise, the aGale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media should provide a location and current title. Newspapers are listed therein by state and community of publication. The predecessor of this directory began publishing in 1869, so older editions in libraries can often identify the titles of newspapers that have since ceased publication.
Union lists—catalogs that describe the holdings of multiple libraries—are also helpful in locating newspaper files: Clarence Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690–1820; Winifred Gregory, American Newspapers, 1821–1936: A Union List of Files Available in the United States and Canada; and the U.S. Library of Congress, Newspapers in Microform: United States, 1848–1983 are essential. For most states, other union lists exist. Usually arranged by state and community, union lists give information on specific libraries, historical societies, newspaper offices, and private collections where these newspaper files have been located. They also tell the time period covered by each newspaper and its frequency of publication. Reference departments in most public and university libraries will hold the national lists and the union lists necessary for their areas. For specific titles, see the chapter reference section.
When trying to identify the newspapers that covered a particular area, it is important to remember that the coverage area of a particular paper was controlled more by the competition than by any civil boundaries. If there were no newspapers published in a particular community of interest, a nearby town may have been the news center serving the area. The area served might include another county or even a county across a state line. Make a careful study of maps for clues of area coverage. Keep in mind that a particular newspaper may have changed editors or political orientation over the years. Other papers may have appeared and disappeared in an area for short periods of time.
Once the potential newspaper files have been identified, locating files covering the time period needed may be the next challenge. Union lists, because they are outdated, are less helpful in these cases, but they will often identify libraries or repositories where collections reside or resided. When appropriate possibilities have been identified, the first step should be to see if that institution has an online catalog. Virtually every library today has a website and most libraries have some portion of their catalog online. Caution is advised however, as some library catalogs may not include special categories such as newspapers. Sometimes these special categories have separate catalogs, whether online or not. Also, catalogs vary widely in their size, ease of use, and ability to perform various searches. A newspaper bibliography can be complex, and sometimes there is no simple or straightforward way to determine which newspaper will be most helpful, especially in cases where twenty or more newspapers served a metropolitan area. The help of a librarian can be invaluable in tracking down needed papers.
If a paper of interest can be identified and its files located in one or more libraries, consider the possibility of obtaining microfilm reproductions of the paper through interlibrary loan. If it is not available on loan or the paper has not been microfilmed, it may be possible to write to the holding institution and request a search for a specific item, if you know the date and place of the event. Many libraries will undertake a brief search (usually of one paper) if sufficient identifying information can be provided. Be willing to pay any necessary search and copy charges. Search policies vary widely from one library to another and are subject to change. More extensive searching may require a personal visit or the services of a professional researcher. Whenever possible, there is no substitute for a personal search. Only you are likely to recognize the passing mentions of other relatives or family members that make serendipitous finds possible.
United States Newspaper Program
Since the publication of Gregory’s American Newspapers, which covered the period from 1821 to 1936, historians and librarians have been interested in bringing it up to date and making it more complete. State historical societies, state libraries, university libraries, archives, and many state library consortia have become involved. The result is that nearly every state has had some kind of newspaper identification, cataloging, and microfilming program, and many institutions have published lists of their specific holdings or union lists covering multiple repositories (see the chapter reference section). These projects have always been somewhat limited in scope and haphazard in execution. For some states, the increasingly outdated American Newspapers was still the best newspaper identification and location guide.
Far and away the most comprehensive program to update and expand Gregory’s bibliography began in 1973. The Organization of American Historians, with the support of funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), began planning for what is now known as the United States Newspaper Program. Iowa was chosen as the pilot state, because it did not then have a statewide newspaper bibliography and because it had an average number of newspapers and repositories. The project, known as the Iowa Pilot Project, was completed in 1979. The outcome of the project was the listing of Iowa newspapers in both an automated catalog and a published list (cited in the chapter reference section), thus demonstrating that a national project was feasible.
In 1981, the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) in Dublin, Ohio, agreed to accept newspaper records into its database, thereby acting as the computer network for the project. In 1982 and 1983, respectively, the Library of Congress and six national newspaper repositories began to catalog (or re-catalog) their holdings and enter the data into the OCLC database. The holdings of the national repositories, some 35,000 titles from all fifty states, provided the bibliographic foundation for projects by the various states’ projects, testing the guides and procedures developed for the national plan.
In the fall of 1982, NEH invited universities, libraries, archives, and historical societies to submit applications for grants covering their own states. In July 1983, the first awards were made, and the United States Newspaper Project was up and running. Altogether, the project has involved all fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in planning and/or implementation of projects. In addition, eight national newspaper repositories (plus the Library of Congress) have also participated in the program.
Newspapers cataloged through the project can be identified on the Chronicling America website. Every several years, the program also issues the United States Newspaper Program National Union List on microfiche, which also provides detailed holdings information. Several states have also published union lists based on project data. Links and contact details for the various state programs can be found on the USNP website.
The National Digital Newspaper Program, launched by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress in late 2004 (discussed at the beginning of this chapter) is just the latest step in making newspapers an even more important tool for tracing family history.
Accessibility of Newspapers
Few researchers are likely to find old newspapers in their original format. Because of the high acid content of newsprint, their considerable bulk, and the difficulties of proper storage, newspapers were seen as natural candidates for extensive microfilming. Commercial firms and newspaper repositories continued to microfilm newspapers until the ease of digitizing made that mode more practical and economically feasible. As a result of microfilming and digitizing projects, newspapers have become one of the most accessible sources available for research. Many libraries and historical societies will loan microfilm at a nominal cost. It is usually unnecessary to contact the original publisher or its successor, because most historical papers are now in public repositories.
Newspapers in College and University Libraries
While the purpose of newspaper collections in university and college libraries is primarily to support the research needs of the university faculty and students, it is sometimes possible for researchers not affiliated with the college to access these collections. It’s certainly worth the effort to investigate the holdings of the nearest college or university library if needed publications are not found online, as their collections can be quite extensive. For example, the newspaper collection at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign began with Illinois newspapers in 1914, and soon expanded to include major United States and foreign dailies. The estimated holdings there now include 73,000 reels of microfilm consisting of 369 general interest domestic titles, 312 general interest foreign titles, 172 subject-oriented titles, and 8,800 microcards representing 13 titles. In addition, the Newspaper Library has current subscriptions to 515 United States and foreign newspapers and more than three thousand volumes of reference guides, bibliographies, histories, and newspaper indexes. The pattern is typical of the collection policies of most libraries in higher learning institutions. The University of Oregon Libraries includes a history of newspaper publishing in the state and a description of their newspaper indexing project.
Newspapers in Government Libraries Archives and Historical Agencies
As previously mentioned, the Library of Congress is leading the way in efforts to preserve and digitize newspapers, but a number of state and local governments are also heavily involved. The newspaper collection in the Arkansas Historical Commission includes files of about three thousand titles published at some 250 different places in Arkansas, 1819 to the present. In addition to papers featuring state and local news, there are also religious, professional, and special interest publications. The newspaper catalog lists publications by city, county, and title. Although a beginning and ending date is listed for each title, there may be missing issues. Like most other libraries and institutions with collections, the Arkansas History Commission cannot undertake newspaper research, but will copy articles with the proper date and place citation. Their website provides a description of holdings and details for ordering information.
The Nebraska Library Commission maintains an interesting website with a listing (though not complete) of a large number of newspapers that are available online.