11 May 2008

Extra! Extra! Rethinking Newspaper Research

In my work over the past two years reading thousands of issues of 19th-century newspapers, I have become fairly well-acquainted with the typical layout and content of such, so I wanted to share some thoughts and tips with you today.

This post may be somewhat anti-technology for this blog, in that I think it admits a deficiency in today's OCR technology as applied to historic newspapers. Take it from me... there are prints, scans, fonts, fadings, scratches, lines, creases and tears lurking in all of those spiffy online digitized newspapers that are obliterating the abilities of even the best OCR programs. I would hazard to say that a huge percentage of names in any given issue of a historic newspaper are not properly read and indexed by OCR and search software. What does this mean? In short: if you've been relying on search functions in newspaper databases to do your research in newspapers, you haven't done your research at all.

Why It's Worth It, and What It Takes

If you haven't taken the time to really dive into the local papers available for the community of your ancestor, you are missing out on a fabulous opportunity to obtain a rich and textured understanding of your ancestor's world. This holds true in particular for newspapers from the mid- to late-1800's, when the era of local and community news was really at its prime, and papers seemed to follow very predictable ways of presenting and publishing their rags.

That said, if you're like me (and many others [see comments]) who are frustrated by the inadequacies of some digitized collections' search functions (and the haphazard OCR renderings which exacerbate such problems), going issue by issue through a particular paper in a given time-range may be your only option to locate information regarding individuals.

Know The Bones

This site has some good information on the basic structures of 19th-century newspapers, extrapolated out from a typified example (unfortunately this page seems to be on its way out of maintanence). I have found this structure typical of the four-page dailies or weeklies in a number of states, including California and Louisiana. A basic understanding of what you are likely (and unlikely) to find in a newspaper from a given time-frame is important. Styles of journalism and what is considered "news worthy" has changed over time and with massive population growth in many areas. Over one hundred years ago, news about divorce cases, drunk-in-public charges, and trips abroad made the newspaper. Today, unless they involve murder, incest or embezzlement, we are unlikely to hear about such things. On the flip-side, extended obituaries for individuals were much rarer in those days. Understanding the differences between old newspapers and modern newspapers can keep you from goose-chasing.

Items typically found in 19th-century newspapers include:

  • Births, marriages, deaths
  • Obituaries of more prominent people or people from "old" families
  • Obituaries or write-ups on deaths of the young, the old, or those who died due to accident or sudden/strange illness
  • Divorce cases
  • Spousal desertions or elopements
  • Murders, Suicides (Actuated or attempted)
  • Comings and Goings. Info on who is traveling where, who is in town visiting.
  • Local reports. Small correspondent columns from towns or areas outlying the town in which the paper is printed. Typically covered the major gossip in the town, including who died, was born and got married or divorced.
  • Court reports. Who got arrested, why, who's in jail, who got drunk and fined, etc. Also, information from probate and civil court cases.
  • Accidents and injuries. Horse runaways, train deaths and injuries, and gun accidents are always favorites.
  • Illness reports. Typical during the months when la grippe would be rampant, some papers would list who was sick with what level of severity.

Names and even biographical information show up in the strangest contexts, and in the weirdest ways. Probate case write-ups can mention birth dates and places, as well as death dates and places. Accident stories can include information on when a person moved to a particular town or county. Personal or comings-and-goings reports can include information on family relationships like the married names of daughters and the places of residence for relatives. The amount of information and the intimacy with which you can come to know the people of a particular town is really amazing. All it takes is a little background. Oh, and a whole lot of patience.

Have Patience, Young Jedi

Going through a newspaper issue by issue can be fascinating, but also exhausting. If you're looking for a particular item in the paper, your eyes can glaze over and your brain can sputter out. Keep the following in mind as you dig for specks of gold in tons of stone:

  • Things change. Just because the death notices, for instance, have been printed on the 2d page of a publication for the past 3 months' worth of papers you have scanned, doesn't mean you can be lazy and look only at the second page of all the papers for the next 3 months. Papers then, like papers today, moved things around to suit special features, special coverage, and ads ads ads. It's unfortunate for the weary researcher, but every page of a paper needs to looked at if you're searching for a particular item.

  • Places change. As towns grew along with the population, the papers often expanded to more pages, usually from four to eight, then with periodic twelve-page issues (usually Sunday). In consequence, the amount of information available in the paper doubles or triples. A typical case can be seen in my indexing of The Oakland Tribune. For 1875 I found about 650 instances of names with genealogically-significant information, from the entirety of each paper, for the whole year. Just fifteen years later, I indexed close to 6,000 names, just from the standard vital records notices. Oakland had grown, and its development as a "bedroom community" to San Francisco also meant that it received more cross-published notices from San Francisco. In fifteen years the amount of information of interest to a genealogist had grown at least ten-fold.

  • People change. Following from the above, you should be aware of changes in ownership or editorship at a paper. Changes of this sort are almost always followed by changes in format, typefaces, or coverage of the news. Papers often posted this information under the masthead for a period of time before such changes took effect, but not always. It helps to be armed with this information so that layout and type changes don't make you miss what you're looking for. This is particularly important as you get more acquainted with a particular newspaper and your scanning (naturally) gets more cursory. The font one editor loved to use for advertisements can be the font the next editor loves to use for the local probate and police court write-ups. If you haven't been aware of an editor change, you may scan over the court write-ups believing them to be the same old ads for dyspeptic syrups!

  • The only consistent thing is change. Sometimes changes just happen and are reflected in the newspapers for reasons we may not understand. A paper that one year prints hundreds of vital record notices may post less than a hundred the next. A paper may begin to print articles with the names of all individuals to whom marriage licenses were issued, only to stop a week later. Why? As your Mom always said, "Because."

It is said often, but newspapers really are a very under-utilized resource. As I have gone through issue after issue creating indices for various newspapers, I often marvel at the amount of information available on some people in different articles, and I get excited at the thought that the information printed in a few inches in a paper 150 years ago could solve the mysteries or brick walls of one of their ancestors today.

I also spend about 4 hours a day indexing and transcribing newspapers in my area because I believe, or rather KNOW, that people are missing out on valuable information because they are relying too much on the accuracy of OCR, a technology that is currently somewhat sub-standard to the task of rendering microfilmed newspapers. I hope this post encourages you somewhat to invest the time to really take advantage of newspapers as a resource.

If you're interested in reading more about digitization of newspapers, the LOC Newspaper Digitization Project has some interesting articles and links.

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