18 May 2011

Thoughts on Digital Newspapers

Anyone who has been following this blog for any amount of time knows that I am interested--nay, obsessed--with the information to be found in local newspapers. I owe some of my most interesting family history tales to information found in newspapers. Newspapers have provided me with information on deaths, marriages, births, and even--in one case--established a family connection that broke a tenacious brick wall.

I love newspapers so much that I spend a great amount of time indexing and transcribing them. As I type out stories and items about people I have no connection to, I am hoping that others can make use of the information I find, and that they will consider doing the same for items they run across. It's that great genealogical sense of gifting, that largesse of family history research we all share. But I do it with particular imperative.

Because the truth is this: we cannot sit on our laurels and wait for technology to open the information in newspapers to us. Too often, perhaps, genealogists and researchers today think it useless or a waste of time to index or transcribe certain resources, because they feel like "they'll just get digitized" or "they're already searchable anyway."

While digitized newspapers are a huge boon, they are not, unfortunately, the end of the line. Anyone who has ever used searchable newspaper databases does (or ought to) know the extent to which those databases are hampered by the shortcomings of OCR technologies. Very few databases are accurately and fully indexed (and even these have mistakes). If you rely on search fields to research in newspapers, you aren't researching those newspapers at all.

Don't believe me? Try a test. Open any 19th century newspaper and look for a few names. Run a search on those names, and see if they come up. Do they? Or don't they? Depending upon the condition of the digital image (faded, torn, blurred, or irregular/unique fonts) you may get no results at all. How sure are you now that you've done your research? How sure are you now that those newspapers you thought you had checked don't actually contain information you may want or need?

So back to my original plaint: genealogists, researchers, lend me your keyboards. Do your part and transcribe a few items of interest next time you're thumbing through a newspaper. Post them to a blog. Email them to a message board. Just don't "wait" for technology to give us the gifts lurking in newspapers... if we leave it up to computers to read our newspapers for us, those gifts will be an awfully long time in coming.


Sheri said...

I have been doing this for awhile now. As editor for the San Joaquin Genealogical Society newsletter, I am always looking for newsletter fodder and items of interest I have come across in old newspapers fill in those pesky blank areas. Thanks for bringing this topic up Jennifer, I agree with you, newspapers are one of my most favorite resources!

Jim S said...

I love newpapers for genealogy. I found out my ancestor was given the police a hard time when he drank too much. That's not something which was likely to be handed down through stories told to descendants.

Regards, Jim
Newspaper Genealogy at Hidden Genealogy Nuggets