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Newspapers in Genealogy and Local History Research: Tips


The Library of Congress makes available the "U.S. Newspaper Directory," freely searchable online, which lists 156,721 titles published in the U.S. since 1690. Navigable by date range and locale, the directory yields a comprehensive sense of what was published where and when. Often newspapers are preceded and succeeded by variation on the title (The Evening Post, The New York Evening Post, now The New York Post) or merged with another paper (The New York Herald-Tribune) or published multiple editions (like Newsday, which published editions for New York and Long Island). The directory clarifies all this data for each listed newspaper, and is a superbly useful resource.

Trial and Error. Searching newspaper databases demands performing the same search more than once. Then make minor adjustments with each succeeding keyword search. One search with no results has zero consequence and is anti-productive. 

Advanced Search. Most search interfaces offer an "Advanced Search" option, where multiple filters and search parameters can be set in order to enhance your search, augment the scope of your results, and refine the workings of the search algorithm. For example: specific date ranges, type of results (articles only, or advertisements only), and specific locations.

“Tips” Link. Different databases have different ways of functioning - there is no universal search protocol between digital databases. However, databases tend to have a "Tips" section, or offer brief tutorials, on ways to optimize your search and fully utilize what the database offers. For example, in ProQuest the rubric "n/3" placed between two words will result in a search limited to where those two words appear within 3 words of each other - "n" = "near." In some databases, putting a question mark or asterisk at the end of an incompletely spelled word will open the search to variations on the full spelling of that word ("Produc*" = product, produce, production, producer, etc.).  

Choose Select Titles. The more specific your search, the better the results. Since databases typically make available hundreds of newspaper resources, it is always useful - if you can - to narrow your search to a select title, or a handful of titles, or at least a geographic range within which titles were published.

Nellie Bly (1864-1922), pioneering reporter for the New York World. 

OCRKeyword searching can result in a bullseye, or a turkey shoot. It calls for creative thinking, prior research, and sometimes a Plan B, which is to drop keyword searching altogether and scroll page by page. 

It is recommended to really wring your search terms for ALL of the variations in which they might appear. 

And note that the "Optimal Character Recognition" (OCR) of each database will have varying degrees of accuracy. Just because a result does not appear, does not mean it does not exist - it could be that the search algorithm simply didn't pick it up. Here at the right, see the clipping from an 1858 issue of the New York Daily Tribune, pulled from the database America's Historical Newspapers. "Quarantine" was the search term, which the OCR identified only once in this article (highlighted) even though the word appears multiple times. This is likely not the fault of the OCR, but of the scanned image, which was taken from a low-res, deteriorating microfilm reel. Such errors also cause search algorithms to misread letters as numbers, and vice versa.

Reference Librarians

The Irma and Paul Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History, and Genealogy
New York Public Library
476 Fifth Avenue (W. 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue)
Room 121
New York, New York 10018