The availability of searchable historic newspapers has exploded in the last several years–and has opened up our knowledge of the personal stories of our ancestors and their families in profound ways. Some of the things we have learned about our ancestors:
- Residency and business in a town not previously known.
- Obituary information, including details of life history and then-current locations of children and married daughter’s names.
- A wedding announcement helped us find where grandparents were married.
- Identification of the girls’ college attended by a great-grandmother.
- Notes on illnesses, work and business ventures, and community involvement.
- Notes on church participation.
- Trips taken.
- Visits made by family members recorded in the small town papers.
- A poem by a great grandmother.
We provide here a list of some of our favorite free newspaper searches (with a few added in that we hope will be useful for additional geographic needs).
There is no one free (or subscription) newspaper archive that covers all papers available. Elephind and the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America Library and are the best starting places for nationwide searches. However, sometimes state and local archives provide publications not available on the major databases. For example, I have found that the Missouri Historical Society provides a richness in early newspapers not published elsewhere–not even on the big subscription services.
Multi-State Newspaper Access
Our State-Specific Newspaper Archive Picks
- Iowa Old Press (limited, but may have some items not found elsewhere)
- Iowa Historical Newspapers: Digitized (University of Northern Iowa Rod Library–provides links to other sites with Iowa newspapers. Note that some of these are not searchable, but you could still browse and read the papers yourself at key dates.)
- Minnesota Historic Center links to Chronicling America and special paper collections
- State Historical Society of Missouri Digital Databases (outstanding early Missouri Newspaper collection, with papers and issues not available in the subscription databases or Chronicling America)
- Missouri Digital Newspaper Project – Locate Missouri newspapers by county (Scroll towards the bottom of the page to locate newspapers by county, then link to the online newspaper location.)
- Missouri Digital Heritage Deepweb Access (additional newspapers and other resources not included in the State Historical Society Database.)
- New York
- University of Washington Digital Collections (Filtered to newspapers)
For more detailed lists of free newspapers by state, check “Links by State” at The Ancestor Hunt (scroll down) and select the state of interest.
Lastly, an often over-looked option: Your local library may provide seats with access to subscription newspaper databases. Sometimes these are available in a special genealogy section.
Where to Start
Elephind is the most all-encompassing free nation-wide newspaper search we have found. It includes the Chronicling America Library collection and many others. We like the text previews it provides which greatly facilitates the time required to judge whether not a “hit” on your search terms is of interest. It is great for canvassing the nation and time to find out where a unique name turns up. With some practice on Elephind, it is possible to filter the search to specific states or even specific newspapers.
However, the search term refinement for Elephind seems limiting (or at least, not obvious). When searching for common names using multiple terms to refine the number of hits, we prefer the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America search interface. The graphical display of the hit pattern within the paper can sometimes also provide useful information as to whether the hit is useful. For example, hits that are obviously within an advertising section may or may not be of interest.
Once you have exhausted these broad options, check the above list or other options for state and local newspaper archives, as well as other archival databases.
Navigating the various newspaper viewer interfaces can sometimes be frustrating at first–but it will be worth it when you find that piece of information that you never new existed! Most of the interfaces can work well enough after a little experimentation. Make sure your Internet browser is up-to-date, as out-of-date browsers are sometimes not able to correctly display or react as intended.
There are several different newspaper viewer interface designs. Most will usually provide some way of highlighting your search hits within a newspaper page. If it doesn’t happen automatically, look for the search/find magnifying glass icon near or on the frame of the screen, or a place to enter text. In one viewer I work with, there seems to be no indication of how to locate my item of interest within the large page of newsprint. Initially I spent hours reading through the large pages in order to find my search terms. Only later did I discover that all I had to do was to press the Control+F key sequence to initiate a “Find” box where I could type in whatever term I wanted to locate on the newspaper page.
Most newspapers browsers also have an option for you to read through the OCR text scan from the newspaper page image. OCR stands for “Optical Character Recognition” and refers to the process the computer’s ability to convert the photographed text into characters while ignoring other markings. It is quite common for much of the newspaper scan to contribute garbled text, but usually enough is readable to enable your search terms to catch the items of importance. Occasionally it is easier to search the OCR text view than the newspaper page image in order to find your item of interest within the whole page.
Saving the Article
Most newspaper viewers provide a way for you to save a PDF of the page, or possibly of the clipped article. More advanced users can use screen capture and image cropping techniques to save the article as a graphic image. I like to paste the clipped image into a document and then enter or paste in the source information as well as any notes associated with the clip. Alternatively, your genealogy database software will have a place where you can record bibliographic information.
Considering Subscription Access
There is so much free access to historic newspapers now available, it is worthwhile to explore the free options before deciding to invest in subscription access. Get a sense of what is available and how much you are interested in spending the time digging deeper.
The subscription services do have papers that are not available on the free archives, and also more recent dates (especially helpful for finding obituary information). I do now have a subscription to Newspapers.com, which does list some newspapers of interest that I have not yet found free elsewhere. Genealogybank.com also gets good reviews and costs less than $6 a month with an annual subscription. You can check newspapers and dates that they provide prior purchasing.
Improving your Newspaper Searching Skills
Kenneth R. Marks at TheAncestorHunt.com has compiled detailed lessons and webinars for improving your newspaper searches.