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Newspapers For Genealogy: 8 Mistakes To Avoid

Using newspapers for genealogy is a must! They are an invaluable resource for those tracing their family history. Using them can lead to discovering amazing nuggets of information about your ancestors. But how can you ensure you are maximising your use of this source? Power up your search capabilities to discover your ancestors! Avoid these 8 common mistakes and you’ll soon be searching newspapers like a pro.

Failing To Check OCR Variants

Letters on a keyboard. OCR reads characters to transcribe text in newspapers.

To create searchable text newspaper images are scanned using Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This software reads the individual characters within words to create transcriptions. Although, far quicker than using humans the tool (like humans) is not perfect. Like all computer programmes and people, OCR makes mistakes. Especially when transcribing faded print or damaged papers.

Some common OCR mistakes include mistaking:

c and e
h and b
m and n
K and R
g and y

Combinations of letters with similar shapes may cause confusion too. Such as g and y together or u and i.

Start an OCR error list. Whenever you find a surname of interest mistranscribed add it to the list. Next time you perform a search, make sure you also search for the misspellings on your OCR list. For example, my surname is Pithers. I need to search for my name, both as it’s spelt and as ‘Bithers’, ‘Pitbers’ and ‘Bibers’.

Missing The FAN Club

The FAN club stands for Friends, Associates and Neighbours.

Our ancestors weren’t always recorded in the papers by their name. Instead, they might be “the neighbour”, “a witness” or a “daughter-in-law”. Restricting your search to only the surnames of your own ancestors is a BIG mistake. Even if your ancestor’s name is stated, it may have been spelt or transcribed incorrectly.

Widen the net, search for the names of your ancestors’ FAN club. Their Friends, Associates and Neighbours. Search the papers for the witnesses to your ancestors’ marriages. For the neighbours on the census. And of course for their in-laws, and even the parents of in-laws. You might find your ancestor with them. Or you might find out something interesting about one of your ancestor’s friends. Like the fact, they were a war hero. Or arrested for stealing. All worth knowing. After all these people interacted with your ancestor. As Aesop puts it, “a man is known by the company he keeps”. Food for thought, no?

Not Looking Up Addresses

Look up addresses in newspapers

Always search the papers for your ancestors’ addresses. Generally, it’s best to search by street name and then filter to the county and dates concerned. Check every address you have. You might find a reference to your ancestor. Or something interesting about the neighbourhood. Like a terrible murder. Or the date the street got electric lighting.

Having No Filter

Failure to filter can mean your looking for a needle in a haystack.

Searching for Smith’s can present millions of results. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and give up. Filtering becomes crucial. On most sites, you can filter by county, place, year and even by the newspaper. You can also add more text to your search. For example, searching by both road name and surname. Once you’ve checked the results from one set of filters you can always re-define them. Doing so allows you to divide your research into more manageable chunks. Don’t forget to record your search criteria and filters within your research log!

Failure To Utilise BNA Search Functions

This tip is especially for those with a Find My Past (FMP) subscription. The British Newspaper Archive (BNA) collection is mirrored at the site FMP. But, the BNA site has a better filtering system and more sophisticated search options. Don’t worry if you only have FMP subscription. You can search the BNA site for free. Once you’ve found an article you’d like to read in full, search for it over on FMP. Use filters to select the newspaper and date to find the exact same article.

Of course, if you don’t need any of the other records at FMP than consider a subscription to BNA.

Failing To Look Beyond England

Globe. Search beyond English newspapers.

Just because your ancestors are from Yorkshire, doesn’t mean they won’t pop up in papers outside of England. Check all the resources you can, especially if they are free!

The National Library of Wales hosts the Welsh Newspapers Online collection. With papers dating from 1804 to 1919. This is a massive selection. Papers are available in both English and Welsh.

The newspapers are worth searching, even if you don’t have Welsh ancestors. Sometimes stories from nearby towns in England make it to the papers over the border. Sometimes the Welsh papers printed stories from other regions, especially ‘big’ London stories. Of course, Welsh papers reported on big events like any other regional newspaper.

The National Library of Australia hosts the appropriately named website, Trove. This amazing online resource is a treasure trove of newspapers, journals and gazettes. Even if you don’t have an ancestor that immigrated to Australia, Trove is worth exploring. Sometimes a big story made it across the pond. You might also find a distant relative that did leave the UK for Australia. See the FAN Club section above! Such discoveries can lead to precious clues about your direct line.

See the bottom of the blog for more free newspaper site information.

Forgetting The Gazette

Don't forget the gazette newspaper

The Gazette is actually 3 gazettes, London, Belfast and Edinburgh. It contains statutory notices for which there is a legal obligation to publish. For example, insolvency notices, probate notices, military awards. Spanning 350 years and free to search online, The Gazette doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. It can be invaluable for researching both soldiers and business owners.

Missing The Point

Are you missing the point?

So, your ancestors aren’t mentioned in any newspaper record? It’s disappointing, but not the end of the world. Newspapers can still give you incredible insights into how your ancestors lived. They are rich sources of social-historical information. Advertisements, local and national news all help us understand our ancestors’ lives better. What were they buying? How much did things cost? What were they wearing? Talking about? What local events, from protests to disasters, were they talking about? How did these events affect them? Answers to all these questions and more can be found within newspapers. Reading them is crucial to understanding our ancestors’ lives.


Useful Sites

The Ancestor Hunt: 8 Ways to Overcome OCR Errors When Searching Newspapers

The Ancestor Hunt: Free Newspaper List

FamilySearch Wiki – England Newspapers

Chronicling America

Internet Library of Early Journals

Internet Archive


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