3 questions to consider when using old newspapers for genealogy research

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26 March 2021
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Genealogist Chris Paton shares his expert tips on potential pitfalls to avoid when using old newspapers to research the lives of our ancestors.

The growth over the last decade of sites such as the British Newspaper Archive , as well as the many titles that were previously microfilmed through the British Library’s Newsplan project, has absolutely opened up a huge repository of material for our needs.

But what happens if you can't find a newspaper story or report that you're sure should exist? Read on for questions to ask yourself to help hone your search and save yourself hours of fruitless searching.

1. Am I looking in the right place?

If a story we believe to have been published in a particular newspaper cannot be found through these means, does this mean that we are perhaps looking in the wrong title, or that it perhaps was never printed?

Not necessarily. Let us first cast aside for now the most obvious consideration that what is online and what has been microfilmed remains a drop in the ocean compared to what the British Library actually holds at its newspaper repository at Boston Spa in Yorkshire, not to mention within other archives.

Quite separate to this are other considerations to take into account with the materials that have been made more easily available for access. The following is a good example from some research I carried out over ten years ago for a client.

I was asked to find a specific series of weekly articles from the late 1930s in a Glasgow based newspaper called the Evening Times, entitled ‘Viewpoints of Scotland’, which concerned trigonometry points found at the top of many hills across the country which have been used to help determine their heights, and from which the distance to other notable features in the landscape may have been recorded. My client had one example from a series of twenty articles; could I find the others?

I visited the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and called up the microfilm in question, thinking it would be a relatively straightforward affair to locate them. After two hours of finding nothing, bar a letter thanking the editor for publishing the series (!), I asked the librarian if I could perhaps see the original bound volume of the title in question. I was amusingly advised that this was not necessary, as the records had been microfilmed! After explaining my predicament, I was eventually able to view the volume, and with ten minutes had found all twenty articles in the series.

So, what had been the problem? The articles had been published each Saturday, but when the newspaper was microfilmed, those photographing the collection opted to image only the edition retained little from the earlier versions, other than the first couple of pages of news, with the rest of the copy subsequently given over to coverage of the day’s sporting events. It transpired that the Viewpoints articles were published in the first run of the paper on a Saturday only, and then removed from subsequent later editions.

Thankfully the bound volumes of the newspapers contained every version of the title from that day, and thus I was soon able to locate the desired articles.

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2. Is my search actually picking up the story in question?

This is not the only problem with newspapers. On websites such as the British Newspaper Archive, the story you are seeking may well be where you think it is, but is not being picked up in searches because the technology used to index the content (called Optical Character Recognition) has simply not recognised some of the words when digitised.

It is sometimes possible to locate the article in question by using a different search term – an address instead of a person’s name, for example. But even then, some stories are still missed because they have been scanned from a large bound volume, and having appeared right in the middle where the pages curve inwards to the spine, they have been distorted when photographed, with the OCR technology simply unable to make sense of the curved words presented.

3. Could I search smarter?

Sometimes forgetting about doing a search at all can be a better approach, with browsing the full page in question a much more productive strategy, but even then, you may still encounter problems.

The above example typically flags up so many issues found in other documentary collections and types found elsewhere. What is actually included in a collection, how has it been photographed or digitised, and what are the flaws in the technologies that have been employed to try to make them more accessible, and which do not always succeed?

Armed with an idea about the potential pitfalls in the processes employed to make records more accessible, you can adapt your approach to carry out different strategies to try to locate particular records of interest, and become a better researcher as a consequence.

Blog adapted from the article Learning About The Records in the May 2021 issue of Family Tree magazine.

About the author

Chris Paton runs the Scotland’s Greatest Story research service and teaches online courses through Pharos Tutors.

Tracing Your Scottish Ancestry Through Church and State Records is available from Pen & Sword.

Read Chris’s Scottish GENES blog.