Up to this point, we’ve been focusing on the basic facts (the names, dates, and places) of our ancestors’ lives. But our relatives were more than just names and dates. They were real people with individual stories to tell. It’s time we started digging deeper to discover those stories.
While it may be more difficult, there are many ways to learn about our ancestors’ characters and personalities. Today we’re going to talk about one of those ways: newspapers.
Just as they do today, newspapers of yesteryear reported the daily happenings of a community. This includes national and international news, like wars or elections, but it also includes local news, like high school football games and town events. If your ancestor participated in school events, owned a business, held an open house for any occasion, organized a church bazaar, or was arrested, it’s likely they appeared in the local paper.
As I mentioned last week, most historical newspapers are not available online. However, that does not make them difficult to access. Most libraries keep copies of newspapers relevant to their local areas on microfilm, and these archives usually include the full duration of their publication. Accessing these archived copies simply requires traveling to the library that serves the area where your ancestor lived, or contacting that library to request that a search be done on your behalf (which they will typically do for a small fee).
You may also be able to access the publication you need at one of the larger public libraries in Indiana. For example, the Indiana State Library and the Allen County Public Library both offer access to many of Indiana’s historical newspapers in one location. University libraries, like that of IU, may also maintain collections of historical newspapers for the state of Indiana and beyond. Visit the library’s website or contact them directly to learn about their collections and their policies regarding access.
While accessing an archived newspaper is fairly easy, finding your ancestor in that newspaper is not. Most of us do not have the time or patience to read every newspaper published during the lifetime of our ancestors. Luckily some libraries have created indices that list names, businesses, major events, etc. to simplify our searches. These indices may be in book format, in a card catalog, or even online, like this one provided by the Indiana State Library. To find out if the newspaper you’re searching in has been indexed, contact the library local to the area of publication.
If the newspaper you’re planning to research has not been indexed, then your job is going to be a bit more difficult. You may want to start by browsing the editions published around specific dates that are relevant to your ancestor’s life. For instance, browsing the days prior to and following a marriage may reveal a reception or marriage announcement. Browsing editions published around milestone birthdays may reveal announcements for open houses or birthday wishes published by other family members. It may be much more time consuming, but the joy of discovery makes it time worth spending.
What You’ll Find
The list of specific types of information you may discover is virtually endless. However, all of your discoveries will shed light on the type of person your ancestor was. Some of it may verify or disprove family legend. Some of it may be a total surprise to you. There will likely be good things as well as bad. Through all of it, we must remember not to edit, but rather to accept our ancestors for what they were, mistakes and all.
A Few Tips
- Though it is always a good idea to keep detailed records about both our fruitful and unfruitful searches, it is especially important to do so when searching microfilmed newspapers because of the time commitment involved. Write down the title and date of each newspaper you browse so that you’ll know not to waste your time browsing it again in the future.
- In addition to details about our ancestors personal lives, historical newspapers can also provide us with information about the time and location in which they lived. As you search, pay attention to what else is being reported by their local paper, and keep in mind that this likely would have been their main source of news. All of these details add context to your ancestor’s story.