The Importance of Newspaper Archives for Research and Genealogy

the importance of newspaper archives for research and genealogy

Newspaper archives are like the treasure box of genealogical research. They are an important source of information and can be used as a substitute for missing vital records such as birth, death or marriage.

They can also help put an ancestor’s life into historical context. The library has a variety of databases that contain historic newspapers.

Local History

While many people focus on the triad of vital records — birth, marriage and death — to find information about their ancestors, newspapers offer much more. They can provide historical context, as well as clues to the people and events around your ancestors that might have influenced decisions they made in their lives.

Many cities had their city newspapers, which covered local events and often featured articles on prominent citizens of the community. These stories could often include births and deaths, even if the event occurred in another town or county. Discovering these details in a newspaper can lead to other sources and event documentation.

In addition to the main research files, library and archive collections often contain family files that contain items contributed by relatives and others researching their family. These collection areas can be rich sources of information. They can include detailed family group sheets, original photographs, hand-drawn maps, high school and college research papers, playbills, newspaper clippings, obituaries and funeral programs.

When delving into historical research or tracing family narratives, engaging in a newspaper archive search becomes a valuable and insightful endeavor, offering a wealth of information and a glimpse into the past through the lens of news articles and editorials.

Several libraries, genealogical and historical societies, companies, and individuals have extracted, indexed, and digitized the contents of newspaper archives and made them available online. This can be an extremely useful tool for genealogy researchers. If you are lucky, you may find an article about your ancestors in the press, but even if not, the available information will help to paint a picture of life in that time and place.


The tidbits of life gleaned from newspaper archives help fill in the details of our ancestor’s colorful pasts. The information they published in their local papers can offer much more than that found on a birth, marriage or death certificate. It can tell you what they were doing, what was important to them, the friends they hung out with, and so much more.

Genealogists can use newspaper archives to find obituaries for their loved ones, family stories, society happenings, social events, weather, politics and advertisements. For me, that is what genealogy is all about – finding out about our ancestors and the lives they lived.

Whether searching online through subscription websites or free genealogy sites, if you know what information you are looking for (e.g., names, dates, locations), you can narrow your search and maximize your chances of stumbling upon a gem. It is also a good idea to try several searches by first and last name, with and without a middle initial; with and without a prefix of Mr., Mrs., or Dr.; with or without a nickname; and even by date range.

Use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology to search scanned images. This will save you from manually typing in keywords and making your research more efficient.


Many genealogists will tell you that family history isn’t complete without vital records – births, marriages and deaths. But newspaper archives are an invaluable resource, too, and often provide a wealth of additional information. Obituaries, in particular, offer birth and death dates, giving you a good idea of your ancestor’s family tree. Still, you can also find other information in them, such as military service or community involvement.

A wide range of subscription digital archives are available to researchers, including various historical newspapers worldwide. A good place to start is the online site, which contains millions of digitized newspapers from the United States, or explore a more regional collection.

Some offer a unique glimpse of the UK through historic newspapers. Its offerings include obituaries, which can help you fill in gaps in your family tree; wedding and engagement announcements; and letters to the editor, which can shed light on contemporary debates, aspirations, and anxieties.

A free digital archive and countless smaller regional and ethnic collections worldwide. Use search features like keywords, phrase searches and Boolean logic (AND, OR, NOT) to refine your results.

Social History

While many genealogists focus on the triad of vital records (birth, marriage and death), social history offers a fascinating perspective on our ancestors’ lives. It shows the tides of social change, how families of specific economic classes lived, and how these elements contributed to culture in general.

For family historians, a well-chosen newspaper archive is essential for discovering more about their ancestors’ daily lives and experiences. Unlike censuses, which stopped in 1911, newspapers are full of information about the day-to-day activities of our ancestors — including business transactions, legal matters, social events, and news from their communities.

Many historical agencies are partnering with libraries to post newspaper archives online. For example, they digitized many historic American newspapers and made them freely available.

As some point out, despite its ostensibly oppositional character, much of the new social history reproduces the characteristic biases of its predecessors. This can be seen in the rehabilitating of ‘Victorian values,’ in the celebration of the English landscape, and, more recently, in the preoccupation with the origins of companionate marriage. Yet it is also clear that it has touched on popular enthusiasms and passions, if not helped to concentrate. It is these that are fuelling the current resurgence of interest in history.