Tuesday, August 29, 2017
Why Newspapers can
Help Fill in the Blanks
There is a no-man's-land for beginners starting out with their genealogical research. It's a time that stretches from the end of the most recently released census year—in our case, currently 1940—to the present day. Unless a new researcher happens to live in one of those states sporting total disregard for personal privacy, it's hard to come up with documentation for family members post-1940.
Of course, there are exceptions. Draft registration cards for World War II are one handy example, but that only helps for the men we're seeking—and then, only some of them. City directories sometimes provide hints, but unfortunately don't come with any clues to link "John Smith" with the rest of his family (other than, perhaps, a wife's name).
When I'm researching a more recent ancestor—someone in my family who lived and died before my arrival here on terra firma—my go-to place for research has always been historic newspaper collections.
The frustrating thing about newspaper archives, though, is that there is not simply one place to go to find everything there is to find. I've even subscribed to a collection of newspapers, only to find that the specific publication—or even the specific date desired within an otherwise available publication—is not available on that subscription service.
There are two ways around that dilemma, of course. One is to shell out the bucks to subscribe to multiple newspaper services. That one can get pretty pricey, over the long haul.
The other answer is to discover the many outlets which provide digitized newspaper collections for free.
There is a wide assortment of resources for the savvy researcher wishing to locate near-modern ancestors in local news stories. The Library of Congress' Chronicling America collection comes to mind right away, as does the more-contrary Google News Archives resource. (To tame that search nightmare, I use Google to search keywords in specific publications, after entering the terms in quotes, "Google News Archives.")
For those appreciating a friendly guide through the free-newspapers universe, there is always Kenneth R. Marks' The Ancestor Hunt, providing search tutorials and clickable links to newspapers around the world.
There are many other resources, of course—the Wikipedia list of free online newspaper archives comes to mind here—but for filling in the blanks on my paternal side's extended family, my go-to resource will mostly be the quirky Old Fulton NY Postcards site. While the newspaper selections on this site obviously focus on resources from the state of New York, they have expanded far beyond those borders. The site is huge. To put that in perspective, by 2013, the website had grown to contain three times as much content as the Library of Congress' Chronicling America site.
For my puzzling paternal line—centered mostly in New York, once the family arrived from what is now a part of the country of Poland—this is the newspaper archive of choice for my research. The drudgery of it all, of course, is that I will have to systematically go through each cousin's name in the mid-twentieth century and earlier, searching to find any facts on births, marriages, funerals or other news items.
Just like the drudge work of adding each cousin's full details on names and vital statistics, this will take time—and patience. However, if just one or two leads provide me names for the subsequent generation, it will be worth it. I'd love to connect with distant cousins in this family line and ask them to consider taking a DNA test, or share their family photos, or just help confirm the BMD facts I've managed to scrounge up from other sources.
This, of course, will take lots of time. But being as prone as I am to wandering down rabbit trails, the news reports are an interesting divertissement for me. And if they provide an interesting story, all the better for these research efforts.