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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Newspaper Records by Ryan Taylor, revised by Susanna de Groot, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Newspaper Indexes or Abstracts
Among the most valuable of secondary genealogical resources are newspaper indexes or abstracts. These come in many forms.
In pre-computer days, many of these indexes were in card files. As the index was enlarged, new cards could be interfiled without difficulty. If the indexes were published in book form, they covered definite short periods and formed a series. Book indexes were more widely available than a card file, which necessarily was in a single place only. Very small indexes were often published in genealogical newsletters.
Now, the card file is disappearing as these resources are remade as computer databases. Many databases are still translated to paper as books, and these may constitute a series of volumes.
Anyone facing the prospect of extracting information from a run of newspapers must make a decision about format and content. How much of the data in the paper will be transcribed, and how will it be presented to the reader? There are very brief indexes, photocopies, abstractions and complete transcriptions.
Margaret Beettam’s index volumes of The Orangeville Sun provide references in this format:
Flemming, William o 18.01.72 2 5
From a key in the front of the book, we learn that the one-letter code stands for ‘obituary’ (Beettam considerately makes a distinction between death notices and obituaries), and that it was published on 18 January 1872 on page 2, in column 5. This last detail is rarely included in indexes.
This sort of index is sufficient to find the obituary using microfilm of the newspaper.
A computer variant of this kind of index is the keyword index, which alphabetises the information under keywords (often family names). The keyword index results in a more complex index, since historical topics can also be indexed easily this way, along with personal, corporate or geographical names.
An abstract of the item gives information (often, all the information) from a news item, but not in the words of the newspaper itself. Most computer-generated indexes are in this form: they give more than merely a reference, as Beettam has done in the example above, but try to include more data. This is obviously more useful, as the researcher has the facts available immediately upon consulting the published version (whether in book form or online), and can proceed with researching using the information.
A transcription is an exact copy of the news item as it appeared, with all the spellings (including errors), abbreviations and punctuation intact. The advantage of this kind of index is that the researcher can analyse the news item, because everything is there to consider. The question that genealogists always need to ask about any document, “Is there anything else I can learn from this record?” can be asked immediately, and then answered. The finest practitioner of the newspaper transcription in Canada is Craig Burtch of Stratford, Ontario, proprietor of Bur-Mor publishers, who has transcribed a great many 19th century newspapers from across Ontario. He always copies the entire entry for any item, with scrupulous accuracy.
Even better than the transcription is the photocopy. A great many compilers clip the items from the newspaper, paste them onto sheets, which they photocopy and bind in some fashion. These compilations have the advantage of providing the researcher with the original document itself to work with. The advent of scanners and the creation of digitised images online have taken this kind of publication one step further, meaning that the originals can be examined and printed for use or further publication.
These four forms of index are in ascending order of the space they take up reference only taking the least, photocopies the most). The complete transcription takes up the most. The economics of producing these indexes may dictate which form is used.
Online databases have proliferated, in the newspaper area as well as many others, and consequently these may be the first place researchers turn when they consider this kind of work. Finding the index should be relatively simple, using a large search engine and searching using the name of the newspaper and the place-name. Since so many newspapers have similar names (Tribune, Gazette, Star), it is important to include the place-name. Keep in mind that places change their names along with newspapers, and it may be wise to search under both the contemporary version of the name and the modern version, since you do not know which form the index’s compiler has used.
Modern newspapers are available online as well as in their paper form. The online form includes back issues, and in some cases obituaries in particular have been made into an archive because the papers know this database will be used.
For example, the Kitchener Record and Windsor Star database is a collection of obituaries from these newspapers from 1999 through December 2000 and is available on Ancestry.ca. The Regina Leader Post’s database starts in October 2000.
Genealogical societies or individuals who are compiling online databases may do so for older newspapers or for modern ones. There is an online index for Woodstock (Ontario) newspapers including engagements and funerals, 1840-2009. 
Any form of index, whether reference, abstract or transcription, is liable to human fallibility. Once a researcher has found the index and used it, it is necessary to go back to the original newspaper and see if the index is completely accurate. As with any secondary genealogical source, this step must not be omitted. As well as the possibility of an error in the information, you should consider that something vital might have been left out by the indexer, which will add to your research.
A good indexer will always include a foreword or preface explaining their intentions in creating the index and their method of work. This is true of online indexes as well as book publications. Good researchers will make a point of reading this so that they know what the index contains.
The first question is: how much of the newspaper did the indexer look at? Many genealogical indexes will include only the BMD column. As we have seen, there is a great deal of information in the other columns. We may want to go back to see what was missed.
The indexer may have useful observations about missing issues, or the ongoing content of the newspaper, and this too will be helpful to genealogists.
This is an example from Susan Bergeron’s Brighton Ensign 1895-1900: death, birth, marriages (1995):
| Moran, Reuban died 30 August 1898 of Frankford drowned, wife died two years ago and son died four years ago leave one daughter cousin Mrs. Edwin Harris and brother Randall Moran|
In the absence of any prefatory material, the reader’s first question is: is this an abstract or a transcription? An examination of the text shows us this is an abstract. While the information from the piece is here, the format (especially the complete lack of punctuation) is problematic. Recourse to the original is absolutely necessary.
Before leaving the subject of indexes, we should mention the cousin of the index, the scrapbook. A scrapbook often contains newspaper clippings, and many consist entirely of them. Scrapbooks were usually compiled by one person and often reflect a particular topic, even if it is as general as the history of a town or region.
Scrapbooks can be used in genealogical research in the same way as other photocopied compilations. Scrapbook compilers often neglect to note the dates of their clippings, or the source, which is a problem for the researcher. Even if they have included the date and title, indicate in your footnote or source list that you have obtained the information from the scrapbook also. Keep in mind that scrapbooks cannot be regarded as complete, and should not be used as indexes to any newspaper, however voluminous they may be.
It would be impossible to give a list of newspaper indexes for the whole country, since so many are unpublished or published in very limited editions. The best possibility to fulfill this role is Checklist of indexes to Canadian newspapers held by the National Library of Canada, formerly published in book form, now updated and published at the Library and Archives Canada website. The book version, which can be found in many libraries, is Checklist of indexes to Canadian newspapers, by Sandra Burrows and Franceen Gaudet (National Library of Canada, 1987). A revised version, Checklist of indexes to Canadian newspapers held by the National Library of Canada, update by Sheila Ketchum (National Library of Canada, 1992), was not formally published and had a limited circulation. Both of these are now very much out-of-date and the online version, which is updated regularly, should be used by researchers.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Newspaper Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.