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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 US: Newspaper Records by Rhonda McClure. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Identifying What Was Published
One of the problems with newspapers is that if you don’t know the newspaper existed, then you don’t know to look for existing copies, either in newspaper morgues or through microfilm projects. While bibliographies are certainly useful, there are other avenues available for determining what newspapers may have been in publication for a given year or shortly after a town or county was founded.
It is important to read the introductory material of any published bibliography to determine just what has been included. For instance, in Lubomyr R. Wynar’s and Anna T. Wynar’s Encyclopedic Directory of Ethnic Newspapers and Periodicals in the United States, in the introductory pages, they detail what types of publications they excluded from their directory. It may surprise you to discover that this included:
- American Indian publications
- African American publications
- Non-English professional and trade publications
- American Indian publications
In addition to this, the compilers did not include those publishers who did not return the questionnaires that the compilers had sent out.
There are a number of bibliographies, and no one of them contains listings of all newspapers ever published. Most of them concentrate on those newspapers that have found their way into repositories, or are available on microfilm.
The Wynar’s Encyclopedic Directory
The Wynars’ Encyclopedic Directory of Ethnic Newspapers and Periodicals in the United States gives you publishing information about those ethnic newspapers published as of 1976.]
While not technically a bibliography, Edward Connery Lathem’s Chronological Tables of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 is another resource that helps to identify the earliest of newspapers. It’s tabular form allows researchers to determine at a glance what newspapers may have been in publication for that year or years, and then with the name of the newspaper, you can refer to resources such as Clarence S. Brigham’s History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820 or other finding aids that have to do with finding microform versions newspapers to find the ones that you are interested in.
Lathem’s Tabular Format The format makes it easy to identify which newspapers were published for a given year.
County histories, often known as “mug books” that were published in the late 1800s, detail the founding of many of the counties and the towns within each from those first intrepid adventurers to the swarms of immigrants and others moving west as the country began to grow.
Most of the time we think of these histories as only being useful for the biographical dictionaries that are usually included of some of the more upstanding citizens. However, the histories are where you want to spend some time when you are trying to learn about the earliest of newspapers published in the towns of your ancestors.
County histories discuss a lot in the sections about the founding of each town. They often name the earliest of settlers, but they describe how the town grew, including new businesses that inhabitants opened, along with taxes, the various elected officials, teachers, sheriffs and more.
City directories are another resource that may help you in establishing the existence of newspapers, including those that have not found their way into repositories.
City directories, because they are published yearly, give us a moment in time for the cities in which they are published. They give more than just alphabetical listings of individuals living in the community. What they tell you in regard to newspapers is who is publishing newspapers and the names of those newspapers. In some cities it is possible that you will find more than one newspaper was published, though depending on demand and subscriptions, it is possible that one newspaper either acquired the other, or the smaller of the newspapers just faded away, which happened all too often.
Knowing what newspapers were published is the first step to determining if they exist currently either in original newspaper form or on microform. Once you know the title of the newspaper and the city in which it was published you can turn to union lists and other finding aids to locate issues that are still available today.
The microform versions of the newspapers are generally the more readily available, finding their way into state archives and specialty libraries.
Where Are They Now?
Once you know the newspapers you are interested in looking through, you need to determine where they may be now and in what form. There are a number of different published finding aids that can help you in this step of your research, including:
- Union lists
- Newspapers on microfilm
- United States Newspaper Program
- Early American Newspapers Project
Union lists are just another way to refer to those bibliographies or catalogs that describe the holdings of multiple libraries and archives. Some of the national ones include
Brigham, Clarence. History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820. 2 vols. Worcestor, Massachusetts: American Antiquarian Society, 1947.
Gregory, Winifred. American Newspapers, 1821-1936: A Union List of Files Available in the United States and Canada. New York: Kraus, 1967.
There are also similar union lists published for most states, though finding them may require visiting state libraries or archives to see what guides they have to their holdings and to other libraries in the state.
EPISCOPAL REGISTER (1870-1884) w
This partial example from A Checklist of Pennsylvania Newspapers (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania Historical Commission, 1944), details the holdings of the Episcopal Register, a weekly newspaper published from 1870 to 1884. Under the main heading we see that the publisher for the entire run was McCalla and Stavely, but the editors changed over time.
After that is the beginning of the holdings, this time in the Library Company of Philadelphia, located in Philadelphia. Within the list of holdings, every time you see a date surrounded by parenthesis, this indicates that the issue in question has been mutilated.
Because some of these bibliographies or union lists have been published ten, twenty or more years ago, it is possible that the repository has moved the newspapers, so it is always a good idea to contact any repository before making a trip.
Newspapers on Microform
Most of the time, we will use newspapers that have been microformed, that is they are available on either microfilm or microfiche. This arrangement has pros and cons. Because they are on microfilm it may be easier to get them to through interlibrary loan. Using the microforms also means there is no further damage to the original newspapers. In fact it is possible that the original newspapers no longer exist, as the paper used in publishing newspapers is highly acidic, causing it to break down, making the issues yellow and brittle.
One of the cons to the microfilms is that they are often quite difficult to read. Sometimes you may need to use a microfilm reader with a high magnification lens to try and read through the faded newsprint and the lines and other scratches that are sometimes on the microfilm.
Some union lists and bibliographies mention in their listings when newspapers in a particular repository are on microfilm. You have to pay close to attention to the arrangement of the union list to see if they have left them all under a single entry or if the compiler or editor has created a separate section devoted to listing the microform versions of the newspapers.
One of the first catalogs that you will want to check when trying to locate microform versions of newspapers is the Library of Congress Catalog, Newspapers in Microform, United States, 1948-1983, in two volumes, published in 1984. Many libraries, public and specialty, have copies of this resource.
Many people do not bother to check this resource because of the years included in the title. They are misleading. They do not indicate the years covered by the newspapers. In fact the newspapers go well back in dates as seen by the example below for the Louisville Courier-Journal. The dates in the title indicate the dates in which this catalog was compiled.
Newspapers in Microform
Newspapers in Microform gives researchers information about what repositories have which newspapers in microform versions.
When using the Newspapers in Microform, it is important that you not just copy the page that has the entry for the newspaper(s) of interest. There are a number abbreviations and symbols used in the entries that must also be checked to ensure that you know exactly which repository has what you need in regard to issues.
U.S. Newspaper Program
The U.S. Newspaper Program is a massive cooperative effort between the federal government and the states to “locate, catalog, and preserve on microfilm” all newspapers published in the United States from the 1700s to the present. The U.S. Newspaper Program is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities which works with a single organization in each state or territory, as they are also working with Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The state organization is usually the repository that already has the largest collection of newspapers for that state.
The purpose of the project is to inventory the holdings in a given state that are housed in public libraries, county courthouses, newspaper offices, historical museums, college and university libraries, archives, and historical societies. Once the inventory is complete, the information gathered is added to a national database maintained by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) , and is accessible through dedicated terminals all over the world. You could ask your local library about this database.
The newspapers included in the database can usually be requested via inter-library loan. You can find out more about the holdings that have been cataloged by visiting the U.S. Newspaper Program Website. .
Early American Newspaper Project
The Readex Corporation, located in New Canaan, Connecticut, has worked with the American Antiquarian Society, publisher of Clarence S. Brigham’s History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, to make all the newspapers mentioned in Brigham’s volume available on microfilm.
You may want to check with a local larger library to see what of this project might be available to you there. It may be necessary to ask them specifically about pre-1820 newspapers that are available on microfilm rather than calling it the Early American Newspaper Project.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: 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.