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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 ($).
Genealogial and Historical Newsletters and Journals
Genealogical periodicals are a vast resource which contain a great deal of hard data but which are difficult to use because of their bulk and problems of access. In recent years, these have been resolved to some extent, and genealogists should arrange their research plans to focus on these valuable documents.
Most genealogical societies publish at least a newsletter which gives some information about their current activities. Many of these newsletters are considerably more, including printed versions of resources, lists and advice about researching in their locality.
Historical societies, which may pre-date their genealogical counterparts by many decades, also publish journals with articles and essays on local history. These journals may be the only source of information on some of these local topics.
Newsletter or Journal?
Genealogical and historical society periodicals fall in two categories, although it should be emphasised that the societies themselves may use the terms interchangeably. It is important that researchers disregard the meaningless distinctions which some people make between the categories.
A newsletter may be seen as a temporary publication giving information about society activities, notices of meetings, publications for sale and current events.
A journal publishes material of a more lasting nature, including secondary resources (tax lists, newspaper abstracts, church records) or historical articles.
The newsletter is meant to be used and discarded once the material in it becomes outdated. The journal is for keeping and later consultation. However, a great many newsletters contain resource material or essays which are for keeping, and many journals also have ephemeral material. In the end, the distinction is not useful, although many people (and societies) continue to make it.
To save space, let’s refer to all these publications as ‘resource periodicals’ for the rest of this section.
In earlier times, the history of Canada was considered to be the political and economic history, at the national and provincial level. Social history was a side issue, of lesser importance, and local history of no moment at all. However, local history was of great interest to the people who lived locally. There was usually someone who was willing to collect local documents and data, thus saving them from the dump or being burned. These people rarely had formal qualifications and academic historians made it plain that local history was not part of the ‘real’ study of history.
Only with the changes in society effected in the 1960s did social history come to the fore, and at the same time local history was accorded a more respected place. The centennial of Confederation in 1967 made a great difference in this, since many communities chose to mark the occasion by publishing a local history. Few of these were written by professional historians. They were often the work of committees of interested individuals, and the collection of the historical data required working from scratch, finding original documents and interpreting them for the first time.
Local historical societies, formed then or earlier, publish collections of, often short, essays on topics which had never been studied before. This original work might be researched by people with a connection with the topic—a history of cheesemaking in an area, written by the daughter of a cheesemaker—or merely by someone with an interest they wanted to share.
More recently, academic historians have realised that local history is rich in possibilities for their studies, too, and have begun publishing on local topics, but the essays in historical society resource periodicals remain largely the work of amateurs. It should be emphasised that quite often articles published in these resource periodicals showcase data available nowhere else.
Here is an example: a man in a small Ontario city noticed that three of the houses in his neighbourhood were much older than all the others. He asked why, but no one could answer, so he began to investigate. He discovered that, fifty years earlier when his street was on the edge of town, these buildings had been built as isolation hospitals by the local board of health, to house smallpox, diphtheria and typhoid patients. The manuscript board of health minutes yielded a great deal of information about the building and running of the hospitals. He transcribed the data and made it into a narrative article which was published by the local historical society. The story of the isolation hospitals is available in no other resource.
Genealogical Society Publications
Genealogical societies across Canada publish some sort of periodical to keep their membership in touch with what is happening, and to convey news of developments in their field. While many small societies cater only to a local membership, larger genealogical societies have a widespread roster of members, and the publication is vital to keeping these members interested and ensuring they pay their subscriptions year after year. For some branches of the Ontario Genealogical Society, for instance, considerably more than fifty percent of their membership lives far from the society’s home base.
The resource publications have to include more than news of current happenings in the society. That is why we see articles that include raw genealogical data, ready for the membership to use in compiling their own genealogies. It is also a chance for volunteers to produce short compilations from original sources and see their work published for the use of others.
What sort of material can we commonly find in genealogical resource publications which might be of use to us? Here are some possibilities, in no order of importance or frequency:
- Strays: a stray is a person who originated one place and is found in another, or who shows up in a record where they are not expected. This term is used in Canadian and British genealogy, but not in American genealogy, where it still refers only to missing farm animals. A good example from the PEI genealogical society newsletter for February 1902 lists people born in PEI found in the 1901 British Columbia census. The Saskatchewan Genealogical Society’s Bulletin for June 2002 included “Saskatchewan Strays from Yukon News, 1960-2000”, by J. Scott Wilson.
- Queries: the chance to place a query, asking for assistance in finding relations from a particular place, may be the most common reason for joining a genealogical society. A survey of Ontario Genealogical Society members showed that the queries column was the first article read in the OGS journal.
- Additions to the society library: this alerts members to new resources available locally, but for faraway members, it also is a clue to new publications, which they may not know about any other way.
- Cemeteries: short transcriptions of gravestones are often published in newsletters, and also corrections to previous publications, news about the finding of vanished cemeteries, new transcriptions of burial records, or the deposit of manuscript cemetery records in public libraries or archives.
- Newspaper abstracts: although we referred to book-length newspaper indexes in earlier modules, the amount of work required to transcribe these materials means that often there are very short indexes produced by interested members. These can be published in newsletters, making them accessible and encouraging the indexer to continue working. The Grande Prairie branch of the Alberta Genealogical Society newsletter has an ongoing series of extracts from the Grande Prairie Herald, submitted by Joan Bowman. It presents a page of extracts with the family names written in boldface type so a researcher scanning the page can spot them easily.
- Biographies: genealogists trying out their writing skills often begin by composing a short biography of a relative. Publishing them in a newsletter provides other genealogists with an interesting example of what a genealogical biography can look like. The person concerned may also be a relative of other researchers.
- Technology: There are constant advances in software, online searching techniques or websites which will help in research. News items about these resources or explanations about how to use them appear in most newsletters, in larger genealogical magazines such as Family Chronicle . The Bulletin of Kawartha Branch, Ontario Genealogical Society, has a regular column entitled “Hot Internet Sites”.
- Addresses: both postal and email addresses for individuals offering particular help, businesses with genealogical wares, or websites are often published in newsletters.
- Publications lists: most societies have lists of publications, which they sell to augment their funds and to disseminate data. A quick way to learn about new publications is from the newsletter.
- Bible records: one of the smallest of genealogical resources is the bible record, which often consists of only a handful of dates and names, yet is invaluable for researchers. These records cannot be usefully published in book form, but add greatly to a newsletter.
- Methodology: resource publications which contain longer articles offer observations about how to do certain kinds of research, or news about techniques which have recently become available for research. Pat Pettitt’s comprehensive article on “Edmonton Daily Newspapers” (Relatively Speaking, May 1999) gives a history of the papers, where they are available and the many indexes and their locations.
- Local lore or history: even brief notices about places, businesses or happenings can be placed in newsletters.
- Descriptions of libraries and archives: visitors to libraries and archives in the area can describe their own experiences, or the newsletter editor can simply list the hours, rules and holdings of an institution of interest to researchers.
- Research experiences:a genealogist can describe how they used certain records, as in Mary Bond’s article in the May 2002 issue of Relatively Speaking (Alberta Genealogical Society), which she entitled, “How I Found my Uncle Jimmy”.
- Advertisements: for professional genealogists, other linked services, supplies, publications, software. Advertisements in old issues should not detain us long; the services offered may no longer be available.
- Society projects: the newsletter acts as a means of spreading the word about a new database, series of publications or other compilation which the society is assembling, both so that researchers can use it and as an appeal for volunteers to continue the work.
- Interests and surname lists: geographically-based societies publish lists of interests to link genealogists who are working on the same families but who do not know one another. Many societies include these interests as part of their regular newsletters, or publish supplements from time to time, with large listings of members and their interests, indexed for ease of access.
- Resource lists: short transcriptions of records, which may not have a place in a book-length publication, can be found here. These are most useful for faraway researchers, and newsletter editors like them because they fill up space. Commonly found are tax lists, voters’ lists, members of organizations, brief extracts from church records.
- Books for sale: there are many books published by individuals or groups in the geographical area, but which are difficult to publicise. The genealogical newsletter acts as a natural advertising space. One of the best of these is the Armchair Genealogist, from the Saskatoon Branch of the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society, which regularly lists new community histories (with complete price and address information for purchase) from throughout Saskatchewan, and also lists book sought after by members. Generations, from the New Brunswick Genealogical Society, also has an extensive listing of publishers in the province and their wares. Héritage, from the Société de généalogie de la Mauricie et des Bois-Francs regularly lists new répertoires for sale, as well as gifts to the society and publications of their members. L’Entraide Généalogique from Cantons de l’Est has numbers of new family histories for sale. These pages of the newsletter are probably among the most-read in it.
- Book reviews: going one step further, societies can assess the effectiveness of new publications which their members might use. Reviews which do not include purchase information (price and publishers’ address) reduce their effectiveness. The Mennonite Historian, from the Mennonite Heritage Centre in Winnipeg, always includes extensive reviews of new family histories; given the interrelation of many Mennonite families in Manitoba, researchers there are sure to be interested in cousins who will appear in these publications.
- Columns about recently arrived newsletters in the society library: a volunteer examines newly-added publications, and notes articles from these which might be of general interest to members. This listing helps those who might not have the chance to leaf through all the new arrivals. It can also help faraway members, who will be able to obtain the articles through their local society library.
- Aids: newsletters often contain aids to be copied and used by researchers, such as perpetual calendars, charts for determining relationships, formulae for calculating birthdates from age at death, etc.
- Genealogies, ahnentafel, birth briefs: these are short summaries of an individual’s ancestry, for the benefit of others who may also be related without knowing it. The format may be quite formal, as in correctly-produced Ahnentafeln. They may also be incomprehensible without instruction, as with the ‘birth briefs’ published in The Genealogists’ Magazine from the Society of Genealogists in England. Top-notch discussions of problems in interpreting records in a particular family can be research lessons in themselves. A good example is John and Mereda Cornick’s “Origins of Shute Ancestry in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland” (Newfoundland Ancestor, v. 18, no. 2), which points out a newly discovered record, discusses difficulties with it and draws some conclusions.
- Genealogy courses: news about upcoming courses, whether local or elsewhere.
Some of these periodical articles are the result of original research which breaks new ground, and will be of longterm value. To take two examples from the 2001 issues of L’Ancêtre, Jacqueline Sylvestre’s “L’âge de la majorité au Québec de 1608 à nos jours” provides us with a new perspective on the meaning of growing up in French Canada over the years (with considerable repercussions for the status of legal documents), and Guy Parent’s “Les charpentiers de navires à Beauport et à Québec 1680-1725: une affaire de famille” provides information about smalltime shipbuilding in early Québec along with some Parent family history.
This may be a good point to mention that French-Canadian genealogical periodicals have a slightly different perspective about research because so much work in Québec is based on church records. These resource publications have a great many biographies and family histories, more than their English-language counterparts. These are often of high quality and are usually in a format which even beginning researchers can understand.
There are now specialised ethnic genealogical groups, and their publications can be of great interest in helping us make the link between Canada and the old country. Anglo-Celtic Roots (British Interest Family History Society of Greater Ottawa) is one of the best of these ethnic publications. Shem Tov (Jewish Genealogical Society of Canada) is essential reading for Jewish reseachers along with its sister-journal, the incomparable American publication, Avotaynu.
Many family associations have newsletters, which are almost exclusively concerned with genealogy. These tend to have small circulations and few libraries collect them (even the Library and Archives Canada has only a limited number), so finding and using them may be difficult. Once found, however, they are goldmines of information.
The difficulty for researchers is accessing these resource publications. There are so many of them, and it would be a mistake to think that only those from our own area of interest include materials of use to us. A number of the larger Canadian societies publish bulletins which should be read by all genealogists, because the general interest articles are of such high quality and usefulness for researchers. These include Relatively Speaking, from the Alberta Genealogical Society, Generations (New Brunswick Genealogical Society) and the Saskatchewan Genealogical Society’s Bulletin. In fact, almost any reputable newsletter is liable to include information which we could use.
This brings up the question of the quality of these publications. They are all produced by society volunteers, some of whom have the necessary experience and some do not. Since the editors of the newsletters change, the quality of the publications goes up and down also, some of them having a professional appearance and others a consistently amateur quality. The appearance does not necessarily indicate the quality of the content, either; some of the best looking have the least going on inside. Researchers must make a judgement about the usefulness of the publication from their experience with it.
Some publications produce their own indexes. These can take the form of every-name listings (the best possibility), very sketchy indexes or sometimes contents only. Even the last can be useful, because they allow the researcher to skim through the list to see if any article looks good.
These indexes may be annual or regular in some other time period, or may be retrospective, covering many years. One way of finding the latter is similar to finding a newspaper index: look in a large catalogue or database, doing a subject search using the name of the periodical. Be sure to use the correct formal name.
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 email@example.com
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.