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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. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Studying the Newspaper
Once a researcher chooses which paper to read, and obtains the microfilm, there is a great deal of material to go through. It is unwise to rush. There is an advantage to doing this research now rather than twenty or thirty years ago, because many newspapers have been microfilmed and are now available on interlibrary loan and it is no longer necessary to travel to the area when the paper originated to look at it.
Some researchers may still regard researching in original newspapers as preferable to microfilm. This is not the case. Old bound newspapers are unwieldy and fragile. Even in the best circumstances, where racks are provided to hold the bound volumes upright, each turned page may sprinkle crumbs of newsprint on the desk.
Whether upright or flat, the volumes are too large to be read comfortably; note-taking is difficult (writing while leaning on the books themselves is forbidden), to say nothing of the smell. Although some people find reading microfilm hard on the eyes, it is certainly better than reading originals.
In the days before most old newspapers were found in libraries or archives, researchers had to go to newspaper offices to see old issues. These were usually kept in a corner of the office or even the printing room, where the reader had to balance the large and heavy books between knees and piles of boxes, and still try to take notes. In the end, there is little romantic in the process.
The only difficulty in reading microfilm occurs if the library concerned has not invested in a modern reader. This has more to do with their budget than anything else. Most libraries will provide competent equipment.
While genealogists may concentrate on the birth, death and marriage announcements, it is wise to remember two things. First, many newspapers do not have a ‘column’ or special place in each issue devoted to these announcements.
If you look only for this column, you will find yourself cranking through whole years of newspaper without stopping. Secondly, there is a great deal of other information which might be useful to you hidden in the news columns or advertisements.
It is dangerous to take the approach of an archivist at one provincial archives, who showed a researcher the cabinets containing newspaper microfilm with the statement, “Pioneer newspapers didn’t contain much genealogical information, anyway.” This narrow view of what constitutes ‘genealogical information’ displays a misunderstanding of family history research as we practise it in the twenty-first century, where all data about a family, not merely birth, death and marriage dates, are viewed as adding to our knowledge.
Having obtained a microfilm on interlibrary loan, the researcher can take as much time as needed to give a cursory look to every page of each issue. It will be clear immediately that a great deal of it is not of interest—the international politics, doings in Ottawa, the weather—but the local news should be examined carefully. In the ads, especially in small-town papers of the past, you will notice that a great many of the ‘professional cards’ repeat themselves exactly week after week. These are the notices from lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants and various stores.
The same ad could be placed for many weeks at a minimal cost. The reason for this was that the typesetting had only to be done once, so after the initial week, there was no further expense for the printer to add the notice to the paper. Some ads, which changed, might be interesting as background or historical information.
Some events might generate a series of news items, and if your family is involved, you will want to collect them all. Deaths are a good example, and the series of possibilities will be discussed in the coming modules, but other newsworthy events might also be noticed more than once. Weddings generated a series of reports: engagement, bridal showers, the wedding itself, a list of wedding presents, the couple’s return from honeymoon and the bride’s first ‘at home’ might all warrant notice.
In local news columns for small communities, the progress of someone’s illness might take several weeks, and in court cases, the whole process of crime, investigation, arrest, trial and sentencing can be followed.
In the newspaper where the editor prides himself on an intimate style, as mentioned above, there can be allusions in one story to connected events in other parts of the newspaper or in previous issues. For the researcher, these allusions may not be easy to follow, but if the story is of sufficient interest, they can stimulate us to more intensive searching to follow up. As an example, a man’s accidental death in 1894 was described in the local newspaper, the account ending with a reference to the fact that his wife was in jail, which readers would remember from the trial three weeks earlier. The older newspaper had a long account of the woman’s crimes, which might never have been discovered without the allusion in the description of the mortal accident.
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.