Podcast Episode 58: Getting the Most Out of Newspapers for Genealogy Research with James Beidler

Jim Beidler shares how to get the most of out of newspapers for genealogy research based on his book The Family Tree Historical Newspaper Guide. Go beyond just searching for obituaries and get more about your ancestors for your family history.

Podcast Episode 58: Getting the Most Out of Newspapers for Genealogy Research with James Beidler

In the world of genealogy, newspapers can be an incredibly valuable resource for discovering details about our ancestors. While obituaries are certainly a common find, there is much more to be uncovered within the pages of old newspapers. In this episode of the Your Pennsylvania Ancestors podcast, host Denys Allen speaks with James Beidler, author of The Family Tree Historical Newspaper Guide, to learn more about how to use newspapers to further our family history research.

Topics Discussed

Beidler shares a wealth of knowledge and new ideas about how to make the most of newspaper collections, both online and offline. He discusses the benefits of using newspapers to learn more about historical events, such as natural disasters, that may have impacted our ancestors' lives. He also offers tips for searching beyond just the obituary section, including looking for social news and advertisements that may mention our relatives.

Additionally, Beidler offers advice on how to navigate the many different newspaper collections available, from paid subscription services to free online archives. He also shares some of his favorite resources for accessing newspapers, including the Library of Congress's Chronicling America website and the Pennsylvania State Library's digital newspaper archive.

If you're looking for new ways to uncover details about your ancestors and add historical context to your family history research, this episode is a must-listen. Beidler's insights and tips will help you make the most of newspaper collections and discover even more about your Pennsylvania ancestors.

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:05] This is Denise Allen with PA ancestors, and I'm excited to welcome back Jim Beidler to the podcast. He's going to give us some great insights on how to use. All those newspapers that we have access to, to help in researching our ancestors.

[00:00:21] He wrote a book called The Family Tree Historical Newspaper Guide. There's a link in the show notes you'll want to check it out so you can purchase it and I really dig in to something that we can access from home anytime, sometimes with a subscription, but definitely it's something that'll give us some serious history and context for our ancestors lives.

[00:00:43] If you are looking for a way to connect with other genealogists, also doing Pennsylvania research, also using newspapers. And lots of other resources around Pennsylvania. I am opening up a special online area for Pennsylvania researchers. So if you're researching a Pennsylvania and have a lot of family here, particularly early family, Back in the 18 hundreds, the 17 hundreds. You're going to want to join this group. We're going to hang out together this winter, we're going to do some brick wall busting, some ask me anythings, some meeting of the mind, swapping of resources, maybe they'll even be people there that share some of the same certain names that you have that you're researching and you can combine efforts.

[00:01:29] Look below in the show notes or in the description on YouTube. For a link to get more information. It'll. Take you to a special page. I have set up where it has a little introductory video, and it'll just tell you a little bit about it and you can drop your email address in there. And then when I open up the group, you'll be the first to know. And get a special offer in terms of joining.

[00:01:52] Jim is here right now to share with us about newspapers and I can't wait for you to hear what he has to say. And I would love if you have something that you found through a newspaper to drop it in the comments. Jim's going to be watching this video and he's going to love to hear too what you found out using some of his techniques. So here's Jim Beidler


[00:02:15] Denys: Jim Beidler, I want to welcome you back to the podcast. I'm so excited. We get to connect again.

[00:02:20] This is the maybe plus side of the shutdowns and everything. We get to keep doing these interviews. But we're going to talk today about your newspaper book, which I was so excited about. It's The Family Tree Historical Newspaper Guide. And what made you like want to write this book?

[00:02:43] Jim Beidler: Well, that's the, that's the, that's the easy question to to answer. I was a first career newspaper copy editor, but as, as, as I, as I sometimes snark back when newspapers had copy editors. But yeah, that that's, so that was my first from college on to age 39 at a couple of different newspapers. And, and one of the things that I did for several years was be the pagination of the obituary page, where I was placing the obituaries down in, in the the, the sequence that they would, would appear.

[00:03:24] So, so that, that this is kind of a melding of, you know, my first career and then my, my interest in genealogy.

[00:03:33] Denys: Oh, wonderful. I picked up the book and I honestly expected. At first glance to be a list of these are the newspaper databases that you need to look at online. And these are the major newspapers you should look at. And here's some quick tips on how to search these newspapers. And it's not that it's totally not that It's a methodology book on how to use newspapers. So, so why do family historians need to know the method of newspaper research versus like quick tips?

[00:04:05] Jim Beidler: Yes. Well, the, the, the whole, the whole thing is I've heard too many times.

[00:04:13] Before I wrote the book. And then as I had the, the, the book available for sale, someone saying when, when I say about newspapers, their response is, oh, I have my ancestors' obituary. As if that is the only thing that a newspaper might possibly provide. And, and so in, in many ways, in many ways this book was written to show that if you do it properly, you know, your, your ancestors demise, their ending point might be your starting point for newspaper genealogy, but it shouldn't be your ending point for the research. Cause even, even thinking about just death records themselves, the obituary maybe one of only a half a dozen different newspaper mentions of death, let alone other things like church, burial records, their tombstone, et cetera, but in newspapers, in addition to their obituary, there might be a separate death notice that those were traditionally.

[00:05:23] Obituaries used to be free. Yeah, I go back a while in this game now, mostly they are paid too. But there used to be paid death notices where you could say whatever you want, usually replaced by the undertaker, the funeral director. If there was any question about how your ancestor died there, often the newspaper would report on an inquiry. And, and what the, how the coroner ruled on, on that .

[00:05:52] And you know, settlement of, of an estate after death. A lot of times those traditionally would be, would be published and may list the, the actual date of death as part of the, the preface to things. So that's, that's why, I'm why I'm saying there's so many different and, and even obituaries themselves.

[00:06:15] Okay, you got one obituary. Well, what if there were three newspapers in town? You should be trying all those newspapers. What if, what if they were an immigrant, you should be trying to see if there's a foreign language, newspaper, not necessarily in that city, because a lot of times they covered wider geographic areas, but to see if that mentioned is. Because a lot of times what we find as is natural with a foreign language speaking immigrants it's going to be more authentically presented their name, the place name of their origins in the, in the native tongue, then in an English language, newspaper.

[00:06:55] Denys: It's so true. That wide reaching impact. I, I once was researching for someone she died. The ancestor died at 107 and what a great obituary, right.

[00:07:10] That would make well, the addition to the newspaper that it would have been in, it was the weekly newspaper is missing, right? It's not, it's not been digitized, it doesn't exist, but it was, she was so exceptional, dying at 107 and having so many. Like great-grandchildren and everything. It was picked up in several other newspapers.

[00:07:28] Right. And it wasn't the full obituary, but it went far, like it went out of state and, and, you know, and I was able to give this person something about their ancestor. It was. Ideally what I would want, you know, I mean, I would really want that newspaper do exist.

[00:07:45] Jim Beidler: But it's better than nothing. Yeah.

[00:07:47] Denys: But a woman, she didn't leave an estate and it was fabulous that to think more broadly people shared exceptional stories, you know, something that's stood out.

[00:07:57] Jim Beidler: Or even not necessarily exceptional. Another thing I say is is that if you, if you have ancestors that were on the move, you should be tracing a trail of breadcrumbs backwards from where they died to where they were born, because when they do die, Each stop along the way, there may be something published.

[00:08:21] Maybe again, maybe like you're saying not a full obituary, but some mention that we'll we'll give you some insight or some information.

[00:08:30] Denys: Yeah. So yeah, that whole, like so-and-so who was from here died in. Yeah, whatever place far-flung Ohio, it's all the way over there from people from Pennsylvania. But so the other thing I wanted to ask you about, let's see, let me look at my questions here.

[00:08:51] So here, here's the other question kind of related to that. So what are genealogists missing out on? If all they're doing is typing their ancestors name into that search box, but we love that. We love the search box and genealogy it's so convenient, but if we're only typing in that person's name and then looking at the results, what are we missing out on in our newspaper search?

[00:09:13] Jim Beidler: Yeah, well, but potentially you're, you're missing out on most of the mentions. Because, because you know, you, you may remember the cliche, the newspapers are the rough draft of history. Well, one of the ways they're a very rough draft, especially when you go, go back to the old, the hard type line of type days where it was not easy to make of errors in newspapers, you get all sorts of misspellings of names, you know, all, all sorts of data that, that ends up being, being wrong. Well, if you're, if you're only putting in one spelling of the surname for your ancestor, A lot of times you're going to miss some you know, some good, some good things.

[00:10:00] And likewise, if it's a very common, common name, you're going to get too many hits to process. And that's when, when we recommend, you know, most of the newspaper search sites will we'll have an advanced search where, where you can say, you know, say the name is Jones. Okay. You put Jones in there, but then you also put, you know, search for pages that have both Jones.

[00:10:24] Carpenter, if that's their occupation or an address that you know, that they, that they lived at that may help narrow it down to your your particular Jones.

[00:10:38] Denys: Oh, very good. I use the address trick the one time and found out. Who had been living in that rental property. Like it ended up being that the property, somebody lived, that they had been renting, which I didn't quite realize from the census this, I mean, this, that the census year I used it and tell me if they were running in Philadelphia.

[00:10:59] Yeah. And it was interesting. Sort of, there was a whole series of unfortunate events that had happened at that same address for the decade before. And I was like, oh, this is like a sketchy part of town. Is this the conclusion I got from reading that newspaper? And it gave me a whole different picture of this person.

[00:11:15] I was researching, you know, oh, they live in a sketchy part of town where there were murders and robberies and all kinds of things.

[00:11:22] Jim Beidler: Oh, it's not just actual miss misspellings in the newspaper, but then also the, the way what makes these historical newspapers searchable now is OCR optical character recognition technology, which builds a, like a skin over the newspaper page of all the, all the words as that OCR software has interpreted them.

[00:11:51] And it doesn't always interpret them right. Oh, I, I have a, a marriage of a, of an ancestor that I knew I had, I had found it in a newspaper at one point. It was, it was a, a pastor reporting his newspapers to the marriage to the newspaper. And it was one that he didn't put them in any congregations church books. So it was going to be the only record of it.

[00:12:17] And then I tried finding that late later by by, by looking at what I, what I knew were the the names and it wasn't coming up because the OCR was, was defective. And, and cause I thought, I thought, oh, I'm I'm ahead of the game here. My ancestor's name was Amos. Like the, the old Testament prophet, but I remembered that the pastor had used an odd, but phonetic spelling, E M A U S, which is still Amos in, in German phonetics.

[00:12:50] But when I, when I put into the, to the OCR, E M A U S it wasn't coming up. And as, as I remember, it had interpreted it as E N I R U S.. So, so, so again, you know, don't, you know, be very creative with you know, with what you get.

[00:13:12] Denys: That's, that's super frustrating cause that OCR is reading it separately.

[00:13:16] Each time you search it. It's not like a searching a regular database where things have names and the names are consistent. So you're searching against those names or those words all the time. But the OCR is like technologies rereading the newspaper. Every time it's searched, it's re looking at it.

[00:13:36] It's. Not great. I mean, it's better. It's better than

[00:13:41] Jim Beidler: it's better than the old rabbit hole. When, when you know, you've looked at them on microfilm.

[00:13:47] Denys: It's better than microfilm.

[00:13:48] Jim Beidler: Yeah. And better. And, and, and maybe not make it out of the newspaper after a day.

[00:13:53] Denys: Your book, the family tree historical newspaper guide has advice that applies for anyone. It's not just Pennsylvania researchers it's anywhere in the United States. And you can probably take a lot of what you learned in this book to search international newspapers.

[00:14:08] If you're searching your European ancestors in particular, where there were a lot of newspapers before they came here. But. Do you have advice specific for Pennsylvania researchers? Cause I know you personally spend a lot of time researching in Pennsylvania. So what do Pennsylvania people need to keep in mind with our newspapers?

[00:14:28] Jim Beidler: Well, the, the first thing you need to keep in mind is the sheer volume of the number of newspapers produced in Pennsylvania. When, when they began the, the U.S. Newspaper Project back in the late seventies, when they were, that was a microfilm project to, to try to preserve these, these acid paper newspapers that were literally crumbling.

[00:14:54] I believe they went into that thinking, eh, there's probably about 2000 different newspapers during Pennsylvania's history. They got almost 9,000. Yeah. Now, not all of them. There, there, there were some for which no issues, our extent. You know, that they simply, they simply were not saved or they, they had a very, a very short life as a newspaper, you know, maybe weren't were well-funded or, or whatever.

[00:15:28] But that's the, that's the first thing is. And, you know, again, going back to to that you should be you know, be looking at more than one newspaper because, because virtually every virtually every county seat had more than one newspaper at a time.. Oh, and, and the way, the way you want to access them. And this is in the, in the book is through the U S newspaper directory on Chronicling America.

[00:16:02] That should be your starting point rather than, oh, what's newspapers.com have? What's genealogy bank.com have? What's newspaper archive.com ? .You're going to get to all of those but start with Chronicling America and specifically the U S newspaper directory.

[00:16:22] You know, that's my, that's my best, best advice. And the thing you'll you'll encounter, and this is not necessarily unique to Pennsylvania, but it's certainly something you encounter in Pennsylvania research are along with that very vibrant newspaper history, frequent changes of nameplates of newspapers.

[00:16:42] Oh, and, and this, this is important only because you're you're thinking, you know, oh, a certain, certain newspaper doesn't exist before a certain date. It may very well be that it does, but it was under a different name. Maybe it changed ownership or editor ship, and, you know, they, they wanted a new, a new slant on things.

[00:17:07] And sometimes the name changes are, are fairly are fairly subtle. You know, they, they add the word daily to the title or whatever, but that, that counts as a, a new nameplate. A lot of times, especially depending on how libraries, repositories and websites, how well they catalog what they, what they.

[00:17:29] Denys: Hmm, good advice. I mean, 2000 and 9,000 newspapers, and you give advice in the book about how to find those newspapers. So Chronicling America's website, which is run by the Library of Congress is, is a place to start. But would you suggest also like historical society, sometimes those microfilm their local newspapers.

[00:17:56] Jim Beidler: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. And, and now most of them now are getting grants to to digitize the, their, their newspapers. But, but that's, that's led a little bit to what we call it, the orphan papers problem. If, if a newspaper was never microfilm to begin with, A lot of times now it's not being digitized either.

[00:18:26] Cause they they've, they've pretty much perfected the microfilm, the digital transfer. You know, this is, this is why FamilySearch when they 11 years ago when they started digital. All of the Family History Library microfilms they said it would take a hundred years and, and, and within a few years they were saying, oh yeah, we're going to have it done in a decade because the technology speeded up so, so fast.

[00:18:55] So there, there are still. Newspapers that are only available in the original paper form. And those, like you're saying may be at a county historical society, or may be at a, the State Library of Pennsylvania. They have some, some some ones that are paper only.

[00:19:16] But yeah, there's a whole, there's a whole chapter in the book about yeah here's your checklist of all possible newspaper type assets. You know, things like you know, abstracts that geological society volunteers have done over the years. Well, you know, in some cases, those abstracts, the news that they were done when the newspaper was still extant. Now it may not be so that may be the only source for that.

[00:19:44] And even though, again, historical and geological society journals that may have done abstracts from from newspapers. Yeah, so, so there's, there's a lot of different clipping files. That historical societies have clipping files by subject or by family name? Yeah. Th th it's yeah, there there's a whole lot of different newspaper resources out there.

[00:20:09] And, and you've got to make sure that you're, you're, you're giving yourself the full chance to avail yourself of all of them.

[00:20:16] Denys: Ah, such great advice. And that was one of my favorite parts of the book is. When I had to keep resisting, stopping my reading to run and go do research. Cause I was like, oh, that's a great idea.

[00:20:31] But you did have checklists at the end of each chapter. Keep this in mind, keep this in mind, you know, here. And I could use those easily to, to really change my whole method of using newspapers. And and, and you just, you do my favorite thing, which is to really encourage genealogists, to just put themselves in the time and the place of their ancestors and not just keep their contemporary brain on typing into that search box.

[00:20:59] Like really sink in, really read that newspaper and just go deeper into your ancestor's life and their community through through that.

[00:21:06] Jim Beidler: So I talk, I talk about fighting presentism.

[00:21:10] Denys: Yeah, you did. And so one of my favorite words was like, I was so excited. I, I think I think with genealogy, we, I guess with like a lot of, a lot of fields, you know, people have different approaches.

[00:21:29] And our approaches seem a little, like much in sync. Like really, you know where at least half our brain is stuck in the 18 hundreds or the 17 hundreds half the day, you know, we're, we're clopping along on the horse, go into church. You know, we're imagining how our ancestors, you know, live in their life. And then we're back into our computers and talking on zoom, but, you know, it's this. Weird life we lead.

[00:21:56] Jim, well, what else did you want to tell us about your book or Newspapers. Did I leave anything out?

[00:22:03] Jim Beidler: I think we we've hit the highlights, but it, it certainly, it was it was a work of love as a tribute to, to my, my first career.

[00:22:13] And also unlike my first two German books where what was then Family Tree Books had come to me basically the title and even the outline of, of things. This is what I pitched to them because, because you know, just as you were saying the lists of newspapers or a few tips books, they had be done, been done.

[00:22:36] I wanted a comprehensive you know, view view of this this whole record group and how to research it. And I thank the, the editors there that they they allowed me to do.

[00:22:52] Denys: Well, we are really lucky that you did it that you combined, your past profession and genealogy and such a book. It's, it's an absolutely must recommend .If you're a genealogist, you know, home these days because of the, you know, wanting to stay safe or just lockdowns or whatever, The Family Tree Historical Newspaper Guide will have you completely redoing all your newspaper research and giving you a whole new light on your ancestors and probably breaking some brick walls. Although Jim will not back that up with the money back guarantee.

[00:23:30] Jim Beidler: No guarantee in genealogy.

[00:23:33] Denys: Do not contact him if you didn't break down a brick wall. But no, you can definitely get deeper into your ancestor's lives and enrich what the research that you've already done, which is what we always want to do. So, Jim, thank you so much for writing it and I, I hope you write another book. Will you write another?

[00:23:52] Jim Beidler: I I'm, I'm definitely working on second additions to my current, my current oof. Whether there'll be an entirely new one that's, that's, that's going to depend on whether, whether I, I find a topic that that I think you know, has not been done.

[00:24:10] Denys: Thank you again for being on the podcast.

[00:24:12] Jim Beidler: You're welcome. And thank you.

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