How to find newspapers in Google Books for free

Show Notes: Google Books is known for having millions of free digitized books. But did you know that it’s also packed with hidden old newspapers? Since newspapers don’t typically appear in your initial search results in Google Books, I’ll show you two ways to filter down to only newspapers. Plus I’ll also show you some of the most effective ways to quickly find the right ancestor and the right article.

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Show Notes

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Old newspapers are a tremendous resource for family history information. One of the most surprising places that you can find old newspapers is Google Books. However, newspapers don’t typically show up in the general searches we run at Google Books. It’s important to use specific strategies designed to effectively and find what you’re looking for.

We typically think of Google Books as a place where you look for books. However, we really need to change our thinking on that. Think of Google Books as a place to find printed material. At Google Books you could find not only books, but printed newspapers, catalogs, almanacs, magazines, anything that would have been published on paper. Google Books catalogs all the printed material it finds, and digitizes that which isn’t under copyright restrictions. That means that it’s more common to find older newspapers, books and so on that are digitized and searchable.

Dealing with Too Many Results

I love finding articles like this one about my husband’s grandfather, Raymond H. Cooke.

newspaper article found at Google Books

You can find newspaper articles like this at Google Books.

Newspapers clearly offer a lot more than just obituaries. You may be able to find all kinds of articles on what was going on in their life and their community.

We start searching at the Google Books homepage. There are a couple of different ways to find Google Books. You can just google Google Books, or you can go directly to the URL https://books.google.com/.

At Google Books, you can start by typing in an ancestor’s name such as Raymond H. Cooke, or topic of interest. What you will typically see is a list of books, many fairly recent, but no newspapers. In fact there will be typically be an abundance of results, many of which are not a good match. But don’t worry, we can improve these results.

Better Newspaper Results with Quotes

One of the easiest ways to fix this situation is to go back up to the search box and put quotes around the full name. This tells Google Books that I want this exact phrase (name), spelled the way I spelled it. This prevents us from getting results that contain the words but not within the context as a whole name. It also ensures that Cooke will be spelled with an “e”. Without the quotes we get too many non-matching results. Most included one or more of the words, often separate from each other, and some weren’t even spelled the way I spelled the name.

As you can see, using quotes is very effective at reducing unwanted results. However, we can do even more to improve newspaper search results at Google Books.

You’ll notice that most of the results you receive are books, some of which may be digitized and some that are not. What you don’t see typically are newspapers. So, our next strategy will fix this and give us only newspaper results.

Filtering to Only Newspaper Results

It might seem logical just to add the word newspaper to your search query. However, this doesn’t work. Google looks for the words in the text of the material. It doesn’t look at the word newspapers and understand that it’s a type of material.

However, Google Books does give us ways to filter results down to only newspapers. On the search results page you will see a filter menu below the main menu of tabs. If you don’t see it, click the Tools button.

Notice that Any Document is one of the filters. That means that right now our results are showing all types of documents that meet our search criteria including books, catalogs, magazines, newspapers, etc. Click that drop-down menu and select Newspapers. This will display only newspaper in the search results.

At the top of the results list you’ll see exact matches to your query. Sometimes, if there aren’t a lot of matches, Google will then remove the quotes you used, and show you additional results that match without quotes. So several pages of matches doesn’t always mean that they all match exactly. But the good news is, all the exact matches will display first.

Search Name Variations

My example of searching for “Raymond H. Cooke” is very specific. In order to find all the possible articles that mention Raymond, I will need to expand my search to include the name variations that might appear in the papers. Here are just a few examples:

  • “Raymond Cooke”
  • “Ray Cooke”
  • “R. H. Cooke”
  • “Raymond H. Cook” (because it’s very possible a spelling error could be made in the newspaper)

Another Way to Filter to Only Newspapers

Google Book’s Advanced Search is another way to filter down specifically to newspapers. It’s not as easy to find or use as the Tools menu, but it can prove very helpful.

There isn’t a link to Advanced Search on the Google Books home page. There are three ways to get to it.

#1 Use the URL

You can use the URL, but it’s not easy to remember. https://books.google.com/advanced_book_search   A nice solution is to go there with this link and then add it as a bookmark in your web browser bar.

#2 Google Google Books Advanced Search

The easiest way to find the Advanced Search page for the Google Books is simply to google it.

#3 Any Google Books Catalog Page

The Advanced Search link appears in the search box on the catalog page of all items in Google Books. To find the page, run a search (it doesn’t matter what item you search for) and click the book or other item to open it. If the item is “full view” or “preview” you’ll need to close it. You can do that in the most recent version of the Google Books user interface by clicking the X in the top right corner of the page. This will then display the catalog page for the item, and you’ll see the Advanced Search link in the search field.

The Advanced Search page provides you with a special form. You can use this to run your search as well. You can type the names or phrases that you want to be exact in the Exact Phrase field. Best of all, in the Content section you can click the button for Newspapers to filter your results only to newspapers.

So already, we’re quickly finding newspapers within this massive catalog of over 25 million items in Google Books. I have a few more suggestions of ways to find what you’re looking for in newspapers specifically.

Adding Location to Search

If you want to be look for ancestors in Google Books, it really helps to add a location.

When you look at the search results, you’ll notice that it doesn’t give you a location in the result’s short  descriptive paragraph (called a snippet). That makes it a little more challenging to be able to figure out if the items is talking about the right person. Where our ancestors lived is part of what sets them apart from everyone else by the same name. The result usually doesn’t tell us even where the newspaper was published. Try adding the name of your ancestor’s town, county or state to your search query.

Adding Timeframe to Search

While the snippets on the results page show the date of the item, we might have a lot of items to look through. It would be nice to narrow it down to items published during your ancestor’s lifetime. It’s not to say that there might not be a newspaper article published after an ancestor’s death, but it can help to start by first just searching during their lifetime.

On the initial results page, make sure the Tools filter menu it turned on. You’ll find Anytime in the filter menu next to Any Document. Click the Anytime drop-down menu. Here you can select a century. Click Custom Range and enter the years. For example, 1865 to 1930. This will filter your results list down to newspapers published between those years. It’s another great way to filter out results for other people with the same name who didn’t live at the same time. Filtering for both timeframe and the location can really help you zero in on the right person.

The Source of the Newspapers at Google Books

Google Books has not always had newspapers as part of their collection. The digitized newspapers found there today come from the old Google News Archive. This was a newspaper digitization project that was discontinued several years ago. In the last few years they’ve been adding the collection to Google Books. And now with the new Google Books user interface, they are easier to search and use than ever before.  

The old Google News Archive can be found at https://news.google.com/newspapers. This old website can come in handy if you’re not sure if Google Books has the issues that you need of a particular newspaper title.

Start by going to https://news.google.com/newspapers and click the letter at the top of the screen that corresponds to the first letter of the first word in the title of the newspaper. For example, if you want to check to see if they have The Lawrence Daily Gazette, and if so which issues, you would click “L”. If you find the newspaper the website will also tell you how many issues are in the collection and what dates they cover. Then you can head to Google Books and search on the title.

It’s possible that Google may have added additional issues since the old Google News Archive closed. You can check this at Google Books by searching on the title and using the Any Time filter to specify the years.

Start Searching for Newspapers at Google Books

Now you can find newspapers at Google Books quickly and efficiently. I hope you’ll leave a comment and let me know about the article that you find!

Resources

Downloadable ad-free Show Notes handout for Premium Members

 

Video #5 of our 25 Websites for Genealogy – Libraries and Archives

VIDEO & SHOW NOTES: Video #5 of our 25 Websites for Genealogy YouTube Playlist. In this video, my guest presenter Gena Philibert-Ortega covers Library and Archive websites that are must-haves for family history research. You’ll find plenty of genealogy gems waiting for free at websites #23 through 25 in our list.

 

Websites 23 through 25 of our 25  Websites for Genealogy

Some of these websites will be new to you, and others are going to be very familiar to you. In talking about the familiar websites, I want to get you thinking about them differently, explain a little bit more about what you can do at these websites, and how to get the most out of them.

In this series of 25 Websites for Genealogy, we’re going to be looking at websites in different categories. Our third category is Library and Archive websites (#23 through 25). 

Download the ad-free Show Notes cheat sheet for this video here. (Premium Membership required.)

Website #23: WorldCat

https://worldcat.org

WorldCat.org is a free website that provides access through its card catalog to millions of materials from libraries around the world. You’ll find items such as:

  • United States Civil War and other military records
  • Family Bibles, church histories, and records
  • Publications such as directories, handbooks, and magazines
  • Birth, marriage, death, wills, and obituary indexes
  • Microfilmed genealogy and local history collections
  • Newspapers from around the world
  • Photographs
  • Town histories
  • probate records
Searching for name variations at WorldCat

How to search for name variations at WorldCat.

 

Learn more with this video from Lisa Louise Cooke: 5 Things You Should Be Doing at WorldCat.

Website #24: ArchiveGrid

https://researchworks.oclc.org/archivegrid/ 

This lesser-known free website can help you locate old documents and manuscript items available in over 1,500 different archival collections. ArchiveGrid currently includes close to 5 million archival item entries!

ArchiveGrid is a companion website to WorldCat, the free online catalog of millions of library items from thousands of libraries. The difference is that ArchiveGrid focuses not on published items but (generally-speaking) on unpublished ones.

List of genealogical results at ArchiveGrid.

 

Watch this video from Lisa Louise Cooke: Bust Brick Walls & Go Deeper with ArchiveGrid (Premium)

Read How to Find Original Manuscripts with ArchiveGrid.

Click here to read this article.

 

Website #25: National Archives

https://www.archives.gov

The National Archives website and online catalog can be a bit mystifying. If you’ve ever tried to search it and wound up frustrated, you’re not alone. This is often the case because the nature of the archives and the search function of the online Catalog are not genealogically focused. Armed with an understanding of how and why it is set up the way it is, and the know-how to search, refine, and download documents, you’ll be ready to add it to your genealogy toolkit.

More links at the National Archives:

Learn more with this video from Lisa Louise Cooke: How to Search the U.S. National Archives Online Catalog for Genealogy

Resources:

Download the ad-free Show Notes cheat sheet for this video here. (Premium Membership required.)

Not a Premium Member yet? Discover the benefits and join today. 

 

Genealogy Gems Premium Membership

Click to learn more about Genealogy Gems Premium Membership.

 

How German Address Books at Ancestry.com are Helping Bust Brick Walls

My genealogy research looks a lot like yours. Some family tree lines go back to pre-Revolutionary War. Other lines are richly researched well into the early 19th century.

And then there’s THAT family line. You know the one I mean. The one where the courthouse containing the records we need has burned down, or the records were microfilmed ages ago but are still sitting in the FamilySearch granite vault due to copyright issues. Or worst of all, it appears the needed records just don’t exist.

Don’t let these obstacles allow you to give up hope.

bust brick walls with German Address Books at Ancestry

Every day, new records are being discovered and digitized. Records that have been languishing in a copyright stalemate might suddenly be cleared for publication. Or a cousin could contact you out of the blue and has the letters your grandmother sent hers. We never know when the records we’ve been waiting for, searching for, and yearning for, will bubble up to the surface.

Today I’m happy to share my story of a recent breakthrough that I never saw coming. Follow along with me as I take newly unearthed rocks and use tools to turn them into sparkling gems.

This is Almost Embarrassing

My one, agonizing family line that stops short in its tracks ends with my great grandfather Gustave Sporowski.

Gus & Louise Sporan German Genealogy Records Bust Brick Wall

Gustave and Louise Sporowski (personal collection)

It’s almost embarrassing to admit. I’ve been at this nearly my whole life, and genealogy is my career for goodness sake! But there it is, a family tree with lovely far-reaching limbs except for this little stub of a branch sticking out on my maternal grandmother’s side.

I was about eight years old the first time I asked my grandma about her parents and their families. (Yes, this genealogy obsession goes back that far with me!) I still have the original page of cryptic notes she scratched out for me during that conversation.

Notes German Address Books at Ancestry Genealogy Records Bust Brick Wall

Excerpt from Grandma’s original notes. (Personal collection)

She had several nuggets of information about her mother’s family. However, when it came to her father Gustave, she only recalled that he was the youngest of seven brothers. No names came to mind. I’ve always felt that if I could just identify some of the brothers, one of them may have records that provide more details about their parents.

According to his Petition for Naturalization, Gustave Sporowksi and Louise Nikolowski were married in LutgenDortmund, Germany. This indicated that both moved west from East Prussia before emigrating. While I knew Louise’s immediate family were in the LutgenDortmund area as well, I had no idea whether Gustave moved there on his own or with his family.

Naturalization Record German Address Books at Ancestry

Gustave Sporowski’s Petition for Naturalization.

Gus (as he was later known) emigrated from Germany in 1910, landing at Ellis Island. He toiled in the coal mines of Gillespie, Illinois, and eventually earned enough money to move his wife and children west to California in 1918.

After filing his papers and years of waiting, he proudly became a U.S. citizen in 1940.

On that paperwork, he clearly states his birthplace as Kotten, Germany. You won’t find this location on a map today. In 1881, the year he was born, the area was East Prussia. I remember the hours I spent with gazeteers many years ago trying to locate that little village nestled just within the border of Kreis Johannisburg. Being so close to the border meant that he could have attended church there or in a neighboring district. 

The records in the area are scarce, and today the entire area is in Poland.

Surprisingly, the records situation is quite the opposite with his wife Louise, also from East Prussia. She lived not far away in Kreis Ortelsburg, and the records for the church her family attended in Gruenwald are plentiful. I’ve managed to go many more generations back with her family.

And so, poor Gus alone sits in my family tree.

I periodically search to see if there’s anything new that has surfaced, but to no avail. I even hired a professional genealogical firm to review my work and suggest new avenues. I guess it is good news to hear you’ve pursued all known available leads, but it’s not very rewarding.

Over time, we tend to revisit tough cases like this less frequently. They become quiet. Digital dust begins to settle on the computer files.

And then it all changes.

German Address Books at Ancestry.com

I regularly make the rounds of the various genealogy websites, making note of new additions to their online collections. I typically publish the updates on a weekly basis here on the Genealogy Gems blog. It makes my day when readers like you comment or email, bursting with excitement about how one of the collections I mentioned busted their brick wall. I love my job.

This week I’m the one who is bursting!

It started simply enough. My third stop on my regular records round-up tour was Ancestry.com. The list of new records was particularly robust this week. The word “Germany” always catches my eye, and the second item on the list jumped out at me:

Germany and Surrounding Areas, Address Books, 1815-1974

German Address Books Ancestry Bust Brick Wall

“Recently Added and Updated Collections on Ancestry,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 05 Sept 2019)

I should have had a healthy dose of skepticism that I would be fortunate enough to find anything. But to be perfectly honest, I felt instinctively that I would! Have you ever just had that feeling that your ancestors are sitting right there ready to be found? If you’ve been researching your family history for a while, then I’m guessing you have. Such a nice feeling, isn’t it?

So, I clicked, and I simply entered Sporowski in the last name field and clicked Search.

Experience has taught me that there haven’t been a lot of folks through history with this surname, so I’m interested in taking a look at anyone who pops up in the results. And yippie aye oh, did they ever pop up!

German address books results list at Ancestry.com

“All Germany and Surrounding Areas, Address Books, 1915-1974,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 05 Sept 2019)

The results list include 31 people with the surname of Sporowski!

These names came from the pages of address books much like the city directories so common in the U.S. Since this collection was new to me, I took a moment to read up on the history.

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GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Learning the History of the Genealogy Record Collection

To truly understand what you are looking at when reviewing search results, we need to acquaint ourselves with the history of the collection.

  • Why was it created?
  • What does it include?
  • What does it not include?

Look to the left of the search results and click Learn more about this database.

It’s definitely worth clicking this link because the next page may also include a listing of Related Data Collections, some of which you might not be aware. These could prove very useful, picking up the pace to finding more records.

In the case of foreign language records, look for a link to the Resource Center for that country. There you may find translation help and tips for interpreting handwriting and difficult-to-read script.

German Genealogy Help at Ancestry.com

Ancestry Help Features

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On the Learn more about this database page, I learned some important things about these search results.

First, not every citizen was listed. Only heads of households were included. This means that wives and children would not appear. I did find some widows, though, because they were the head of their household.

Second, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) was used on this collection. Ancestry suggests looking for errors and providing corrections. But this information about OCR also implies something even more important to the genealogist. We must keep in mind that OCR is not perfect. In this case, I planned on browsing the collection after reviewing the search results to ensure I didn’t miss anyone. This would include targeting people listed in the “S” section of directories for towns I might expect the family to be.

I was particularly thrilled to see the name “Emil Sporowski” on the list.

Several months ago I found a World War I Casualty list from a newspaper published in 1918.

German Military Casualty List Ancestry.com

On it was listed Emil Sporowski and he was from the village of Kotten. This was the first mention of Gustave’s birthplace in the record of another Sporowski that I had ever found. So, you can imagine my delight as I stared at his name in the address book search results.

German Address Books at Ancestry.com bust Brick wall

“All Germany and Surrounding Areas, Address Books, 1915-1974,” Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 05 Sept 2019)

The icing on that cake was that he was listed in the address book of Bochum. That town name was very familiar to me because I had seen it on a few old family photos in Louise Sporowski’s photo album. Although the photos did not have names written on them, I could easily identify the folks who had the facial characteristics of Louise Nikolowski’s clan, and those sporting the large eyes with heavy lids like Gus.

Sporowski from Bochum Germany photograph

Photo from Louise Nikolowski’s photo album.

Spreading the German Addresses Out with Spreadsheets

With one and a half pages delivering a total of 31 Sporowski names, I knew I had some work ahead of me to tease them apart. This got me thinking of Genealogy Gems Podcast episode that I’m currently working on, which features a conversation with professional genealogist Cari Taplin. When I asked Cari how she organizes her data, she told me that she uses spreadsheets. I’m not typically a spreadsheet kind of gal, but in this case, I could see the benefits. Spreadsheets offer a way to get everybody on one page. And with the power of Filters and Sorting you slice and dice the data with ease. My first sort was by town.

Excel Spreadsheet tracking German Address Books at Ancestry.com

My Excel spreadsheet tracking German Address Books search results at Ancestry.com

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GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Free Genealogy Gems Download

Click here to download the simple yet effective spreadsheet I used for this research project. If you find your German ancestors in this collection, it’s ready to use. Otherwise, feel free to modify to suit your needs in a similar situation.

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As you can see in the spreadsheet, these address books include occupations. For example, Emil was listed both as a Schmied and a Schlosser. A simple way to add the English translation to my spreadsheet was to go to Google.com and search Google Translate. Words and phrases can be translated right from the results page.

Translating German words found in Address Books at Ancestry.com

Translating the Occupation found in the German Address Books using Google Translate (Available at https://translate.google.com. Accessed 05 Sept 2019)

You can also find several websites listing German occupations by Googling old german occupations.

I quickly ran into abbreviations that were representing German words. For example, Lina Sporowski is listed with as Wwe .

A Google search of german occupations abbreviations didn’t bring a website to the top of the list that actually included abbreviations. However, by adding one of the abbreviations to the search such as  “Wwe.” it easily retrieved web pages actually featuring abbreviations.

One of the top results was by friend of the podcast Katherine Schober and her SK Translations blog post called 19 Most Common Abbreviations in German Genealogy.

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GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Use Search Operators when Googling

Notice that I placed the abbreviation in quotation marks when adding it to my Google search query. Quotation marks serve as search operators, and they tell Google some very important information about the word or phrase they surround.

  1. The quotation marks tell Google that this word or phrase must appear in every search result. (If you’ve ever googled several words only to find that some results include some of the words, and other results include others, this will solve your problem.)
  2. They also tell Google that the word(s) MUST be spelled exactly the way it appears on each search result. This is particularly helpful when searching an abbreviation like Wwe. which isn’t actually a word. Without the quotation marks, you will likely get a response from Google at the top of the search results page asking you if you meant something else.

Click here to receive my free ebook including all the most common Google search operators when you sign up for my free newsletter (which is always chock full of goodies).

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Katherine was my guest on Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast Episode #151 available exclusively to our Premium eLearning Members. She’s also written a couple of articles for Genealogy Gems on German translation:

When to Use Google Translate for Genealogy–And Best Translation Websites for When You Don’t

Translating German Genealogy Records: 9 Top German Translation Websites

Deciphering Place Names Just Got Easier

I’ve written an article you may find helpful not only for translation but also to help you with pronunciation called How to Pronounce Names: Google Translate and Name Pronunciation Tools.

As it turns out, Wwe. stands for Widow. This tells me that Lina’s husband was deceased by 1961.

Finding the German Addresses in Google Earth

The most glorious things found in these old address books are the addresses themselves!

Google Earth is the perfect tool to not only find the locations but clarify the addresses. Many were abbreviated, but Google Earth made quick work of the task.

Unlike other free Google Tools, Google Earth is available in a variety of forms:

  • Free downloadable software
  • Google Earth in the Chrome Web browser
  • A mobile app

Each has powerful geographic features, but I always recommend using the software. The web version and app don’t have all the tools available in the software. All versions require an internet connection. You can download the software here

In the Google Earth search box I typed in the address. Don’t worry if you don’t have the full address or if you think it may be spelled incorrectly. Google Earth will deliver a results list of all the best options that most closely match.

In my case, reliable Google Earth not only gave me complete addresses, but also the correct German letters.

Finding the full name of the German address in Google Earth

Finding the full name of the German address. (Map data ©2019 Google Earth software: accessed 6 Sep 2019)

Soon I found myself virtually standing outside their homes thanks to Google Earth’s Street View feature!

House of my Germany ancestor found in Google Earth

Home of my German ancestor found in Google Earth in Street View. (Map data ©2019 Google Earth software: accessed 6 Sep 2019)

Here’s how to use Street View in Google Earth:

  1. Zoom in close to the location
  2. Click on the Street View icon in the upper right corner (near the zoom tool)
  3. Drag the icon over the map and blue lines will appear where Street View is available
  4. Drop the icon directly on the line right next to the house
  5. Use the arrow keys on your keyboard to navigate in Street View or simply use your mouse to drag the screen
Using Google Earth Street View

Using Google Earth Street View. (Map data ©2019 Google Earth software: accessed 6 Sep 2019)

I went through the entire list. As I found each location in Google Earth, I checked it off on the spreadsheet.

Addresses found in German Address Books marked in the spreadsheet

Addresses found in German Address Books at Ancestry.com marked in the spreadsheet

GENEALOGY RESEARCH TIP: Create a Folder in Google Earth

When you have several locations like this to plot, I recommend creating a folder in the Places panel in Google Earth. It’s super easy to do and will help you stay organized. Here’s how:

  1. Right-click (PC) on the MyPlaces icon at the top of the Places panel (left side of the Google Earth screen)
  2. Select Add > Folder in the pop-up menu
  3. A New Folder dialog box will appear
  4. Type the name of your folder
  5. Click OK to close the folder
  6. You can drag and drop the folder wherever you want it in the Places panel
  7. Click to select the folder before placing your Placemarks. That way each placemark will go in that folder. But don’t worry, if you get a placemark in the wrong spot, just drag and drop it into the folder.
How to Create a Folder

Creating a Folder for the German Addresses found at Ancestry.com (Map data ©2019 Google Earth software: accessed 6 Sep 2019)

It didn’t take long to build quite a nice collection of Sporowski homes in Germany!

German addresses in the Google Earth Places panel

German addresses in the Places panel. (Map data ©2019 Google Earth software: accessed 6 Sep 2019)

The beauty of Google Earth as that you can start to visualize your data in a whole new way. Zooming out reveals these new findings within the context of previous location-based research I had done on related families. As you can see in the image below, all the Sporowskis that I found in the German Address books at Ancestry.com are clustered just five miles from where photos were taken that appear in Louise Sporowski’s photo album. 

Data Visualization: My German Families found in Address Books

Data Visualization in Google Earth: My German Families found in Address Books. (Map data ©2019 Google Earth software: accessed 6 Sep 2019)

I’ve Only Just Begun to Discover my German Ancestors at Ancestry.com

We’ve covered a lot of ground today, but this is just the beginning. There are additional sources to track down, timelines to create, photos to match up with locations, and so much more. In many ways, I’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities. But I need to stop writing so I can keep searching! 😊

I hope you’ve enjoyed taking this journey with me. Did you pick up some gems along the way that you are excited to use? Please leave a comment below! Let us all know which tips and tools jumped out at you, and any gems that you found.

 

The Best Way to Find Free Old Maps at DavidRumsey.com

Our ability to find our ancestors is rooted in two important pieces of information: the locations where they lived and the time frames in which they lived there. This means that old maps are essential to our genealogy research.  

The good news is that there is an abundance of free digitized old maps available online. One of the best resources is the David Rumsey Map Collection website. There you will find over 100,000 free digitized historic maps. These maps span the globe and centuries.  They are perfect for bringing geographic perspective to your family tree.

Best way to find old maps for genealogy

Elevenses with Lisa Show Notes

In this episode 36 of my free webinar video series Elevenses with Lisa I’ll show you how to navigate this ever-expanding free website. Watch the video and then follow along with the show notes in this article. Here you’ll find answers to questions such as:

  • What’s the best way to find maps at David Rumsey’s map website?
  • What is the difference between the search tools (Luna Viewer and MapRank Search)?
  • What are the advanced search techniques for finding the old maps?
  • How can I download maps at DavidRumsey.com?
  • Is it OK to use the maps from DavidRumsey.com in my family history projects?

Rumsey Historical Maps in Google Earth

As we discussed in Ways to Use Google Earth for Genealogy (Elevenses with Lisa episode 12) there are approximately 120 Rumsey old maps available for free in Google Earth. You can find them in the Layers Panel under Gallery.  Each map is already georeferenced as an overlay for you.

ways to use google earth for genealogy with Lisa Louise Cooke

Click image to watch the video and read the article on ways to use Google Earth for genealogy

You can also create your own overlays in Google Earth using Rumsey Maps or digitized maps from other sources. I cover this step-by-step in chapter 16 of my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox.

Best Strategies for Finding Free Old Maps

Once you’ve exhausted the few hundred old maps in Google Earth, head to the David Rumsey Map Collection website. Rumsey’s collection includes over 150,000 map, over 100,000 of which have been digitized and are available for free on his website. 

Copyright and Use Permission

You will probably be anxious to use these wonderful old maps in a variety of ways. The Rumsey website provides clear direction on copyright and use permission. Go to: DavidRumsey.com > Home Page > About > Copyright and Permissions.

The good news is that generally speaking, you are free to download and use the digitized maps for your own personal use.

The Best Way to View the Maps

There are several ways to view maps:

  • The Luna Viewer: Browse and search 100,000+ maps
  • The GeoReferencer: Help georeferenced maps, compare maps overlays
  • MapRank Search: Browse & search 6000 maps by time & place
  • Google Earth: 120 maps in the Layers panel, 140 can be added
  • Google Maps: 120 maps included
  • Second Life: View some in 3 dimensions and at a huge scale. Location: Rumsey Map Islands. Includes a welcome center with hundreds of maps, and a 600 meter tall map cylinder showing hundreds of maps.
  • The Collections Ticker: Pop-out distraction!
  • Insight Java Client: Downloadable workspace

Of this list, the best two tools to user are:

  1. The Luna Viewer: Browse and search 100,000+ maps
  2. MapRank Search: Browse & search 6000 maps by time & place

I will show you how to use each. Note that in these examples we will be using a computer to search the site rather than a mobile device or tablet.

The Luna Viewer: How to browse & search the maps

In the main menu under View Collection select the Luna Viewer. Under Luna Viewer click the Launch Luna Viewer button.

Luna Viewer at David Rumsey Map Collection

The Luna Viewer at David Rumsey Map Collection

Tips for keyword searching:

  • In most cases it helps to start with a fairly broad search to see the full range of available maps
  • Be cautious with abbreviations. “MN” does not return “Minn” or “Minnestota”.
  • Advance search provides you with the use of full Boolean operators like “and,” “or,” “greater than,” “contains,” and others.
  • After a search, to return to the full collection, click on “show all” under the search button.

Let’s look at an example of using the keyword search in tandem with the Refine column. If you search for New York City, you will be searching all of the data associated with the maps. Since many maps may have been published in New York City, you will likely see many maps for other areas. You can improve this search by going to the Refine column and under Where clicking on New York City.

The Refine column will show you the first five options in each category (What, Where, Who, When). Click More to reveal all of the additional refining options in that category.

Refine map search David Rumsey

Click More to see all refining options in the Luna Viewer

From the returned results, click a map to view it.

You can select multiple items in the Refine column to filter more narrowly. Remove a filter by clicking it under Remove at the top of the Refine column.

Like genealogical records, old maps may include several pages. Look above the blue BUY PRINT button to see the number of Related maps. In my example of a map of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, there were two map pages available. Click Related to display all of the available pages.

David Rumsey map related results

Click the Related link to view all related map pages.

DavidRumsey.com Advanced Search

The Advanced Search feature can be found in two locations:

  • Inside the search box – click your mouse in the box and select Advanced Search from the drop-down list
  • At the bottom of the Refine column on the left side of the screen.

Advanced Search gives you more control over how you search. Let’s look at an example by searching for Sanborn fire insurance maps. 

Searching for Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps

The David Rumsey Map Collection website includes many Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. These maps were created for insurance purposes and provide an incredible amount of detail about individual buildings and dwellings in a given neighborhood.

I recommend using the Advanced Search feature to search for these maps. This is because over the years the name of the company as publisher changed.

How to Find Sanborn Maps:

  1. Click on Advanced Search at the bottom of the Refine column
  2. In the “find all of these words” section, click Fields and select Publisher
  3. Type in Sanborn
  4. On the results page, go to the Refine column and Who click More
  5. There are at least six variations of the Sanborn publishing name.

Old Map books and atlases often include valuable historical text often called historical sketches. You can find these using the Advanced search. Search for the exact phrase Historical Sketch. Run this search and then in the Refine column under Where select an area of interest.

How to Download Maps from DavidRumsey.com

  1. Click the map from the results list
  2. On the map’s dedicated page click the EXPORT button at the top of the page.
  3. Select the appropriate size from the drop-down list. (Larger maps may take a few moments to download)
  4. Typically the maps will download to the Downloads folder on your computer

Tips for Selecting Download (Export) Map Size:
Save space on your computer and future headaches by selecting the correct size map for your use. If you plan on using the map to create an overlay or create a nice large print, select the largest size possible ( I recommend at least Extra Large for creating map overlays in the Google Earth.) This will ensure that the map doesn’t appear fuzzy when you Zoom in. High-resolution is also recommended when printing. For example, if you plan on including the map in a book about your family’s history (for personal use, not for resale) a high-resolution map will print crisp and clear. Maps for use on the web or something like a PowerPoint presentation would be fine at lower resolutions.

MapRank Search at DavidRumsey.com

The MapRank Search “app” at the David Rumsey Map Collection website allows you to browse & search 6000 maps by two important criteria: Time & Place.

There are two ways to find the MapRank Search:

  1. In the main menu under View Collection click MapRank Search. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click the Launch MapRank Search
  2. Scroll to the bottom of the home page until you see Featured App – MapRank Search, and click the Launch MapRank Search

How to Find Maps Using MapRank Search:

  1. Start with entering the location name in the search box (in the upper right corner) and click the Find a Place
  2. The location will appear on the modern-day map. The old maps that match the location will appear in the column on the right, prioritized starting with the map that most closely matches what you searched.
  3. Below the modern-day map, move the time slider levers to narrow in on the desired time frame.
  4. Note that the old maps in the results column will change based on the specified time frame.
  5. Broaden the location if desired by zooming out a bit on the modern-day map. Note that the results list will change as you zoom.
  6. Hover your mouse over a map in the results list and notice that a reddish-brown box will appear the selected map and will also appear on the modern-day map. This indicates the area of the map that the old map covers. This will aid you in selecting the map that will suit your needs.
  7. Click a map from the results list and it will open in a new browser tab, although some maps will appear as an overlay on the modern-day map. In that case, click the Luna Viewer button to go to the page where the map can be downloaded.

How to Compare Modern-day Maps with Old Maps

Whether you have found the map by searching with the Luna Viewer or the MapRank Search you will eventually find yourself on the page where the single map is displayed. On the left is the source information.

In the upper right corner of the screen click the View in GeoReferencer button. You will be taken to a page where you can view the old map overlayed on the modern-day map. In the upper right corner move the slider to make the old map transparent so that you can compare between the two maps.

Recap: Comparing the Two Best Search Tools at DavidRumsey.com

Luna Viewer:
– 100,000 maps
– Search, then refine
– Sometimes glitchy interface

MapRank Search:
– 6000+ maps
– More control with time slider & map
– Map results list ranked by closest coverage

Live Chat Q&A: Answers to Your Questions About David Rumsey Maps

One of the advantages of tuning into the live broadcast of each Elevenses with Lisa show is participating in the Live Chat and asking your questions.

From Megan: What is the difference between Google Earth and My Maps?
From Lisa: Google Earth is a free software download. This is where I create what I call family history tours. They are a collection of data points and media that come together as a research tool and storytelling tool. My Maps are created in Google Maps. I prefer creating in Google Earth because it offers more tools and options, and it’s where I keep all my mapping work. 

From Gwynn: Heard in the past Java Client might have security holes has this been fixed?
From Lisa: Read more about the latest on Java Client at the website’s FAQ page

From GeneBuds: Must set up account to use Luna Viewer?
From Lisa: No, you don’t have to have an account to use the Luna Viewer. “Registering for an account allows you to save your work and preferences, search external media, create Media Groups and Presentations, customize your settings, create annotations, and upload your own content.” As I mentioned in the video, I prefer to do all my work in Google Earth. 

From Gwynn: Sanborn Fire Maps: Where do I find the Key to the symbols? Are they the same from year to year or do they change?
From Lisa: Here’s the main resource page for Sanborn maps at the Library of Congress. You will find specific information about interpreting the maps including Keys and Colors here.

From Karen: ​If you are specifically looking for plat maps for our US farmers would you put the word plat in the search field?
From Lisa: I would use the Advanced Search and enter the word plat in the “Find all these words” box. Click the plus sign to add an additional “Find all these words” field and type in the name of the location. If that doesn’t deliver the desired result, omit the location and just search on the word plant. Then, on the results page, go to the Refine column and under Where click More. Then you have a nice list to browse. You might spot a map that includes your location. TIP: When you find a result, be sure to check the Related number at the top of the page so that you didn’t miss any additional pages of the map. 

From Mark: Lisa and Bill, is the intro music something that you all wrote?
From Lisa and Bill: No, it’s by a talented musician named Dan Lebowitz. Our goal this year was to learn to play it ourselves 🙂 We’re glad you love it as much as we do!

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