One thing that many genealogists have in common is a connection to Pennsylvania. Perhaps one of your family tree branches extends back to the early founding of the Pennsylvania colony. Or it may be that one of your ancestors was one of the hundreds of thousands who arrived through the port of Philadelphia. Even if you don’ t have Pennsylvania ancestors the State Library of Pennsylvania has a lot to offer.
In this episode I’ll be sharing with you a video of my interview with two librarians from the State Library of Pennsylvania. We’ll discuss their collections and specifically what’s available through their website. After the interview I’ll show you some specific search techniques that you can use at the State Library of Pennsylvania website, including a trick that you can use with any state library website.
Elevenses with Lisa Episode 46 Show Notes
My special Guests from the State Library of Pennsylvania:
Kathy Hale, Government Documents Librarian
Amy Woytovich, Genealogy Librarian
State Library of Pennsylvania Update
This interview was recorded in December 2020. Here’s the latest update (as of this writing) on the library closure and access:
- The State Library is currently closed to all visitors. However, staff is teleworking. People may send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org staff will answer questions as best they can.
- Renovations have begun on our library in the Forum Building. There may be times we cannot get to the materials requested because of the construction.
- Interlibrary loan services are available, but patrons must check if their home library has the equipment and are open for patrons to use that equipment. The Library still ships all over the U.S.
- Watch their website for instructions on how to access the State Library of Pennsylvania when it does reopen to the public.
The State Library of Pennsylvania Background
The library has been a federal repository library since 1858, and is one of the oldest in the country. The government printing office deposits materials here.
The State Library of Pennsylvania Collection
The State Library of Pennsylvania physical collection includes:
- 30,000 volumes
- 100,000 reels of microfilm
- A million pieces of microfiche
The State Library of Pennsylvania digitized items include:
- County and family histories
- Local histories
- Small church histories from rural areas
- City directories
- Passenger lists
- Regimental histories (Revolution to Spanish-American War)
- Pension Lists
- Pennsylvania Published Archives (collection of military, government, marriage, immigration records from colonial times)
- The 1940 U.S. Federal Census
Example: a report for Pennsylvania of the 25th and 50th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg. Includes information gathered at reunions including names, pictures, and more.
U.S. Government Documents – Serial Set
This collection includes reports to the legislature from agencies and institutions. Example: The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) were compelled to provide to Congress a yearly report of the names of people approved by DAR. These can be accessed through many libraries, the federal government or by contacting the State Library of Pennsylvania via email: Raemail@example.com
State Library of Pennsylvania Research Guides
Amy discusses research guides available on the website. However, here is the link to the topics she specifically mentions such as Cemeteries and Zeamer collection – recorded information about Cumberland County PA cemeteries. General Research Guides page. These research guide pages include links to additional helpful websites.
State Library of Pennsylvania website’s Genealogy Page
At the top of the page look at the For General Public tab which will take you to all of the genealogy research guides. Visit the Genealogy page at the State Library of Pennsylvania.
Newspapers at the State Library of Pennsylvania
The library’s collection of newspapers includes papers from all 67 Pennsylvania counties on microfilm. They do have a lot of digitized newspapers at the Pennsylvania Photos and Documents Collection at the Power Library.
The Power Library
You can find the Power Library by going to the libraries home page, and under the For General Public tab go to Our Collections > Power Library. Or visit the Power Library website at Powerlibrary.org.
- Electronic Databases: you have to be a resident with a library card.
- Digital Documents: you don’t have to be a Pennsylvanian to access this collection.
At the top of the Power Library home page on the right you’ll find Digital Docs and Photos:
There you will find many materials from Pennsylvania colleges including yearbooks. You can browse by subject area, with Genealogy being one of those areas.
Interlibrary Loan and Lookups
At the time of the interview the library was not open for interlibrary loan and lookups. Check the website for the latest updates.
The library does loan its newspaper microfilm. Up to 5 reels of microfilm per request. Kathy says that if you find a newspaper article at Newspapers.com and you see the title, date and the page that an article is on, you can provide the information to the interlibrary load reference librarian at your local library and place a request for a scan of the article from the State Library of PA microfilm. The article can then be returned to you digitally through interlibrary loan. The digitized scan is yours to keep.
The Librarians Favorite Collections
Amy’s Pick: Historic maps found at the library’s website Home > For General Public > Genealogy and Local History > Maps and Geographic Information. This includes Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. Note: log in with a library card may be required. Contact the library with questions.
Kathy’s favorite collections include:
- Map Collection consisting of over 35,000 maps.
- The 5 generations from the Mayflower collection.
Usage of Materials
Usage rights and copyright are important considerations when utilizing library materials. Usage depends on the individual item’s copyright. It should be researched as much as possible. Check the meta data of digital images for copyright information.
How to Get Research Help from the State Library of Pennsylvania
“Think of Amy and I as your personal librarians.” Kathy Hale, Librarian
Contact State Library staff by phone at 717-787-2324 or by email at:
- Reference Questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Law Reference: email@example.com
- Interlibrary Loan: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Makerspace: email@example.com
Lisa’s Tips for Using the State Library of Pennsylvania Website
Maps for Genealogy
At the website go to Home page > General Public Tab > Our Collections > Search our Resources.
- Type in a location and the word map
- Use the filters on the right side of the page > Library > State Library
- Click to select a map
- Try filtering to Full Text Online
- Look for the Online Access link, just above Text Item Call Number.
On the map viewer page, click the thumbnail button (looks like a checkerboard) to see multiple pages at a time. You’ll find the Download button in the bottom right-hand corner. The Print button is in the upper right corner.
Cite your source: Go back to the result page, and scroll down. Click the red button called Cite This. This allows you to copy the source citation which you can then paste into other documents and programs.
Newspapers for Genealogy
The Library of Congress Chronicling America website has many Pennsylvania old newspapers, but it doesn’t include all of the newspaper that the library has in its collection. Here’s how to find old Pennsylvania newspapers at the State Library website:
- On the State Library website go to General Public > Research Guides > Newspapers
- Click the link to the Pennsylvania Newspaper Archive
- Browse by title or date, or use the drop-down menus
- On the viewer page, zoom into the desired article. Then click Clip/Print Image
- Right-click on the clipped image to save it to your hard drive.
- The Persistent link is the URL address to your clipping.
Google Site Search Tip
Many websites have their own search engine. However, each search engine is only as good as it was programmed. If you can’t find what you want on a website like the State Library PA website, try using a Google site search. Site search tells Google to search for your search terms only on the website you specify.
In my example in the video, you can see that Google found the one page mentioning the surname in a listing of microfilms much faster than I would have found it digging around and navigating the website itself. This page was not a card catalog entry so it would not have come up in a search of the catalog on the website.
Learn More About the State Library of PA Collections
In episode 43 of Elevenses with Lisa we discussed genealogy records available for free at the Internet Archive. The State Library of Pennsylvania has been partnering with he Internet Archive to digitize many additional items from their collection. You can access these items for free at the State Library Internet Archive Collection. This collection includes a large number of World War I materials as well as a growing number of 19th and 20th century pamphlet volumes.
- Get My Free Genealogy Gems Newsletter – click here.
- Bonus Download exclusively for Premium Members: Download the show notes handout. (Not a Premium Member? Become a Genealogy Gems Premium Member today.)
Family History: Genealogy Made Easy Podcast
with Lisa Louise Cooke
Republished August 26, 2014
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
In today’s episode we finish a multi-part, step-by-step series on setting up your own family history blog. In episode 40 you decided what the purpose of your blog is, and we got you started with the free Blogger web site and picked out your blog name and set up the web address for it, and got the basic framework started. In episode 41 two seasoned bloggers inspired us with their posts.
In this episode I talk about adding a few more gadgets and details, doing a bit of pre-planning for your blog posts, publishing your first article, and then talking about how your readers will subscribe to your blog. You’ll also get great tips on how to create genealogy content that others looking for the same ancestors can find easily online.
Episode 42: How to Start a Genealogy Blog, Part 5
OK, let’s head back to the new blog we created in Episode 40. I named mine Blog Your Family History. (This is just a sample blog: my current blog is part of the Genealogy Gems website.) Please note: blogging platforms change over time. The features and layouts I mention have been updated. Just watch for similar features in newer versions of the blog platform.
So far I have the basic layout set up and I added the vintage photograph of the three ladies sharing some written correspondence. If you’re not signed in to your Google account, you’ll notice a link in the upper right corner of your blog page that says “sign in.” You’ll need to click that and enter your user name and password to get access to your blog dashboard – the area where you customize your blog and write your blog posts.
When you sign in you’ll be taken to the dashboard area for your blog. In my case I have a couple of blogs, so they’ll all be listed here in the dashboard. To get back to your blog just click the View Blog link for the blog you want to view. You’ll notice that when you get there the link in the upper right corner now says “sign out” so you know right now you’re signed in. To get back to the dashboard where we can continue customizing the blog, just click the Customize link in the upper right hand corner of the blog. So far we have a couple of “gadgets” or sections of our blog:
- the title area at the top;
- the blog posts box. In the case of the blog I’m creating here the gadgets run along the right hand side of the blog page.
- About Me
- the gadget with the photo I added
- A followers gadget showing other blogger readers
- the blog archive gadget – this is where readers can access blog posts that are over a month old.
So let’s add another gadget by clicking the Add Gadget link in the top gadget box and a window will pop up showing us out options. I’d like to add a search box so that my readers can easily find articles with keywords they are interested in. So just click the plus sign to add the Search gadget and a Configure Search Box window pops up so I can fine tune this gadget the way I want it. So I’ll keep the title as “Search this blog” since that’s pretty straightforward, and I’m going to just have it search this blog so I will keep that check box checked. And click the SAVE button and now I have a Search box on my blog.
So as you can see adding various gadgets to your blog is easy and you can customize them to appear the way you want. And remember you can rearrange them on your dashboard by just clicking and dragging them into the position you want. Once you get the elements of your blog the way you like them – at least for now, and you can certainly make changes any time you want – then it’s time to start blogging.
What to blog about?
Hopefully you’ve decided what you want to blog about – perhaps a specific line of your family, or maybe you’re going to just sort of journal what you work on each day. No matter what approach you take, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, each time you write an article and publish it to your blog page it’s called a “post.” Post is sort of interchangeable with article, and posting is another word for publishing – basically you’ve made the article available on the web.
When you do post an article you will want people—particularly other researchers—to be able to find it. You’ll have better success attracting readers who are researching the same families if you sort of put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself, what will they be searching on? When someone goes to Google and starts looking for blogs about their family trees, they are using keywords to do that search.
So while you may have some very creative ideas for blog post titles, if you don’t include some of those important keywords (or at a minimum the surnames) they may never find you. And of course sprinkling keywords into your post will also increase its chances of being found. And when we talk about keywords, we’re also talking about key phrases, such as family history, or family tree. Other good keywords are genealogy, birth, death, research, location names, etc. Just the kinds of things you would search on if you were looking for people writing about your ancestors. Remember too that an ancestor’s name is also a keyword phrase.
It’s a good idea to mix it up because you never know how someone else will be searching. For example, I research my husband’s great great grandfather Senator C J Larson of Winthrop MN. So if I’m writing about him, I will use several variations of his name:
- C J Larson
- Carl Johan Larson
- Charles Larson
- Charles J Larson
- Senator C J Larson
And of course when I use these names in combination with Winthrop, Sibley County, Minnesota, I’m bound to be found by someone also researching him and his family.
Publish your first post
OK, well let’s get right to how to publish your first blog post. At your blog Dashboard (if you’re not there just click the link in the upper right corner that says Dashboard) and click NEW POST. This is like getting a new piece of paper. You’re new post is under the Posting tab and there’s a box where you can write your text and there are some formatting buttons along the top.
My advice is to bite off small chunks. People tend to read something that looks more like a magazine article rather than a novel. And it’s easier to focus in on one topic at a time. So you may want to make your first post a welcome message and explain to your readers what they’ll will be seeing in the future on your blog. I know, you don’t have any readers yet, but since all of your posts are archived, this post will be read tomorrow and two years from now. New readers can find you at any time, and they may very likely take a look at your first post.
The first thing to do is write your post title. I used to wait to title my posts until after I wrote them because writing them often brought to mind the perfect title. But the problem with that is that so often I would forget to go back and type a title in and I would end up publishing without the title. While you can go back and add the title later, it may show up in your readers RSS feeds including those who subscribe to your blog by email. So I find that it works best if I give it the best working title I can come up with, then I write the post, and then I can go back and change it if I want, but if I forget it will at least have a basic title.
Also, remember that your readers probably have many blogs they read – but they probably don’t READ them all, the probably scan the titles and click through to read the ones that sound interesting. So your title has an important job to do. Like the blog text it should contain keywords that will help the post show up in search results, AND it needs to catch your readers’ attention.
When I first started blogging I was always trying to come up with title that as clearly as possible explained what the post was about. But over time I realized that we don’t have to explain it all in the title. In fact, being a bit mysterious or intriguing with the title can entice the reader to click through and read. They’ll find out soon enough all the details of your posting, but your title sets the tone, and catches their curiosity. Of course I don’t advocate bait and switch – but have fun with your titles and use it to your best advantage. And now FINALLY it’s time to actually write your blog post! Of course you can unleash your creativity here, but I do have a few suggestions:
- Keep your paragraphs shorter rather than longer – it just makes them easier and quicker to read
- Incorporate those keywords and phrases
- A picture says a thousand words – add images whenever possible and I’ll show you how in just a moment
- Write in your natural voice. Typically blogs aren’t formal, and you will have an easier time writing if you write more like you speak. And that will come across as more genuine to your readers.
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you have a lot to say on a particular topic, consider publishing your thoughts in a series of blog posts rather than one really long one. And I find that readers really like following a series.
Once you’ve got it written up, it’s time to a bit of formatting. In Blogger there are a few different fonts you can choose from. Just like in Microsoft word, you highlight the text you want to format and then select from the drop down menu which font, and font size you want. The default font and size might be just fine, but it’s nice to know you do have some flexibility. You can also bold and italicize text by highlighting the text and clicking either button. And like Word you can use Control-B on your computer keyboard for bold and Control I for italicize. You can also put your text in a different color. Again just highlight the text to be changed and click on the capital T button with the color boxes and click on the color you want.
Now a word about formatting. Remember when we discussed that it was a good idea to avoid blog template designs that had dark backgrounds with light type because they are hard on the eyes and difficult to read? Well, over doing text formatting is much the same. It can get hard on the eyes. It’s like the rule of thumb that says you don’t type in capital letters because it looks like you’re screaming at the reader.
Well, overdoing the formatting with a ton of bold and italics and colors just ends up looking chaotic and nothing really ends up standing out. So keep in mind that less is more and use it sparingly so that only the most important things stand out. And just like in Word you can select whether your text is left right or centered justified, or fully justified. And you can create numbered and bulleted lists simply by highlight the text and clicking one of those buttons. And you can also use the Block Quote feature to set text apart as a quotation by indenting it from both sides.
With all of these formatting features you will probably want to see what it will look like to your readers. And that will be different to a certain extent than how it looks here in the post editor. To see it as it will look when posted, click the Preview link in the upper right corner of the text box. When you’re in preview mode the link will then say Hide Preview and to go back to editing or what they call Compose mode just click that Hide Preview link.
Next is the Spell check button, which is something you’ll want to use every time you post. Thankfully if you make a spelling error you can fix it after it’s posted, but it’s so much easier just to run the spell check before you do. There are a couple of more things you can add to this text post to spice it up.
The next button is the Add Image button and it does just that, adds your images and photos. When you click the button an Upload Images window pops up where you can browse your computer hard drive and locate the image you want to add, or if you have a website you can type in the URL address for an image you already have hosted on your website and it will use that image. Keep in mind that Blogger has an 8 MB image size limit, so you might have to reduce some of your photos and save them as smaller files to be uploaded to Blogger. This is often the case when you’ve scanned old family photos at high resolutions that create quite large files.
Once you’ve told Blogger which image to use, you can also choose how you want it to appear on the page on the left, in the center or on the right with the text around it, or you can just leave it as None. And you can also choose whether it is Small, Medium or Large. When you’re ready to go just click the orange Upload Image button and in a few moments it will be processed and you can just click the Done button, the window will close, and your image will now be in your blog post. Again, if you want to see for sure how it will look to your readers just click the Preview link.
You can even upload a video to your blog post. It works much the same way. Click the video upload button. A window pops up and you click the Browse button to locate the video on your hard drive. Blogger will accept AVI, MPEG, QuickTime, Real, and Windows Media video files up to 100 MB in size which is typically about 10 minutes at most. They also have rules about the kind of videos you can upload and require you to click the check box to agree to their terms of service, and then you just click the orange Upload Video button.
Videos take a few minutes to upload, so at first you’ll see the Blogger Uploading Video screen on the video player. You’ll see down at the bottom that it is processing. Once your video appears on the screen then you’re ready to go. If you don’t want to wait while it finishes processing you can click the SAVE button on your post and check back later to make sure it’s complete before Publishing.
And finally, if you decide you want to remove the formatting from you text you can do so with the last button which looks like an eraser. It’s called Remove Formatting from Selection. So in the case of the text that I set apart as a quote, if I want to change it back to regular text, I just highlight the text with my mouse and click the Eraser button and it will go back to normal. If you happen to know HTML you can click the HTML tab and work with your blog post code to further customize it. When you’re done just click the Compose tab to go back to regular editing mode.
Once you have everything formatted, you’ve spell checked and you’ve reconfirmed your title, your ready to send it out to the world! Just click the orange Publish Now button and it will immediately be live on your blog. The next window will say Your blog post published successfully! And you can just click the View Blog link to open a new window and see your published post.
Edit your previous posts
Now if you’re like me then occasionally you’re going to want to go back and edit one of your blog postings. And thankfully that’s very easy to do. Just head back to your Blogger Dashboard and next to the blue New Post button which you would click to create another post, you’ll find the Edit posts link. Just click that and you will see the articles you’ve posted with the most recent one at the top. If you wanted to delete the post all together you just go to the right hand side and click the Delete link for that particular post. To edit the post click the Edit link on the far left side of the post title. This takes you write back into Compose mode and you can make any changes you want. When you’re done, just click the Publish button.
Schedule posts to publish in the future
Do you want to write several posts at once, and have them automatically publish one at a time—once a day, once a week, etc? There’s an easy way to set up your posts to publish in the future. At the bottom of the Text box you’ll see a link called Post Options, just click that. This will expand the box and give you some options. Here you can enter the date and the time that you want the post to go live online. Once you’ve typed that in then just click the Publish button. It won’t be live right now, but will be published at the date and time you specified.
When I first started using this feature I kept clicking SAVE and then wondering why my posts didn’t publish at the right time. But you have to click the Publish button even though you’re not publishing at that very moment. It’s a neat feature, and works great when you’re going to be away but want articles to be published each day. Or like when we talked about breaking up a long article into a series of short articles, you could create them all and then set them to publish once a day or whatever time frame you preferred.
Now you probably noticed that you could also check a box in the Post Options for allowing your readers to post comments. But the best place to set that up is under the Settings Tab. So go to your dashboard, and click Settings. This will take you to the Settings tab which offers a lot of options. Click on the Comments menu link and here’s where you can make your selections as to how you would like your readers to be able to interact with you and your blog. Instant communication and connection with your readers is one of the really unique aspects of blogging, and you’ll find that most folks who read genealogy blogs are interested in a civil conversation. So let’s go through the options here.
- Show: I usually have this set to show comments. But you can hide them if you want.
- Under Who Can Comment? I would recommend that you allow anyone to comment. After all, you don’t want to prevent that long lost cousin who finds your family history blog in a search to not be able to contact you.
- For Comment Form Placement that’s just a personal preference, but I find the pop up window is easy for readers to use.
- Another important feature among these settings is the Comment message. And then next you’ll find Comment Moderation. I would recommend that you always moderate your comments, at least to start. This means that when a reader leaves a comment you will have the opportunity to read it and approve it to be published in the Comments section of that blog posting. That way you can eliminate offensive comments. Honestly, I’ve never received anything objectionable, but occasionally I do get people who are fishing for business and simply post “I like your blog” so that they can then tell about their company and give their website address. There’s no harm in setting it to Always and you can change it later if you want.
- Then at the bottom of the Comments Setting I like to type in my email address so that I’ll be notified by email if someone leaves a comment that needs to be moderated. And you moderate and approve comments in your Blogger dashboard.
When you’re done just click the orange SAVE SETTINGS button. And again, you can change these settings any time you want. So how do you moderate reader comments? Well, just click on the Posting Tab, and there will be three options:
- New post
- Edit Posts
- Moderate Comments – just click that link. And if you have comments that need to reviewed and approved or deleted you can do it there.
Let readers subscribe to your blog
And finally, let’s talk about how your readers can subscribe to your blog. That’s the other really cool thing about blogging. Each of your new blog articles can be automatically sent to your readers who subscribe. It’s just like subscribing to a magazine. We subscribe to a magazine so we don’t have to go to the store every day to check to see if a new issue has arrived. Subscribing to a blog is the same idea but of course it’s free. And like magazines being delivered to your mailbox, blog posts can be delivered to your readers blog Reader, or email box.
Your readers subscribe to your blog through your RSS feed. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication which just means an easy way to send out your posts. But you don’t have to know anything about RSS feeds. Blogger does it all for you and I’m really surprised how many bloggers don’t bother to make it easy for their readers to subscribe. Not everyone who wants to subscribe to your blog will quite know how to do it, or be an experienced blog subscriber. You will want to make it as easy as possible for them to get started. Here’s an easy way to do it.
- Go to http://www.google.com/webmasters/add.html. Here you can add an “Add to Google” button to your blog. That way your readers can easily add your blog to their iGoogle homepage or to Google Reader, a tool they can use to receive and read blogs.
- For Choose your content type select RSS.
- Under Promoting select one blog.
- Select the style of button you want to put on your blog
- Type your blog address into the box, which needs to be your rss feed. In my case, it’s http://blogyourfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/default?alt=rss. You substitute your blog name in where mine is currently (your blog name in that link instead of blogyourfamilyhistory).
- Click the Generate HTML button. The html code you need to add your button will automatically appear in the box, and it’s already highlighted for you so all you need to do is Control C on your keyboard to copy the code to your computer’s clipboard, and then head back to your Blog dashboard.
- Click Layout.
- Click Add a Gadget.
- Click the HTML / Java Gadget. A window will pop up where you can type in a title such as “Subscribe to this blog.”
- In the big box press Control V to paste the HTML code that you copied into the box.
- Click the SAVE button.
- Back on your Layout page you’ll see at the top that you the “page element has been added” and now the top gadget is “Subscribe to this blog”
Want to see what it looks like? Just click the blue PREVIEW button at the top and it your blog will open up in a new window and there you will see the “Add to Google” button. Now EVERYONE can subscribe and follow your blog quickly and easily. Just close that window, and click the orange SAVE button on your layout page. Now click View Blog and try it out for yourself.
Note: I talk here about iGoogle, which is no longer available.
Add the blog to Google Reader to receive each new blog post when it’s published, and have a link to click through directly to the articles and the blog. It’s very convenient and keeps your blog on the minds and lists of your readers. Now you’re all set to go. You can post your articles, which your readers can follow. As you have more time you can fine tune the settings and layout of your blog. Have fun! Best wishes for connecting with other researchers around the world.
In response to one of our recent tips, a reader named Sarah pointed out that there are services now to “slurp up” blogs and publish them into books. We’ll tell you about one service, but encourage you to shop around. At Sarah’s recommendation, we looked into Blurb.com. According to Blurb’s Web site, this online program works with several blogging platforms including Blogger, LiveJournal, TypePad and WordPress.com.
You can customize and edit your book in real time. The automatic slurp action imports and maps blog text, images and comments and then links it into professionally designed page layouts. What an exciting way to preserve your family history. What a great Christmas gift or Mother’s Day gift.
Once you are ready to publish your book, you can control the price by buying a hardcover, dust jacket, soft cover and other designs. These books can be up to 440 pages and as few as 40. Have a blog book within 10 days of ordering. Now, as you can imagine, this is a little pricey but still very, very reasonable. Prices start at just $12.95 for a 40-page softcover and go up from there. You get bookmaking software free!
Show Notes: Reconstructing with Ancestors’ Lives with Newspapers
In this video, Lisa Louise Cooke and Jenny Ashcraft from Newspapers.com discuss how to use newspapers to fill in the missing stories in your ancestors’ lives. Jenny shares strategic tips on finding unique information many researchers miss.
Interview with Jenny Ashcraft of Newspapers.com. (Edited for clarity)
For a limited time get 20% off Newspapers.com here. Use our coupon code: genealogygems
Lisa: Let’s talk about one of my favorite things, which is reconstructing the life story of an ancestor. Not just the names, dates, places. We want to expand that out to include the events, the people, what they did in their life. Newspapers really can tell that kind of story for anybody, can’t they?
Jenny: It’s true. We love those vital records, right? As genealogists we’d love to have those birth, marriage and death records. But what happened in between? Newspapers are a wonderful resource for kind of bringing color and stories to your ancestors’ life. How did their life impact history? How did history impact their life? You can try to find those stories and piece together a story of their life through newspapers.
Lisa: And the newspaper articles don’t have to actually name our relative to be really valuable in reconstructing their story. We can look at the family tree and see what we’ve found so far. We can find supporting evidence and information that helps tell us what was happening at the time in their life.
Jenny: Exactly! Because sometimes you might not find your ancestors name or a newspaper article about a specific event. But what you can do is create a context for what was happening, what was happening in their family, what was happening in their community, the country and the world. Even if you can’t find a specific article about them, you can still create a context for what their experiences would have been.
Lisa: Well, I know you’re doing to share your grandfather’s story today and I just think it’s a perfect example. We’ll use your grandfather as kind of a test case and have you kind of show us the reconstruction process. Where did you start?
Getting Started Using Newspapers for Genealogy
(03:17) Jenny: I started looking for my grandfather’s birth announcement and I couldn’t find it.
He lived in a tiny town called Panguitch, Utah. The local newspaper was just a short little run of a newspaper, only a few years. It was a weekly, and the birth announcement was not there!
I thought, okay, if I can’t find my grandfather’s birth announcement, I’ll look for the family. And I found a birth announcement for his older brother that was born just two years before him.
I started looking for other clippings that I might be able to find more information about my grandfather. I found just a few months before his birth. I found this little article about his father driving to purchase to seven passenger Paige automobiles. This is just months before my grandfather was born. And I’m thinking well, what is a Paige automobile? So, I searched for Paige automobiles, and found a picture of one. And even though my grandfather’s name is not in this clipping, but I’m starting to get a little context. This is the car that his father was going to purchase just before his birth. So that’s kind of fun!
All of these clippings they start to create a context for this little Norton family. My grandfather’s name was Lamar Norton. He was born in a small town in Panguitch, Utah. He was a father of seven, and a World War II veteran. I just wanted to learn a little bit more about his life.
Even though I couldn’t find a birth announcement, I started finding clippings about his family, his siblings, his parents, and it started to help me create a context for what the Norton family was experiencing in 1915 in Panguitch, Utah.
Lamar started to grow up. And his family moved to another very small town called LaPointe, Utah. He was living in the point when he met a young woman that would become his future wife. Her name was Velma Hollinger. I wanted to find out if they talked about their marriage in the paper. Was there a newspaper story? And what can we learn about their marriage?
Newspapers.com Marriage Index
(06:11) An effective way to search for marriages in the newspaper is by using the Marriage Index at Newspapers.com.
Our data science team at Ancestry, figured out how to use data intelligence to scour through all of the newspapers and extract marriage announcements and obituaries. There are like 250 million obituaries and 17 million marriage announcements. You can search for just marriage announcements.
Here’s how I searched for my grandfather’s marriage announcement in the Marriage Index. His last name was Lamar Norton, so I’m entered Lamar Norton in the Search tab. It brought up about 468,000 matches! So, I needed to filter the search. You can do that by using the button called result type and selecting. I could add a location and a date and filter those as well.
Next, I went to the map because I know the marriage was in Utah. So, I clicked on Utah on the map. This gave me 10 matches. As I looked through the list, I found his marriage announcement. This process allows you to search without going through all the clippings. You can search just for marriage announcements.
Lisa: That’s really slick. It’s nice that we can just run a simple search first, and then start making adjustments. We don’t necessarily have to mark everything on the very first search time.
Jenny: You don’t have to. There are so many filters. If you find yourself with too many results, start using those filters and narrow the years or narrow the location.
I happen to know that he was born in Utah. So, I just quickly added Utah onto that filter. But if there were too many things. I could keep filtering and filtering until I just have a very few results to choose from.
Lamar and his now wife, Velma started their young family and they had two little children. But this simple life for the Norton’s was not going to last because in just a very few short years, we went to war. The headlines of the newspapers announce the U.S. entry.
With a wife and two young children, Lamar hoped that he wasn’t going to be drafted. But when it came time to register Lamar and some of his friends loaded in a car and they headed to the registration office to register for the draft. Apparently, they discussed on the way who might or might not get drafted and everybody was sure that he was not going to get drafted because he was the only one married with two small children. Well, it was quite a shock just days later, when Lamar received notice that he had been drafted and had just days to report.
It was apparently quite a big deal in the community that this young father had been drafted. I was sure that there must be something about it in the newspaper. But when I searched Lamar Norton, I couldn’t find it in the tiny, small-town paper.
I started adjusting my search parameters and eventually I did find it was published in the paper. However, the quality of the printing was really poor. His name is Lamar Norton, but I could hardly even see that. When I adjusted my parameters to just search Lamar and Norton, in the right timeframe in the right town, that’s when I found this little announcement that he had been drafted.
Expanding Your Newspaper Search
(10:45) There he was heading off to war, knowing that my grandmother is going to be left at home with two small children. I thought, what was she going to do? What’s her life going to be like now that her young husband is heading off to war. She doesn’t know when he’s going to come back, or there’s always the possibility that he might not come back.
Asking questions about the story you’ve found so far can help you develop new searches. These questions that I had certainly prompted me to start searching for my grandmother in the paper. er name was Velma Norton. Sure enough, I found an article that shows that she decided to go home and live with her parents while her husband is off fighting. I just searched for her name, and then again, adjusted the search parameters for that same time period.
Lamar headed off to basic training, and in this training he learns how to repair tanks. They start training him to become a mechanic, and he was assigned to serve with Patton’s Third Army. Well, through the newspapers I learned that right before he headed off to Europe, he was able to come home one last time on furlough. I found a little announcement about it in the paper. He’s home visiting his wife and his two children and his parents. I find it very interesting also because of the date of the article, November 9, 1944. If you’re familiar with World War II history, then you may know that there was about to be a very big, pivotal battle in World War II. It was one of the costliest battles of the war. It was the Battle of the Bulge. Well, Lamar headed off to Europe, and for the next several months, he was involved in horrific fighting.
He came home from the war with something that was called Shell Shock. Today, we know it as PTSD. I remember, as a little girl, that if a balloon popped, or if there was a loud clap of thunder, he would just dive under the table. It was just kind of an involuntary reaction due to such tremendous fighting that he endured. There was one instance when he was repairing a tank. The track had come off the tank, and he was under fire in the tank surrounded by the enemy. Still, he managed to repair this tank and get the tank on the road. For that he received a Bronze Star.
Maybe you have an ancestor that fought in World War II or another military battle. Perhaps they came home but they didn’t want to talk about it. I know that my grandfather’s brother said at his funeral, when your grandfather came home, he wanted to forget what he had seen.
In addition to searching for your ancestor, search on other aspects of their life such as the battalion or unit they served in. If you know a specific battle that they participated in, you can learn about that battle. It’s just like we talked about creating a context. Even though all of the Battle of the Bulge newspaper articles I read didn’t talk about my grandfather specifically, I was able to get a context and understand this traumatic fighting that he endured and what that might have been like.
Another search strategy is to look for their obituary. Oftentimes veterans’ obituaries will list what unit they served in or what battles they may have participated in.
Lisa: Well, that’s a great point. We can take records we’ve already found and go back and pull those pieces of information off and then go search them in the newspapers.
Jenny: Yes indeed.
Now, the Third Army Patton’s Third Army, following the Battle of the Bulge, they started moving across Germany. On April 4, 1945, they came across a concentration camp, and it was called Ohrdruf concentration camp. This was the very first concentration camp that was liberated by the Americans.
These young men just couldn’t believe their eyes. They did not know what they were seeing. They came across soldiers that had been killed. They saw bodies stacked like cordwood. They just had never seen anything like it. They called to their superiors, and they said,” We have found something amazing here. We think you better come and see it.” And so, generals Eisenhower and Patton and Bradley all came. They said, “Don’t touch anything we want to see with our own eyes, what you’ve found.”
When they arrived, they were searching through this camp and they found the bodies and they found a pyre where there were remains from burned soldiers, as the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence. It was so traumatic for Eisenhower and Patton and Bradley that General Patton became physically sick by the things that he’d seen. Everybody was just astounded.
Even though I’m not seeing my grandfather by name, I can learn even more about his experience. I found and amazing article about a man who had been side by side with Lamar. He gave a personal account to their hometown paper when they got home from the war. This allows me to understand even more the impact that this experience had on my grandfather. It was just so sobering and powerful to understand what he has experienced! As I said, when he came home, he didn’t want to talk about it.
Newspapers as a Replacement for Lost Records
A lot of these soldiers’ military personnel files were gathered up and sent to the National Personnel Records Center where they were stored. It was in St. Louis, Missouri. Lisa, you’re probably familiar with the fire that occurred there. In the 1970s the facility caught fire, and between 16 and 18 million personnel records were destroyed. And so many of us that are trying to do research on our ancestors, we no longer have their military papers. Newspapers are a wonderful way to try to reconstruct their story and to understand the experiences that they endured while they were in the armed services.
Search Beyond the Time and Place
(18:35) Lisa: I noticed as you made your newspaper discoveries that you moved out from those very local papers that you knew where you were finding his name, and you’re reached into newspapers across the country for these kinds of stories from people who may be served right next to him, or who saw the same things he did. And I noticed some of these were fairly recent newspapers. It’s a great example that we can pull from something maybe from the 90s, or from 2005. Something like the soldier’s recollections article that you found. We have this wealth of information that spans so many decades and potentially holds these stories.
Jenny: You’re exactly right, Lisa. It’s common, particularly with monumental anniversaries, that you might see the newspaper going back to soldiers 20 years, 50 years later and saying, ‘it’s the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Ohrdruf. Can you tell us about your experience?’ For me, these papers were able to tell the story that my grandfather couldn’t. They were able to shed light on what he experienced when he wasn’t willing to talk about it.
Lisa: You’ve already found so much. What else did you pull out of newspapers?
Jenny: Well, now that he had endured the Battle of the Bulge, and he had participated in the liberation of this concentration camp, we are close to the day things were getting better, and the war was starting to wind down. It wasn’t too long until I came across a discharge notice. My grandfather had been discharged in October 1945. I was able to find that discharge notice in his little local hometown paper. I learned that his unit was one of the few units that received the Presidential Citation award, and that he received a Silver Star award. I learned about some of his military decorations.
So, that’s another great tip when you’re searching for your ancestors. If they were wounded, if they received awards, if they were taken prisoner of war, all of those are likely to be mentioned in the paper. Search for some of those things, in addition to battles and places and anything that might be able to help you reconstruct their military story.
How One Newspaper Article Can Lead to the Next
In 1945, Lamar came home. I found an article in a Salt Lake City paper. It listed all of the Utah soldiers that were heading home. At the bottom of the article, I found listed Private First Class, Lamar Norton. And what’s great about this is it tells me what ship he came home on! That gives me a further avenue to research. I can go to the newspapers, and I can learn about that journey. I can read about when that ship docked in New York, perhaps there was rough weather or sickness or a death on the journey. I can find out all about that now that I have the name of the ship.
I then found a notice saying that he has now returned home, reunited with his family, and parents and that he was recently discharged. So, their family is being reunited and moving back in together. And I’m continuing to put this story together. You can kind of see how much context and color these newspaper article provide for his military experiences in the newspaper.
Newspaper.com Search Techniques
(22:37) Lisa: That’s terrific! As you found each one, did you use any special techniques? Can we use things like quotation marks around his name as we can in Google? You mentioned in the very first article that you found that you had to separate the name Lamar Norton and not have the first and last name right next to each other because they might appear separately in an article or both names might not appear clearly to be read by the search engine. Can you tell Newspapers.com, I want this name to appear first name last name together?
Jenny: You absolutely can! At the newspapers.com homepage I can enter Lamar Norton. And yes, one of my favorite strategies is to add quotation marks before and after his name. That is going to only return results where those two names appear together in that order. Instead of every mention of Lamar, and every mention of Norton, I’m only going to have results that are in Lamar Norton.
Be sure to take advantage of the map off to the right side of the webpage. You will see all of the states have different colors. If there is a gray state, that indicates that there is no mention of Lamar Norton. The darker the color gets the more mentions there are of what you searched for. When I clicked on Utah which was the darkest red, I see there are 251 results for Lamar Norton. And it’s kind of cool right that it also breaks it down by county. I know that for a while Lamar lived in a number of these counties, so I can actually search through the various counties and see if that is my Lamar Norton.
Lisa: I see a timeline at the bottom of the screen as well, so we can really target one particular area of time as well.
Jenny: You absolutely could! You can also do that up at the top of the page. Maybe I only want to know about his military experiences. I can search 1941 to 1945. And I have 42. Matches. A lot of them are him talking about his military experiences. So many of these are the Vernal Express, the little newspaper in the area where he lived. I can use these filters by year as well. Maybe he’s landing in Utah and a New York paper does an interview. I don’t want to just have Utah results. I can remove the state, and I can make it as wide or as narrow as I want. I would really recommend just playing with the dates. Maybe your ancestor gave an interview to the paper about their World War II experiences, but it was in the 1990s. Don’t limit yourself. If you want to know World War II history, the information might not be in World War II years. You might find it at a later date.
Lisa: That’s a great point. And a great point about not necessarily limiting yourself to his state, because I did notice when he was coming home with the Utah troops that was a newspaper from New York, right?
Jenny: Yes, because the Liberty ship had landed in New York. Exactly.
Alerts for New Newspapers at Newspapers.com
(26:20) Lisa: Now I see an Alert Me button. I’m guessing Newspapers.com is continually adding newspapers all the time. Is there a chance that it can tell me if something new gets loaded onto the website?
Jenny: Yes. You can set up an alert. WE are constantly adding new papers. In fact, we hit a milestone a few weeks ago, 750 million pages of newspapers. You’ll find a counter on the home page. In fact, in the past week and a half, we’ve added another 5.3 million pages.
You can set up an alert for any search you want. Then, if there’s new content that meets the criteria, you will get a notice that there is a new article that mentions it.
Keep Searching in Newspapers
(27:23) Lisa: Any other tips about how people can find information about their ancestors?
Jenny: Keep searching! I found a newspaper article that mentioned something I’ve heard about many times in my life. It’s 1949, a few years after Lamar returned home, and he and his young family have a new baby and they are living in Clearfield, Utah. His little daughter who happens to be my mother was returning home from kindergarten and got hit by a truck. Well, you can imagine how traumatic this would be to this little family and what an impact that would have on their lives. You can imagine as a father, and that being your little daughter, how traumatic that would be and what an impact that would have on you and your story.
Lisa: Oh my gosh! Obviously, she survived all that. But it just goes to show that there are just so many pieces to the puzzle. I see many names listed in that article. I imagine that gave you a wonderful opportunity to search for some of those people too.
Jenny: And you know what, I know who these people are because they’re in my family tree. But if you didn’t know and you’re trying to discover your family tree, this would be a great help. People are rushing to the hospital, and there’s been an accident, and it’s a familiar surname. I can look through all of these names and ask, “who is Harvey Hollander?” “Who is Mrs. Harvey Hollander? “ I can do some research and search for her in the paper and get an idea of how she fits into this family and into this story.
Downloading and Organizing Newspaper Research
(29:12) Lisa: I see there are buttons for downloading and editing the clippings we find. We’ll definitely have you come back and show us how you organize all this stuff. Obviously there’s a potential here to find a lot of items and we’ll want your best strategies for keeping newspaper articles organized. Will you promise to come back and help us get organized?
Newspapers Expand Our Ancestors’ Stories
(29:34) Jenny: I would love to. And you know, when you are putting together a story for your ancestor, this is such a wonderful way to do it because they become more than a name on paper, they become real and relatable. It’s no longer just this sterile name. It’s a person whose life impacts your life, and you get to tell their story. And like you said, they don’t have to be famous to be mentioned in a newspaper. They don’t have to be a notable person. My grandfather was the most ordinary person, but I was able to kind of reconstruct things that impacted his life and must have impacted how he parented and how he raised his family. And that impacts how I was raised in it. We’re all connected.
Lisa: Very well said. Even with a man who didn’t necessarily want to come back and talk about his experiences, who was a more private person, you learned so much through your newspaper research.
Jenny, this has been fascinating. We all need to make our list of what we know so far about our ancestors and then go our and search these newspapers to find gems like these waiting for us. Newspapers.com is certainly a great place to do that.
Thank you so much for coming and sharing your grandfather’s story.
Jenny: Thank you so much, and I just wish everyone the best of luck as you dive into your own research. I’m so excited for you to find amazing newspaper clippings about your family.
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To celebrate my article in the new issue of Family Tree Magazine (co-authored with Genealogy Gems Contributing Editor Sunny Morton), I’m running a series of posts on teamwork tips and technology tools for collaborative research. This post covers one of my favorite free sharing tools: Dropbox.
A cloud storage service like Dropbox or iCloud is a dream come true for genealogy researchers who want to collaborate from across the living room or across the world. It’s also great for accessing your own research from multiple devices without ever having to copy it over: your home computer, laptop, tablet/iPad, smart phone.
Basically, Dropbox looks like any other file folder you keep on your computer. Open the folder, retrieve and save files to it like any other folder. But this folder lives online as well, so more than one person or computer (with approved access) can access it. You can save documents, images and other files in real-time. And it’s free!
What can you share on Dropbox?
- Research sources. Photographs, documents, audio files of interviews, materials from books, etc. Basically any source material you can think of that can be preserved digitally!
- Your to-do lists. Whether working alone or as a team, it’s important to have–and use!–a to-do list. The list should track specific tasks, like ordering an ancestor”s death certificate or searching for an obituary. For the article in Family Tree Magazine, the editors created a brand new Research Planner and Log: a comment-enabled PDF that lets you keep track of tasks, including when they’re done. This is a great document to use in Dropbox!
- Research notes and writing. Think timelines, biographical sketches, drafts of writing projects, GEDCOM files (the universal file type for family tree data) and any other files related to getting the research done.
- Links. Keep a file with your favorite links embedded in it, including links to digital books, vital records and other resources. You can simply copy and paste links into a word-processing file called “Links.” Include notes before or after each link, like “great local history blog for Marietta, Ohio.”
For more on using Dropbox and other collaborative tools on your tablet, check out my book Turn Your iPad into a Genealogy Powerhouse, available as an e-book or in print.
I also hope you’ll check out our article “Teaming Up” in the December 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine. You’ll find more technology and teamwork tips, including more on Dropbox for genealogists.
Check out the other blog posts in this series: