Saturday, October 17, 2015

Tip: Don't Just Rely on the Search Function When Using Newspaper Databases

"Dehesa Doings," San Diego Union (San Diego, CA), p 5, col 4, 8 Aug 1892; digital image, ( accessed 17 Oct 2015).

The info above was found doing a "Hartley" search.  Since newspapers often had recurring columns I thought to search "Dehesa Doings" to possibly find other tidbits in other issues.  But instead I got this:

Oh, come on, I just found Dehesa Doings three minutes ago!
I am assuming the optical character recognition just doesn't read it as Dehesa Doings (and who knows what it thinks it says).  While it may not be an ongoing column like I thought, the term "Dehesa Doings" DOES appear at least once for sure!  So what should I do?

I went page by page through other issues close in time to this one.  This is a bit tedious, but not only can it help you catch information missed by OCR, it also gives you a feel for what the newspaper was like and what kind of information you can realistically expect to glean from it.

Unfortunately I haven't found a graceful way to search newspapers this way on GenealogyBank, as they don't provide an easy way to browse papers--you have to search through them, which is different.  So I narrowed down to the specific paper I wanted, and then typed in a date range (in this case San Diego Union and August 1892--alternately, you could just type in a specific day and year):

Then I ordered by Oldest (you an order by Oldest, Newest, and Best):

Note the varying quality of the scans, even in one issue (in this case, all the results in this screenshot are from the August 1, 1892 issue).
No wonder the OCR doesn't find every word from the scanned images--just look at what it has to contend with!

After looking at a number of issues I realized that "Dehesa Doings" was not a regular heading, but I could depend on page 5 in any given issue in that era for information on local people, with the leading title "Local Intelligence. In General.":

"Dehesa Doings" in the larger context.

Every newspaper database I've used has to deal with the same OCR problems.

Many states now have historic newspapers to browse through, like the Historic Oregon Newspapers.  I use this database to find my Oregon ancestors.  When a search for my 2nd great grandfather William Nosler's death notice or obituary came back with no results, I used his known death date (3 Dec 1914 in Coquille, Oregon) to narrow down and search page-by-page, issue-by-issue, to find his obituary:
No doubt the fuzzy print threw off the OCR.  This example also shows how discrepancies can occur in newspapers--the Oregon death index indicates he died on the 3rd, while this report indicates he died on the 5th.  Mrs. George Hartley is my great grandmother Minnie (Nosler) Hartley"Dies in Coquille," The Coos Bay Times--Evening Edition (Marshfield, Oregon), 7 Dec 1914, p 1; digital image, Historic Oregon Newspapers ( : accessed 17 Oct 2015).

Here is the obituary in the larger context:
These obituaries are often found later in the issue, but more well-known citizens' obituaries might be featured on the front page.

Oh, so maybe I should have searched for William H. Nosler, then?  Nope (and using capitals or not didn't matter, either):

But I just found his obituary in there!

While using Search is a great way to use newspaper databases like GenealogyBank or Historic Oregon Newspapers, it is really just the tip of the iceberg. You've got to really spend some time looking at newspapers, page by page, to know how to use them.

© 2015 Copyright, Christine Manczuk, All Rights Reserved.


  1. Thanks to Randy Seavers "Best of" for highlighting your blog. Excellent post. I search newspapers all the time and sometimes I hit pay dirt and other times I scratch my head. Your examples have given me other ideas that may come in handy. I do wish we could more easily browse the offers on Genealogy Bank. The subscription site is particularly frustrating to me. It seems that they just never have anything I need.
    Thank you for this post. My blog:

    1. Thank you, Diane!

      "sometimes I hit pay dirt and other times I scratch my head."

      That is SO true. I think some of my ancestors just weren't on the local newspaper man's radar, I guess.

  2. Your last statement is so very true. In one of the towns of my ancestors there were multiple newspapers and each seemed to have a different focus. One offered primarily national and state news with a smattering of articles about local events and people while another was the gossipy news which focused on the goings-on among the people in town. Knowing that tells me which newspaper to search first, depending on what I hope to find.

    Also, as you point out, knowing the regular columns helps, too.

    Thanks for the detailed post about your newspaper search methods.

    1. Thanks Nancy!
      Although I don't like when people say gossipy things about me, I hypocritically love those old newspapers when they give insight to our ancestors that census records just can't provide. :-)