Chronicling Their Lives Using Historic Newspapers

Basic search and navigation of the Chronicling America historic newspaper website of the Library of Congress

I am a huge proponent of using period newspapers for genealogical and historical research. Using newspapers, we are often able to tease out details of our ancestors’ lives that add color to otherwise dry facts. We’re also able to get a glimpse of how historic events unfolded during their lifetime, or what the prevailing opinions were about an event or issue.

One way to access this window on their world is by using the Chronicling America website, a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP):

“The National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress (LC), is a long-term effort to develop an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages. Supported by NEH, this rich digital resource will be developed and permanently maintained at the Library of Congress. [1]

Although the Chronicling America site has been online since about 2007, continuing improvements in search and viewer functionality and the growing database of digitized American newspapers have greatly improved its usefulness for researchers. Coverage has been greatly expanded, and the collection now has selected newspapers published from 1836-1922. Today, more than 5.2 million newspaper images are available from 25 states plus the District of Columbia. Another seven states received NDNP awards in 2011 or 2012; images from those newly participating institutions are not yet available. (Those states are: Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota and West Virginia). [2]

Main page of the Chronicling America website

Main page of the Chronicling America website showing newspaper front pages published 100 years ago

It is now possible to conduct a basic search from the main page of the site via the Search Pages tab. I am interested in learning more about my 3rd-great-grandfather, Samuel Fryman (1807-1889), so I run just a basic search using his name. A basic search can also be limited to a specific state or time period by making those selections using the drop-down arrows. In my case, I have opted to run the search across all currently available newspapers and years. Generally, I like to start with a broad search and will only begin narrowing my search parameters if I get an unwieldy number of hits at the outset.

Basic search terms: samuel fryman

Entering basic search terms: samuel fryman

By default, results are returned in Gallery view, sorted by relevance (determined by how many times your search terms appear on one page). I have received 19 hits with this search. Although it is not visible here, with one exception, all results are for Missouri newspapers. Samuel Fryman lived in Missouri the latter part of his life, so I know I am on the right track with this search.

Basic search results with terms: samuel fryman

Thumbnail images of actual newspaper pages are shown in Gallery view

Search terms are highlighted in red, so it is easy to see where on the page the search terms appear. It is also possible to see just a list of results without the images by clicking List next to where it says View. When using list view, I find that re-sorting my results by Date makes it easy to compare search results with a timeline of life events of my ancestor or person of interest.

I’ve chosen one of the search results at random (OK, maybe not so random – it had an interesting masthead) to further demonstrate how to work with search results.

The County Paper (Oregon, Mo.), 09 Jun 1882, p. 1The title of the newspaper, date of publication and image number (i.e. page) number all appear above the image itself. This is important information to record in order to create a source citation. I’ll also make note of the persistent link below the image in my research log (I use Evernote) so I can return to this exact image at a later date.

Viewing the image is quite intuitive. Just position your cursor over the image and use your left mouse button and click to zoom in. Click and drag with your left mouse button to move the newspaper image within the viewer.

Close-up of image viewer options

Alternately, you can use the buttons to navigate – zoom in, zoom out or view full screen. If at any point you get lost, click the house button to “go home” (return to your original view).

Once I’ve located my highlighted search terms in the viewer there are several ways I can preserve the image. To print or save the image as seen in the viewer, click Clip Image.

Search viewer with terms highlighted

The section of the page that appeared in the viewer is what will print, along with associated citation information. Note that if you choose Download this image the citation information is not a part of the image. The highlight on the search terms is also omitted when printed or saved from this location.

Print or download newspaper clipping

You can do more than simply download or save an image to your computer from the Chronicling America site. There are a variety of social networking and bookmarking choices available by clicking the green Share/Save button in the upper right, immediately beneath the search bar. Explore them all by clicking through the three tabs.

Chronicling America Share/Save optionsIf a particular newspaper sparks your curiosity, you can also browse other pages within that day’s newspaper by clicking in one of the yellow highlighted areas shown below:

Browse options

Browse other pages within the selected issue (yellow) or browse other dates the newspaper was published (pink). Highlights added by the author.

To see other publication dates of the same newspaper in calendar view, click in the pink highlighted area of the toolbar. Choose one of the issues by clicking the bold date link on any calendar.

Browse other issues

That wraps up part one of this tutorial on navigating the Chronicling America website. Believe it or not, there is much more available than what was covered here. In part two, we’ll look at Advanced Search, and do a comparison with searches on another terrific newspaper site, Genealogy Bank, available by subscription-only.


Post Script: No kidding. When I started collecting information for this blog post on 16 Sep 2012, the available page count was 4.83 million. Five days later, 5.20 million plus images were available. This is one website that is worth re-visiting often.


[1], accessed 23 Sep 2012.

[2], accessed 23 Sep 2012.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One thought on “Chronicling Their Lives Using Historic Newspapers

  1. Pingback: New Jersey Digital Newspaper Project - Ancestor RoundupAncestor Roundup

What's on your mind?