Lesson 12 is all about finding and selecting online collections of newspapers that you can access, browse and search.
There are three types of online sites – free, subscription, and library/archive. The first two are self explanatory. The third requires that you have a library card at a library that has subscriptions available that they have paid for. Some offer remote access and others require that you physically be at the library or archive.
Free Online Sites
Once you have determined the type of site – how do you decide if the site might bear fruit for you? Here are some criteria to use:
Select a site that has a collection for where your target ancestor resided. Then do your search. There are hundreds of county, state and province based collections that may provide with you with newspapers that are not in the big collections. If you don't know which newspapers are available for your desired location, you can always use this Library of Congress database for American newspapers. It also shows where offline newspapers might be located in archives, libraries and other institutions.
Check the dates of the newspapers that are available in their collection. Don't bother searching if the location is right but the dates don't fit and vice versa.
There are specialty collections as well. For example African-American newspapers, Jewish newspapers, student newspapers, union newspapers, and even farming newspapers.
How to Choose a Subscription Site
There are a few subscription historic newspaper sites, such as Newspapers.com, Newspaper Archive, Genealogy Bank and British News Archive. How do you choose which ones to subscribe to? A lot of articles can be found in free collections, but their content is different than what is available from the pay sites. Here are a few criteria to consider:
Collections Available - just as in Real Estate where the motto is "Location, location, location" - the motto for subscription newspaper research sites is "Database, database, database." I get asked all the time if someone should purchase a subscription to site A. I always ask them first - for the states, cities or areas that they are researching, as well as the dates that their ancestors lived there, does the site have a collection of newspapers available? All sites have a list of what newspapers and dates are in their collections. Check those out before you buy.
Price and Billing Practices - some of the aforementioned sites are 4 times as expensive as others. Some have a monthly plan, some only bill annually. Some auto-renew and some do not. If you purchase a subscription it is incumbent on you to read the terms of the subscription as well as the fine print. As always with any purchase online - it is buyer-be AWARE.
Scan and OCR Quality - the index that the site has created is only as good as the quality of the original scan and the OCR software that they use to build the index. Were the newspapers scanned from originals or from microfilm, or from copies of microfilm? Some of the collections that I have seen have an extremely poor quality image displayed after selecting a search result. This indicates to me that the original image that they applied the OCR process to was degraded and hence the index certainly will suffer. In other words - your ancestor is mentioned but the scan was so lousy that the OCR process could not build an acceptable index entry with the correct spelling of the name.
User Interface and Searching Features – sites have different user interfaces - some are simple and easy to use; some have richer capabilities and features. I always like to try the "Advanced Search" features because that generally indicates the total breadth of capability. And one must read the Help documentation for each of these sites. Generally they will explain which type of search criteria can be entered, for example Boolean and proximity searches. Quite honestly I have heard many subscribers complain about not finding anything when they haven't even tried to learn all the search capabilities available to them.
Subscription collections can be a gold mine and if you are strapped financially, many of them have a short term free trial or other methods to access their collections inexpensively.
This topic has already been covered in Lesson 10 - Newspapers at the Library. I suggest that you refer to this lesson for much detail.
Good luck and Happy Hunting!