Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Loss of Newspapers for Future Genealogists

We hear about the demise of newspapers almost daily now.  And all the news reports examine the great loss of true investigative reporting.  The loss of in depth stories from the nation and world.  I will miss newspapers, especially Sunday morning with my coffee and that big stack of pages to read through.  Having to get up and wash some of the blurred ink from my fingertips when finished.  I know that less trees will be cut down, but there will be nothing like it when they are gone.

As a genealogist, I feel another great loss, and that goes out to future genealogists looking for us.  

I guess, if I consider the scope of my research, newspapers have played a smaller part.  But oh, what a rush when discoveries were made, or validated, by those old news blurbs.  I found where my great-great grandfather was buried,  the family didn't know what had happened to him since he didn't migrate on with his son, my great grandfather.  But the obituary in the newspaper not only gave me insight as to how he lived his life all those years, but added new names in the list of survivors.  Relatives I hadn't previously known about.

I can say, my happiest newspaper discovery came only a few months ago, while accessing  Several years back, an aunt gave me a small photo album of another great grandfather.  It was clear that this little album was very old, c. early 1900's, and he and my great grandmother were on a trip.  The photographed a capitol.  I compared, from Internet photos, all the capitol buildings in the country and it boiled down to just a couple that looked just like the one in the photo album.  I presumed they were in Denver, as that was the shorter distance for a vacation from Nebraska.  In another photo, there was a horse-drawn trolley car. I broke out the magnifying glass, as I could see something was written on the side of the car - Denver Tramway Co.   Okay, mystery solved as to where they were vacationing.  But who were these other people in the photos?  Not my immediate ancestors, this much I knew.  

I suspected that the older couple with my great grandparents were my great grandfather's brother and his wife.  They too had migrated from New York and lived within a couple of miles of my great grandfather.  I also knew that at some point they left Nebraska for Washington state, but only knew it was after 1910, from the census.  I've never seen a photo of them, so could only suspect.  At a brick wall with the album, I put it away in a safe place, and I moved on to more pressing research of multiple lines.

This brings me back to, which I can access free from home with my library card, but it's an inexpensive value if you pay to join.  I began searching the surname in the state of Nebraska.  I find many, many things of interest, all providing me great insights as to their day-to-day lives and travels.  I had heard that my great grandfather frequently traveled back to western New York, and this was validated in little one line blurbs in his local paper.  I learned of, and read about, lawsuits he was involved in - juicy stuff!  But the thrill of another mystery solved came with the article of his brother's 50th wedding anniversary, and a lovely photo of him with his wife.  There they were.  The couple accompanying my great grandparents on their trip to Denver.   Not only did this article identify the mystery travel companions, but it gave the other siblings who were, or had, celebrated similar anniversaries, where, and how this couple had traveled to each of them.

200 years from now, what kind of personal record will be found on us?  Oh, there will be things here and there found on the Internet.  But there's something about that black on the dingy white newsprint that seems more credible.  After all, anyone can place anything about anyone on the Internet.  These real-life events in old newspapers, we know, were placed by our ancestors themselves, or by those closest to them.  Or, reported by the local reporter gathering the daily happenings in our ancestors' neighborhoods after a conversation with them.  

Did I say that newspapers play a smaller part in my research?  As I go through my genealogy database, I see I have sourced countless newspapers across the country.  These papers brought my ancestors beyond the names and dates I had previously collected.  They told me how they farmed, who came to visit, who went back home again, what contests they entered, who was feuding, and who they mourned.  I read about the loss of children, the loss of parents, the birth of children and grandchildren.  Of birthday parties, anniversary parties, and hospitalizations.  I felt a greater connection, these were people who produced me, and now I know them better.

200 years from now, will our descendants know us better?  Will they feel our joy through the years, and the pain and suffering?  Will they feel the personal and local qualities lent by the local paper?  Will they know about our neighbors and the part they played in our everyday lives?  Will they trust in what they are reading?  They might, because sadly, the newspapers could all be gone by then, and the Internet may be all their generation knows.  

I know the papers of today are not what they were in late 1800's and early 1900's.  There is more news coming from everywhere at the touch of a keypad.  And maybe that's the attraction of genealogy research for me.  It takes me back to simpler times, where the human interest story was important, when people weren't too busy to read what their neighbors were doing. Now we are just too busy.  And that leads to the demise of the newspaper, not enough time to read it, not enough sales in ads or subscriptions.  Maybe 200 years from now our descendants won't care what we did, maybe just the name and date will suffice.