Stuck in the Past? Writers’ Resources


photo: Sirkku, creative commons license

Does the past haunt you? Do you want it to? Feed your need to know what happened years ago by perusing newspapers from the time. It’s no longer necessary to visit distant archives or incite an attack from your dust allergies, digitization has come to your rescue!

Because of my genealogy researches, I’m deeply interested in certain past events that are only dimly remembered—if at all—in family lore. You may be interested in the history of your neighborhood, your church, or some historical episode, large or small.

A Novelist’s Quest

Author Laura Town reviewed some of these digital newspaper archives in Word, a publication of  the American Society of Journalists and Authors. For her historical novel The Renegade Queen, about the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency, she wanted both facts about certain episodes and “feel.” What was on the minds of people in the period she was writing about? How did they speak?

Her novel included notable characters from real-life—Victoria Woodhull and Susan B. Anthony. There are biographies of them, of course, but Town discovered these biographies contradicted each other. That made it especially important to find out what people said about them at the time and led her to explore the newspapers of the period.

Digital Newspaper Resources

Although some of the resources below have a cost, bear in mind that public and college libraries may subscribe to these services, enabling community residents to use them for free. Read the subscription terms carefully; sometimes these subscriptions are hard to cancel and can be costly!

  • Chronicling America – a free site hosted by the Library of Congress, covering the periods 1836 to 1922. Although it contains thousands of newspapers, it doesn’t have them all. Still, it’s a place to start. I found the search function a little clunky.
  • New York “Times Machine” – Get your questions in order before you sign up, because it costs $8.75 per week. However, it contains every issue of the paper of record since its inception more than 160 years ago up to today, since access to it comes with a digital or print subscription to the paper.
  • com – the basic subscription ($7.95 per month) includes papers from around the world going back to the 1700s and is included in a membership with Searching for an individual within Ancestry can bring up genealogical and vital records information, as well as any newspaper article in which the person appears. For more years and more newspapers, the “Extra” subscription is $19.90 per month. Many public libraries have a membership in Ancestry, although I’m not sure whether the library version—slightly different than the home version—includes the
  • com – again, if your questions are in order, you can take advantage of this site’s 14-day free trial. It includes newspapers from many countries back as far as 1607 for some. If the website indicates the price after the trial period, I did not find it.

Town mentions several other, specialized and international sources in her article. If digitized sources cannot help with your questions, she also suggests the state archives for the locale in which the newspaper was published. Historical societies may have microfilmed newspapers, and if you have a narrow date range, such as seeking a birth announcement or obituary, they may be a useful resource.