One sign of the growing popularity of genealogy in general — and online genealogy in particular — is the entrance into the field of established players from other parts of the electronic-information universe. NewsBank, for example, has been supplying information products to public and academic libraries for more than 35 years. It offers libraries and other institutions searchable databases that include more than 2,000 newspapers, plus newswires, transcripts, business journals, periodicals, government documents and other publications. Now NewsBank is turning its attention to the genealogy market, offering individual consumers online access to millions of records from its digital vaults for a $19.95-per-month introductory price.
GenealogyBank <www.genealogybank.com>, NewsBank’s new service for family historians, promises digital images of pages from 100,000 books, 22 million obituaries from more than 700 newspapers, thousands of historical documents and a growing full-text collection of old newspapers. NewsBank also will market the service to its library customers as America’s GenealogyBank. The company has the resources and database expertise to challenge Ancestry.com <Ancestry.com >, particularly Ancestry’s Historical Newspaper Collection and Obituary Collection.
Searching GenealogyBank is simple — almost too simple, as we’ll see. You type in a last name, then add an optional first or middle name. With the advanced search, you can specify keywords to include, keywords to exclude and a date range. You can search all the databases at once, then click on a summary of hits to see your results. In the Historical Newspapers database, results include a little preview of the actual image, zoomed in on your search term — very slick. Once you click through to a full image, you can zoom in or out and download the image as a PDF, which you can then print or save.
The Historical Newspapers database lets you search publications from 1690 to 1977, covering 500,000 issues of more than 1,300 newspapers, with more being added monthly. The most complete coverage comes from a few major metropolitan papers such as the Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury and Richmond (Va.) Enquirer. Otherwise, the collection varies widely by state and region; you may find that your ancestral stomping grounds are represented by only a smattering of publications spanning just a few years or months. Alabama, for instance, has just five newspapers (none from Birmingham, Montgomery or Mobile), and the most complete of those covers less than five years. Of the nine titles in North Carolina, the best coverage is the Charlotte Observer, 1892 to 1913. Pennsylvania researchers, on the other hand, can search some 90 different titles including the Inquirer from 1860 to 1918 and the Pennsylvania Gazette from 1728 to 1815.
How does this database compare to Ancestry.com’s 16 million pages from more than 1,000 newspapers? It’s tough to say for sure. Both sites show you a year range for coverage of each title, but you have to dig deeper to see how many actual issues the database contains within that range. Our spot check gives a slight edge to GenealogyBank. Ancestry.com’s collection has just three Alabama titles, mostly from the 20th century, and its 11 North Carolina newspapers include only three from the 1800s. Although Ancestry.com’s 94 Pennsylvania titles stack up pretty well, it has no newspapers from Philadelphia and nothing from the 1700s. Of course, you’ll want to do your own comparison for your ancestral stomping grounds.
GenealogyBank also draws on its News Bank newspaper-database roots for its America’s Obituaries collection. This is an extensive database of recent death notices — starting in 1977, but mostly from the 2000s — so don’t expect to find long-ago ancestors here. With 22 million obits, GenealogyBank far outnumbers Ancestry.com’s 9 million-entry Obituary Collection, which also concentrates on recent deaths. (Ancestry.com has added ProQuest’s <www.proquest.com> historical obituaries from eight major newspapers, too.) For other 20th-century deaths, GenealogyBank adds the Social Security Death Index, available elsewhere for free.
GenealogyBank’s other two databases are more problematic, despite their exciting potential. The Historical Books collection provides the complete, searchable text of more than 17,000 books, pamphlets, funeral sermons, local histories, biographies and the like, all prior to 1900. The Historical Documents database serves up more than 81,000 reports, lists and documents from 1789 to 1930. It includes military records, Revolutionary and Civil War pension claims, orphan petitions, land grants, the complete American State Papers (1789 to 1838) and genealogical content gleaned from the US Serial Set (1817 to 1930).
All this sounds great, but actually finding anything here about your ancestors may prove frustrating. There’s simply too much non-genealogical content to slog through, and GenealogyBank’s simple search form doesn’t do a stellar job of zooming in on your ancestors. You’re unlikely to glean much for your family tree from “several poems compiled with great variety of wit and learning” by Anne Bradstreet, for example, or the 1856 concert program from an exhibition of an organ built by Mr. E.L. Holbrook for the Third Baptist Church of Worcester, Mass.
Similarly, my search for Clough ancestors in Virginia and Georgia — using these states as keywords — turned up 338 historical documents. But none among the “best matches” — such as “Annual report of the Attorney General of the United States for the year 1901” or “Overtime claims of letter carriers” — looked of much use. Yes, the digitized image of the latter revealed a Ben Clough, but in Massachusetts, as my keywords seemed simply ignored. Clicking Refine Your Search brought up the same limited search box, where adding a first name (George) narrowed my results to 28 useless hits (such as an 1883 pension record for a George Baker in New York!). At least hits are highlighted in red on the original document image — a nifty technological trick — so you can quickly see if they’re really misses.
You can stumble across some fun information in these databases — I discovered my great-great-uncle patented a ratchet screwdriver in 1887. But the genealogical gems take more digging than in similar collections, such as HeritageQuest Online’s Family and Local Histories.
At least for now, GenealogyBank is unlikely to replace your current genealogy-database subscriptions. Its newspaper database in particular, though, may reward your $19.95 for a month’s usage, and its obituaries collection could solve a mystery or two about recent kin. You may have more luck than I did with its other offerings — or at least discover you have an inventor, a poet or an organ builder in the family tree.