Web Guides: GenealogyBank

By David A. Fryxell Premium

Subscription data service GenealogyBank may be relatively new to family history researchers, but librarians have relied on its parent company, NewsBank, since 1972. Newsbank started with a simple database and print index to clippings from 100 newspapers, sold to libraries as a reference tool. Acquisitions—of Readex Microprint, Knight-Ridder’s MediaStream and the Evans Digital Collection of Early American Imprints—expanded NewsBank’s news and historical records offerings.
Today, the company is a leading purveyor of online newspaper archives, with content from the 1980s to the present from more than 700 titles in all 50 states.
But these riches were mostly under family historians’ radar until 2006, when NewsBank launched its first product for consumers rather than institutions. GenealogyBank taps NewsBank’s library databases and historical newspapers from the American Antiquarian Society to offer genealogists four record collections. Make the most of GenealogyBank with our guide to the site.

Navigating the bank
Most people equate GenealogyBank with newspapers, but its collections encompass even more. They total 260,000 books and documents—including content from more than 3,800 newspapers—with more than 1 billion names, which you can search separately or all at once.

n Historical Newspapers (1690-1980): Search 150 million-plus newspaper articles, obituaries, birth and marriage notices, and advertisements.
  • America’s Obituaries (1977-present): These recent obituaries and death notices total more than 130 million.
  • Historical Books (1801-1900): This wide-ranging assortment of hard-to-find printed items (not necessarily all “books”) includes family genealogies, local histories, funeral sermons and biographies.
  • Historical Documents (1789-1980): Military records, casualty lists, Revolutionary and Civil War pension requests, widow’s claims, orphan petitions and land grants are in this collection. You’ll find the US Congressional Serial Set, a whopping 13,800 volumes of reports, documents and journals from the US Senate and House of Representatives spanning 1817 to 1980; as well as the American State Papers, legislative and executive documents from 1789 to 1838.

GenealogyBank also offers for free the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), which you can find at other sites including FamilySearch and RootsWeb.

Opening an account
Getting around GenealogyBank is simple. Links at the upper right corner of every page take you to the home page, an About Us page, the Subscribe page, a Help page or a Login page. If you click the “remember my e-mail and password” box on the login page, you won’t have to re-enter this info every time you visit. (If you share a computer, however, keep in mind that others using it might be able to access your account and credit-card data.) Once you’ve logged in, three more links appear in the top right corner: Account Info, Logout and Renew Membership.
If you run a search and click a match, not surprisingly, you’ll get a pitch to subscribe. Or you can click the Subscribe link in the upper right corner. A monthly subscription, which renews automatically, costs $19.95. A year’s subscription (which also automatically renews) represents a considerable savings over the monthly rate at $69.95. GenealogyBank also frequently runs introductory deals, such as a $9.95 trial rate for the first 30 days.
All you need—besides your credit card—is a computer (PC or Mac), Internet access and a compatible Web browser (Internet Explorer 6.0 or higher, Firefox 2.0 or higher or Safari). You’ll need to enable cookies and JavaScript, which are default settings on most browsers.

Withdrawing records

The remarkable aspect of GenealogyBank’s content is that it’s fully searchable—every single word—and linked to digitized copies of the original documents. And it keeps adding content, especially newspapers and obituaries.
You can start a search right from the home page by entering a last name, middle initial and/or first name. Or click on Advanced Search for more options: keywords to add or exclude and date range. Hitting Begin Search on the home page automatically searches all GenealogyBank collections.

On the lower half of the home page, GenealogyBank collections are divided into two groups:

  • Historical Family History Records (contains Historical Newspapers, Historical Books and Historical Documents)
  • Recent Family History Records (contains America’s Obituaries and the SSDI)
The distinction is important when it comes to searching: Historical Family History Records databases aren’t indexed by name per se—rather, names are treated like any other keyword. When you enter a last and first name to search, Genealogy­Bank searches its historical collections as though you’d entered two keywords with the instruction NEAR2 (search for the keywords occurring within two words of each other). So, as a practical matter, it makes no difference which name, first or last, goes in which box. You could get the same results for Smith, John as for John, Smith, or by skipping the name boxes entirely and typing Smith NEAR2 John or John NEAR2 Smith in the keyword box.
On the other hand, Recent Family History Records (obituaries and SSDI) actually “understand” first and last names. So if you’re searching these collections, entering names in the appropriate boxes does make a difference.
In any collection, typing a date in the Date box can hone your search. 1804-1849, June 1840-August 1849 and June 6, 1840-August 7, 1849 are all acceptable date formats. You can even type in a single day, such as June 6, 1840. Keep in mind that news items and documents about your ancestors may have been published some time after the event.
Once you’ve done a search, the links in the gray bar on the left of the results pages will take you to hits (or searches, if you opted to search a single collection) in other collections. In Historical Newspapers, below these links you’ll see links to hits within specific categories (such as advertisements, birth notices and even poetry). Scroll down below your results to see options for refining your search.
You can always get back to the home page by clicking Home or the Genealogy­Bank logo. If you’re stumped, an Ask the Genealogist feature (click the circle at the lower right of the home page) lets you pose questions to Tom Kemp, NewsBank’s director of genealogy projects, and read Q&As from other users.

Narrowing the odds

Clicking on any collection from the home page takes you to a search page for just that collection. The Historical Newspapers search form has a drop-down box that lets you search only content added since a specified month. If you’ve already pored over the database, this is a quick way to check for anything new while skipping documents you’ve seen.
Only the Historical Newspapers collection lets you drill down to search within a specific locale or title. To limit your newspaper search to one or more states where your ancestors lived, check the boxes beside the states’ names. Click the state name to see exactly which of its cities are covered. On the resulting page, you can further narrow your search by checking one or more boxes by cities’ names. Click on the city name and you’ll jump to a similar setup listing newspapers from that city. Finally, click on a newspaper’s name to search just that publication. Here you can also check dates of coverage, which can be quite narrow for some newspapers.
GenealogyBank has  only 1899 to 1901 issues of the Phoenix Weekly Republican, for instance.
To see an alphabetical list of Genealogy­Bank newspaper titles by state, click the View Title List link for the collection on the home page, or on the newspaper search page.
The lengthy list gives the coverage dates for each, and whether the title is in the Historical Newspapers or America’s Obituaries collection.
Similar links take you to the title lists for the other historical collections. The extensive lists will wear out your scrolling patience, so search for titles that interest you by typing a city or other word your browser’s Find command (CTRL-F on a PC or Command-F on a Mac). You can sort the Historical Books list by genre, author or date by clicking on these labels at the top of each column. The same trick doesn’t work, alas, for the multipage listing of 225,675 Historical Documents.

Maximizing your assets

Keep in mind that all the historical collections employ full-text searching via optical character-recognition (OCR) technology. The OCR “scanner” occasionally misreads the page, so you may get incorrect matches: An article says “bolted” when you searched on Bolton, for example. Nor does OCR differentiate between proper names and other words—a search for your Stark family will also turn up phrases such as “stark contrast.”
But you can use the Include and Exclude keyword search boxes to your advantage. Once you’ve fine-tuned your results by date, try typing a place name in the Include box. To avoid false hits, try excluding keywords that keep polluting your results (such as “contrast” for the Stark family). Similarly, if your search for Ohio ancestors gets confounded with Texans of the same surname, type Texas in the Exclude box.
That’s just the beginning, however, of GenealogyBank’s searching prowess. If you’re still getting too few or too many results, try these tricks:
  • Wildcards can account for spelling variations—especially because there’s no Soundex searching—whether it’s the fault of OCR or the original document. Use a question mark (?) for a single wild-card character and an asterisk (*) for multiple characters (up to five). These are particularly useful when searching old publications in which, for example, the long s can look like an f (search for Bo?ton instead of Boston).
  • Quotation marks limit a search to an exact phrase, which could be a name (“George Clough”) or any other word combo, such as a place (“Sioux Falls”), you type into the keyword search box.
  • Boolean operators can dictate complex search logic. GenealogyBank recognizes not only the basic AND and OR but also NEAR and ADJ (adjacent). The latter two terms require a number, which represents the maximum word count that should separate your two terms. The difference between them is that ADJ is order-specific, while NEAR is not.
For example, Emily NEAR3 Dickinson finds any instance of Emily and Dickinson, in any order, within three words of each other: Emily Ann Dickinson as well as Dickinson, her sister Emily …
But Samuel ADJ2 Clemens finds instances of Samuel followed by Clemens within two words—as in Samuel Langhorne Clemens but not … Clemens. Then Samuel …”
Scanning the obits
Searching America’s Obituaries works much like the historical collections, except this database recognizes first and last names. Start with just a surname, unless it’s a common name. The same ? and * wildcards work here, and you can include or exclude keywords, such as place names, names of relatives who might be mentioned in the obituary, occupations, companies or organizations. Use quotation marks to enclose phrases (“naval academy”) as well as names of places or relatives searched as keywords (“Santa Fe,” “Juan Gonzalez”).
 The America’s Obituaries search gives you a Publication Location drop-down box to select any single state. Remember that this is the state where the publication printing the obituary is located, not necessarily where your ancestor lived.
Unlike other online versions, GenealogyBank’s SSDI database is updated weekly. It’s also integrated with the obituaries database, so a result for Sam Smith in Minnesota brings up a link to search for Smith family obituaries. You can search by name or Social Security Number; specify a year range for birth and/or death dates; and narrow your search by last known residence or the state where a Social Security card was issued.

Cashing in

You can refine your search using the options at the bottom of the results page. Historical Newspapers lets you refine your search by state (and ultimately by publication) and displays links to results by category—so you can, for instance, click straight to the 45 birth notices for Dickinson without wading through all 336,530 hits.
A drop-down box in the upper-right corner lets you sort results by best matches (the default) or date. Use the icons below the results to click to the next page of hits. There’s no way, unfortunately, to increase the number of hits displayed per screen.
When you click on the title of a hit (or on the preview image in Historical Newspapers), you get a view of the original document (America’s Obituaries and the SSDI display a complete transcription instead). A Highlight option at the top left of the record viewer toggles on and off highlighting of your search term on the document (though this sometimes doesn’t work right). Tools at the top right let you zoom, drag, re-center or maximize the image, download it or print it. In Historical Newspapers, click the newspaper-page icon to see the entire page; then click to select an individual article.
Links to the left of the image list all your hits within this publication. If you’d really rather browse through all the pages, regardless of whether your search term appears thereon, click the “List all pages in this issue” link.
GenealogyBank can prove hit or miss: You may find a wealth of information or you may come up empty. The newspaper coverage varies, and unlike wider-ranging subscription sites, there’s no search of censuses, vital records and the like. But it’s a great site to try for recently deceased kin—whose obituaries can unlock clues taking you far back in time—or when you’ve hit a brick wall. Those ancestors who’ve been “hiding” from you might turn out to be, well, like money in the bank.
Bookmark our GenealogyBank Cheat Sheet, with quick links, resources and search hacks.
Vital Statistics
Web address: <>

Owner: NewsBank, 4501 Tamiami Trail N., Suite 316, Naples, FL 34103, (800) 762-8182
Subscriptions: $19.95 monthly; $69.95 annually
  • More than 250,000 documents and books with more than 1 billion names
  • More than 186 million news articles
Major Content Collections
  • Historical Newspapers (1690 to 1980): articles from more than 2,400 titles published in the United States
  • America’s Obituaries (1977 to today): 130 million obituaries
  • Historical Books (1801 to 1900): genealogies, local histories, funeral sermons and biographies
  • Historical Documents (1789 to 1980): military casualty lists, pension requests, widow’s claims, orphan petitions, US Congressional Serial Set and the American State Papers
  • Social Security Death Index (updated weekly)

1972 NewsBank founded
1984 Acquires Readex Microprint Corp., expanding into government and historical documents
2002 Acquires Evans Digital Collection of Early American Imprints
2006 GenealogyBank launches
2007 GenealogyBank adds more than 40 million historical newspaper articles
2008 GenealogyBank adds Social Security Death Index
2009 New tools allow more targeted searching

From the December 2009 Family Tree Magazine