Subscription data service GenealogyBank may be a go-to for 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.
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.
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- Historical Documents (1789-1980): Military records, casualty lists, Revolutionary and Civil War pension requests, widow’s claims, orphan petitions and land grants are in this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.
Navigating the Site
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.
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.
Step 1: The simplest way to search GenealogyBank is to enter an ancestor’s last name and first name in the boxes on the home page and hit Begin Search. Here, we’re looking for Garrett Oglesby.
Step 2: If your search has found potential matches, the site will show you how many hits you have and in which collection(s). To go straight to the results in any collection, click on the blue link.
Or you can refine your search by typing keywords to include (or exclude). Place names work well as keywords. You can also narrow your results by typing a date range.
Step 3: When you have a manageable number of results (here we narrowed it down to 109 items, all in Historical Newspapers), click to see the list of your hits. You can sort by oldest or newest items using the Sort By link at the top of your matches list.
Click on the headline (or “No headline”), or in Historical Newspapers, the preview image, to see the document.
Step 4: You can zoom in or out; move around the image by dragging it with your mouse or clicking on the thin gray bars framing the image.
A bull’s-eye icon re-centers the page. Click the newspaper icon and then on part of the page to center there. Click on the PDF icon to download the image to your computer, or the printer icon to print. The article itself may not contain the newspaper title and date, so be sure to note this information on your printout or in the article’s file name.
Tips on Searching Within a Collection
Step 1: Click Historical Newspapers on the home page. Click the box by one or more states if you want to search papers from the entire state, or click the state name to see cities with coverage in GenealogyBank’s collection.
Step 2: Click the box by a city to search all papers from that city—the map will show you a big dot where the city is located. Or click a city name to see newspaper titles covering the area.
Step 3: Click the state or city name in the breadcrumb trail to return to either listing. Or you can click a newspaper title to see coverage years. Click boxes by one or more newspaper titles to search just those papers, or leave them blank to search them all.
Once you’ve reached the state, city or newspaper where you want to search, type in your terms and then click search.
Narrowing your searches
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 searches
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 obituaries
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.
Tips on Searching Obituaries
Step 1: Click the America’s Obituaries collection title on the GenealogyBank home page. This database recognizes names as a special type of data, rather than just a keyword. Try entering only the person’s last name. If your family’s name has several possible spellings (such as Stow and Stowe), use wildcards.
Step 2: If you get too many hits, you can add keywords such as the person’s occupation, employer, organizations or religion to narrow the search. The dropdown box lets you limit the search to publications from any single state.
Step 3: The addition of a few extra search criteria can quickly hone your results to a more manageable number—and may put the article about your kin right on top of the list, because Best Matches is the default. You also can sort your matches by oldest or newest items.
Step 4: Clicking on the obituary headline jumps to a complete transcription. To print an obituary, use your browser’s Print command.
Cashing in on search results
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.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2009 issue of Family Tree Magazine.