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This may be an unresolvable question, but I am looking for advice on how to search archives for a person with a surname that is also a common word. Specifically, newspaper archives, etc. in which the records are not just about people's life events. I have an ancestor named John Short, and as you may imagine, a search in such a database, even with the name in quotations, turns up more false positives than I can check up on. He was also quite accomplished in his time, so it is worth it to for me to look for newspaper articles about him and his family. Any suggestions?

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  • Not all places have this, but if you can specify case-sensitive search youll be so much better, as in "Short" wont show results with "short" Jan 18 at 7:04

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It's very challenging to search newspapers when your person has a common word as part of their name. My surname list includes Green, Brown, White, Burns, and Young. Many of the techniques listed below are adapted from my searches for challenging long surnames that are difficult to search because of bad OCR or spelling variants that were difficult to predict. The main idea is to find ways to make your articles "pop" in the search results without directly searching for your person's name. Be creative!

Be on the lookout for any databases where someone has already indexed the papers by name. (See resources list at the bottom of the answer.) Use these as a way to get a foothold and an entry point for further searches.

Start by learning all the tools available to you at each newspaper website, especially any features that allow you to do a proximity search. Does the site have a filter that allows you to search specifically for advertisements, or to screen them out?

Next, collect all the identifiers you can, because you'll want to search for keywords which are not his name, or that can be searched in combination with his name. Make a list of schools, employers, different keywords associated with his professions, names of family members, associates and neighbors. Collect the place names and street addresses associated with him, especially neighborhood names that you wouldn't necessarily use to search in other databases. Search for family members and the people around him, especially for married daughters and sisters whose surname may be different than his.

When he takes place in events, search for articles about the event. Even if your person is not listed, these articles will be useful for context that will help you in other research.

Once you do find an article, examine it carefully. Have you thoroughly analyzed the article? Note what information appears in the articles. Use what you find to inform your next search for more articles.

For example: if a noted aircraft designer dies in an incident while testing the aircraft, do they tell you:

  • the name of the company that built the aircraft
  • the name or model number of the aircraft
  • the names of other people on board
  • the school where he earned an engineering degree

What language does the newspaper use to talk about the incident (is it an incident, accident, crash, etc.)? All of these pieces of information can be searched for instead of or in addition to his name.

Don't assume that the first article you find will have the most complete coverage of an event. Do take into account how long it might take for news to go across the country, and look for follow-up articles (e.g. time will elapse in between the incident and the funeral of the abovementioned aircraft designer who was killed.)

If you can see the underlying OCR text, look at it and see what OCR errors are in the text. You can search for the same mis-read OCR text to see if you can find more articles. (See Win The OCR Text Battle – Change the Letters in Your Search and other articles about newspaper research methodology at The Ancestor Hunt.)

Do you know all the newspapers that covered the geographical area in which he lived? Use resources like the search U.S. Newspaper Directory, 1690-Present and the Directory of U.S. Newspapers in American Libraries at the Library of Congress to learn more about which newspapers were published in a particular area.

Keep track of the places where relatives lived, because articles might appear in their area newspapers. You may find articles about John Short because they include the information that his sister lives in the area. Note that articles may refer to her as "Mrs. Husband's Name" so search for her husband's name as well as by her own first name or by her maiden name.

Keep a timeline of events and search around the anniversary of those dates for "25 years ago" features and other retrospectives. Newspapers often published "year in review" articles around New Year's Day, so it is worth looking at the January 1st issues or the early January issues of any area papers to see what items are listed in those articles.

Keep track of how you are searching, so that when you find successful strategies, you know what keywords you searched for, and you can repeat that search again with other papers.

Also, don't limit yourself to the main newspaper sites. Look for ephemera at the Internet Archive, for collections of church newspapers and periodicals if you know John Short's religion, for fraternal organization magazines if he was a member of an organization, for employee newsletters and organization reports. Any tightly-focused publication may give you fewer articles to search, thus cutting down the number of hits that you would have in a huge database.

Another technique you can try is to cut down the date range of searches to limit the number of hits. Work systematically and record what you searched. Take advantage of features found on sites like Genealogy Bank to search only the new issues which have been added since your last search.

I have left this note to the very last, but this might be a good first step before undertaking any new research. Choose a paper published in the area where John Short lived, and read an entire issue cover to cover. Note the layout of the paper, where the obituaries are, what features appear like "25 years ago". Is area news separated by columns for each town in the surrounding area? How far away are the towns from the main city where the paper is published? Note how streets are abbreviated, how names are listed, what keywords appear for obituaries and wedding announcements. Take note of what local news items appear, about clubs and schools, sports, local celebrations.

The better you know his community, the easier it will be to find the people around John Short and thus to find out about him.

Resources:

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