Newspapers often provide personal information about births, marriages, deaths, legal actions, business ads, land transactions, etc. that the public records lack. However, newspapers may include any and all kinds of information, or next to none.
The local news columns in 19th and early 20th century papers will often include details that range from announcing a family's visiting relatives, mentioning the town in which they live, to social events, listing all who attended. They may also mention where a family moved. Since the middle 20th century, there have been fewer personal details found in newspapers, although a thorough search of all issues is still suggested because of this unpredictability.
Most newspapers are not indexed. If an index does exist, it may be found in a variety of places. The Wisconsin Historical Society attempts to collect any published newspaper index. These can be found by using the Library Catalog (formerly MadCat). Many indexes to newspapers have been compiled at a local level and may be found in the local library, or local historical society.
If an index is not found, it becomes necessary to search the newspaper issue by issue to find the article of interest. You will need to know the location and month/year of the event you are researching. Consider the following tips:
- Reading each issue of a newspaper for the era of your ancestor may bring up some very interesting forgotten family stories.
- Many personal notes (obituaries, etc.) are buried in the local news column. Be sure to check these columns.
- Look at all newspapers published in a selected town during the date in question. One newspaper may have different information than the others.
- Check local or national ethnic, cultural, business or organizational newspapers for family news. You will find our listing of these types of serials in the Library Catalog (formerly MadCat).
What the Society Owns
The Library has the second largest collection of newspapers in the United States, surpassed only by that of the Library of Congress. It is a national collection, spanning the period from the seventeenth century to the present, that has been developed to serve the needs of researchers not only in Wisconsin, but throughout the nation and the world. The holdings include titles published in each of the fifty states, U.S. possessions, and the thirteen Canadian provinces, plus an assortment of military newspapers published overseas. More than 4,000 titles are included in the collection, with Wisconsin newspapers accounting for approximately 1,600 of these. It should be noted that the out-of-state newspaper holdings are mostly metropolitan areas and not small local newspapers.
Many of these holdings may be found in the Library Catalog (formerly MadCat), although currently you will have to use the card catalogs at the Library to locate a complete list of our newspaper holdings.
For More Information
- Donald E. Oehlerts' Guide to Wisconsin Newspapers, 1833-1957 (Madison, 1958).
- Brigham, Clarence S. History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820. Worcester, American Antiquarian (Society, 1947)
- Gregory, Winifred, ed. American Newspapers, 1821-1936: A Union List of Files Available in the United States and Canada. (New York, 1937). Reprint by Kraus Reprint, New York, 1967.
How to Access These Records at the Society
Request by Mail/Fax
If you know the date of the event (day/month/year), you may place a research request with the Reference Staff. Visit Library Services for details about fees and procedures.
All of the Wisconsin newspapers and many of the out-of-state papers are microfilmed and are available for interlibrary loan. Contact your local library to place an order.
Who will you find?
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