Using Online Newspapers: the good and the bad

12 November 2009

I have been working on a talk Convicts & Criminals for the Mulwala Family History expo on 21 November and part of the talk is about the advantages of having Australian Newspapers online.

The really exciting bit is that I have found new information on one of my convicts, Richard Walker who arrived on the Somersetshire in 1814. There was an inquest into his death which I never found when looking for death and funeral notices on microfilm in 1832, the year he died. As it was before civil registration I wasn’t even aware that there had been an inquest. Richard’s total story is in the Resources section of my website – From Iron Chains To Gold Bars: The Story of the Walker Family and Its Descendants including the Evans, Potter, Bullen and Atkinson Families, 1814-1941. This discovery of an inquest was a terrific plus for my research and just so exciting. I will definitely have to do a sequel on the Walkers now.

I also did a search on my 40 year old Norwegian g g grandmother Osie Gunderson who decided to one day in 1885 hit her landlord over the head several times with a piece of hardwood without provocation and for reasons unknown. She was eventually released and the trial did not proceed. When researching this many years ago I found four references in the Brisbane Courier which were more informative than the court records. She still spoke Norwegian with some English but would not converse with the court appointed interpreter so the official record is not all that helpful from her perspective.

The four newspaper references helped me fill in more of the details although it is still not clear why she did it. By her account, he had been breaking her windows (but she rented a room from him so it would have been his windows he was breaking). By his account he thought it might have to do with his reporting her for cruelty to three puppies but his wife had recently complained about my g g grandmother’s obscene language but that case was dismissed. There is no mention of Osie’s husband and two sons other than her husband posting bail and a surety. If only one could go back in time!

Now the interesting thing is that only two references to her come up currently in an online search of Australian Newspapers for a number of reasons. Primarily ocr (optical character recognition) has its limitations and the original quality of the microfilm and newspaper might all make it very difficult to get a meaningful transcription and index. An added fact here was that she was Norwegian and both her given and surname were spelt in a variety of ways. So the lesson here is don’t assume you have found everything in a single search online. Cross check with official records or other information and search specific dates if you have them. I have been steadily correcting text for entries that relate to my families, as are many other researchers, but it will be a long time before it is all text corrected.

A third example relates to where I could not get the official records because they were within a closed access period. Even though I have been an archivist for over 25 years, I always find it strange that you can get information in the newspapers which you officially can’t see in the court records but that is an aside.

On my grandmother’s death she left me a box of newspaper clippings and photos with no dates or names of newspapers after telling me repeatedly she had nothing on the family. Thirteen years have gone by and I still tense up when I think about it even though I know why she still tried to hide things even knowing that I had already discovered most of it back then.

Anyway, one of the clippings related to her uncle who had served in World War I, was wounded in France and became a German prisoner of war. He returned to Queensland in August 1919. I could guess that the news clipping was probably in the 1930s. I was doing this research in 1997 and the prison indexes were closed and I couldn’t pin down the date.

Today a simple search of Australian Newspapers online brings up two references to him – one is the original clipping and another one. The records are now on open access so I should plan a trip to the archives one day when I am next in Brisbane. There may be other references not showing up and the official record will give me some dates to check against.

What I would dearly love to know is why was Denis Finn,  the son of Irish born parents using an alias Johann Romanov? It just seems such a strange choice or was it someone he knew during the war? Perhaps the reason is in the court or prison records giving me another reason to seek them out.

These three examples demonstrate how Australian Newspapers can assist your research even if you have been doing it for years. It offers a quick and easy option to revisit your research and find new information or information that you never knew existed. Be creative in your search strategies and I am sure that you won’t be disappointed.

Final word of warning – Australian newspapers is a highly addictive site and it is very easy to spend hours on it without even realising the time. Good luck.

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