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Newspapers for Genealogy

I’ve been mentioning Periodika, an online collection of historical Latvian newspapers, recently. I talked about it a few years ago, here, but it has been updated and upgraded since, so merits mentioning again. Newspaper articles can provide an idea on historical events as they happen, certainly, but do newspapers have other value in genealogy?

They most certainly do! Even if you think “oh, my ancestors were just peasants, they wouldn’t be in the news” – you might be surprised. All sorts of events were described and recorded in newspapers, so you never know what you might find. As an example…

  • Many newspapers, particularly in larger cities, would publish marriage banns – that is, the proclamations that a couple were preparing to be married, so that if anyone had objections, they could voice them. These can be particularly useful for ancestors who were marrying in large cities such as Rīga, that have many churches, and if you don’t know which church they married in, you could have a long trip through the records ahead of you. But if you look at the banns, it will tell you which church they are associated with.
  • Similarly, many newspapers would also announce the births and deaths of people. If you don’t know which church those events were registered in, these can help guide you.
  • Arrests and revolutionary activities – if someone was arrested, convicted or accused of revolutionary activity (or any other crime), they would often be mentioned in newspaper articles. However, for the main revolutionary period – 1905 to 1907 – if a lot of people in one area were accused or arrested, they would rarely be named by name.
  • Town or parish council notices – if your ancestor was involved in local politics, their name might appear in the newspaper. Also if they weren’t directly involved, but wrote letters to the editor, that is another way that they might appear.
  • When getting into the inter-war era, many newspapers also reported on school graduates, sports activities, and so on. You could find out that your grandfather was a local track and field star!

There is one major advantage that Periodika has, when compared to Raduraksti – full-text search via Optical Character Recognition (OCR)! And unlike the previous incarnation that I mentioned in the earlier post, this one is not diacritic-sensitive, and will also find names or words regardless of declension. This is a great improvement over the previous version.

This does, however, come with some caveats – OCR is not foolproof. This is especially important when you consider that many of the papers are in the old Gothic typefont. The most common mistake I’ve noticed is that “w” is sometimes OCR-ized as “m”. While modern Latvian does not have a “w”, in the old orthography it was usually used in place of “v”. So if you’re searching for a name with a “v” or “w” in it and find no results, run the same search substituting an “m” for the “v/w”.

Old typefont means old orthography, which also means old spellings of names. This means you have to be up on your old spellings. My new Latvian Surname Project can help with that. Some other helpful hints: If the modern spelling ends in -sons, try the name ending in -sohn. If a name ends in -vics, try -witz, -vich or -wich. Any name that has “ie” in it, replace that with “ee”.

Of course, goes without saying that the newspapers are in Latvian, German or Russian (with some in Livonian or Latgalian). If you find something that looks promising, and you need some help interpreting it, don’t hesitate to contact me, and I can try to help you out!

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