Search newspapers

15 top tips for searching Findmypast's British & Irish newspaper archive

7-8 minute read

By Mary Mckee | January 25, 2024

How to search newspapers on Findmypast

Findmypast's historical newspaper archive collection is a potential goldmine of information on your ancestors. Here's how to make the most of it.

With millions of articles from thousands of publications, our British and Irish newspapers are an unrivalled family research resource.  Not only can you search for your ancestors in them, but they are also fantastic for learning about the world in which your relatives lived. Plus, it's always fascinating to see how historical events were reported as they unfolded. 

Navigating through vast collections of articles can be a daunting task without the right search techniques. To help kick-start your newspaper research, we've compiled 15 expert tips from our team of in-house newspaper gurus. 

You will learn how to make the most of wildcards, harness the power of phrases and search for multiple titles at once.

Got a question about the papers that isn't covered on our list? Reach out to the Findmypast Forum for help from our thriving community.

1. Get started for free

You can access millions of pages in Findmypast's newspaper archives for free. Simply select the 'Free to view' option from the 'Article access' filter on the newspaper search page.

Free to view newspapers on Findmypast

Access our free newspapers

Additionally, in partnership with the British Library, we'll be continuously adding millions of extra pages to our free-to-view collection in the coming years.

2. Begin with a broad search

Start your search with a name or keyword and then narrow down the results using filters. Findmypast offers various filter options such as article access, date, locations (place and county), and newspaper title.

By selecting multiple filters, you can quickly and easily pinpoint the information you're looking for. You can also sort your search results by relevance, publication date, or date added to the site.

Each filter you appear will appear above the results and you can simply remove them by selecting the ‘x’ if you believe your results have become too narrow.  When you select a filter or remove one, your results are instantly updated to show the changes. 

The filters allow you to search multiple titles at one time

Newspaper search filters on Findmypast

Do you want to only search your three favourite Bristol titles?  Use the ‘Title of publication’ filter and type in the name of the newspaper title you want to search. You can repeat this as many times as you like. 

3. Perform multi-name searches

If you are searching for multiple names, separate them using a comma. This ensures that the articles found contain all the specified names.

You can enter a full name and then a partial name to expand your search results. For example, entering 'Lloyd George, Bonar Law' would return articles with both names.

4. Optimize keyword searches

Our keyword option will make sure that all your keywords appear every article in your search result. The keywords can be in any order and any distance apart within the article. This flexibility allows you to locate relevant articles even if the keywords are not found next to each other.

By default, the exact option is not selected for you.  This will allow us to search for not only the word you entered but also the root of the word.  For example, if you search for ‘Fishing’ we will also search for ‘Fish’.  You can select the exact text box if you only want to search for ‘Fishing’. We don’t have an exact tick box on the name option because we will always search for an exact name.  

5. Harness the power of Phrase Searching

This is an excellent feature when you are searching for common terms. To search for phrases exactly as they appear, use quotes around the terms. The quotes ensure that the terms must occur in the specified order within the articles. 

The new keywords box supports multiple phrases, allowing you to search for combinations such as 'Sutton Coldfield' and 'rail crash' in a single search. You can also combine phrases with other terms to refine your search further.

Now this is where it gets really neat. We have developed a new experimental feature where you can also tell our newspaper search how many other words are allowed in between the terms in your phrase. After you add the phrase you are looking for, you can specify how close the words appear next to each other.  For example,

6. Negative keywords and phrases

Are you searching for one of those keywords that always appear as the name of a ship or a street? 

You can use a minus sign in front of a keyword or phrase, that will exclude articles that match that phrase or keyword.  For example, Britannia –Yacht.

7. Use those Wildcards

Like our record search, you can add certain symbols into our keyword search to tell us to search for words with variety of spellings. Wildcards are helpful for those deeper searches, and you want to make sure to pick up every instance words appeared. 

They help for searching those articles where the OCR isn’t 100% accurate and may have missed a letter or two.  Both a question mark ? and an asterisk * can be used as a wildcard. For example:

We have found that ? works with phrases but results are better in single terms. You can place the wildcard anywhere within a term - at the start, middle or end. They can be used multiple times in a term, for example, 'ebe*z*r'.

8. Look for the language of the time

When searching for specific topics, be aware of the language used during the period you're researching. If we look back at a historical moment from 1903, we see how important terms can be.

When the Wright brothers took flight in the first aeroplane, the world didn’t yet have a word for the curious new machine they'd created. Thus, searching for articles about the Wright brothers' 'aeroplane' won’t get you very far. Instead, you'll find articles about an 'airship' and a 'flying machine'.

There are multiple useful features in our newspaper search.

By considering the language of the time, you can broaden your search and increase your chances of finding relevant articles.

9. Check the coverage

To determine if a specific newspaper publication is relevant to your research, use the newspaper title filter and review the years covered by that title. We update our collection regularly - we'll let you know what's been added on the Findmypast blog, via email, and on each of our weekly Findmypast Friday live sessions.

It's always worth checking back regularly - you're bound to discover something new.

10. Stay up-to-date

We publish new titles and update existing ones with additional pages each week on Findmypast Friday. All the latest arrivals will be covered in your weekly email (make sure you're signed up to receive it), here on the blog, and on Fridays Live, our weekly community livestream.

It's always worth checking back regularly, as you're bound to discover something new...

You can also filter your search results by what was most recently added to our newspaper collection.  This is a great reason to come back and search again. You never know that the new pages we have added and what they can reveal. 

11. Look out for family tree information

Old newspapers often featured birth, marriage, and death notices, making them valuable sources for expanding your family tree. Birth notices usually include the names of both parents, while wedding notices may mention other guests or the parents of the newlyweds. You may even find notices for anniversaries and other special occasions - be sure to keep an eye out for these valuable details.

Don’t forget to cross-reference with other family records, too. If you're searching for specific details about your ancestors' parents, it's a good idea to check birth or baptism records before turning to newspapers. Once you have gathered information from multiple sources, you can compare and fact-check to ensure accuracy.

12. Understand how digitization works

The information in newspaper pages is automatically captured using optical character recognition (OCR) technology. While this method allows us to publish thousands of pages each week, it's important to note that the search results may not always be 100% accurate.

We scan millions of historic newspapers pages every year from both the original paper hard copy and microfilm. In some cases, the quality of the microfilm image is not great; this microfilm could have been used hundreds of times by members of the public. It was first created decades ago. Where we can, we try to correct the image quality.

13. Handy tools

Findmypast offers useful tools to enhance your newspaper search experience. The online page viewer allows you to zoom in and out, quickly locate search criteria on a page, and once you are finished, you can reset to see the entire page at once.

The arrows on either side of the page allow you to navigate through a whole newspaper issue. Full-screen mode makes it easier for focused reading, while the 'Search terms' button highlights the words you searched for, making it easier to find them on the page.

You can even download pages for offline reading.

14. Choose local, regional or national papers

Our vast newspaper collection includes lots of regional and local titles. Find the ones you're most interested in using the 'Newspaper title', 'County', and 'Place' filters to search for a county, town, or village. Local papers often reported on changes in infrastructure, such as street name changes, which can prove very useful for one-place studies or house history

'Town Talk', Woodford Times, 1869. 

They'll also sometimes have local affairs columns. The Woodford Times, for example, featured a section called 'Town Talk', which contained local London news from an external correspondent. You can also see how the national news of the time was reported in major papers like Daily Mirror, Irish Independent, and Daily Herald (the precursor of The Sun). 

15. Share your discoveries

We love hearing where your past has taken you, and how our newspapers have helped you to delve into your family's history. You can get in touch by dropping us a line on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. You can also tell us your stories directly, with this handy form.

By following these top tips, you can enhance your online newspaper searching experience and discover valuable information more efficiently.

Remember to use basic search techniques effectively, optimize your keyword searches, perform multi-name searches, understand the exact checkbox's behaviour, and leverage the power of phrase searching.

Happy searching, and may you uncover fascinating stories within our exciting newspaper collection.

More on this topic:

Share this article

About the author

Mary McKee