If you are new to historical newspaper research, getting started can be very frustrating:

  • It can take hours to determine which newspapers were published closest to your ancestor's home town and had issues published in the date range of interest.

  • Unless your ancestors have an unusual name, you'll quickly realize that you need to learn how to use all of the advanced search options to be able to find your people.

  • Reviewing all of the highlighted matching search terms in an image is tedious, and without a way to step through each match, you're never really sure that you checked them all.

  • You will constantly be re-entering the same search parameters into your browser as you try name and spelling variations.

After experiencing these issues myself, I decided there needed to be a better way. Newspaper research is challenging, so why not leverage the power of your smartphone to make it easier? I believe that mobile genealogy apps should not be the poor second cousin to web apps with reduced features. Instead, mobile apps should provide advanced finding aids, automate best research practices, and overall provide a better user experience than a web browser.

What it does

Designed for both genealogists and history enthusiasts, OldNews USA makes getting started with historical newspaper research easier than ever. With OldNews USA, you can quickly discover interesting stories and articles in historical US newspapers, using the Library of Congress Chronicling America collection of over 11 million newspaper pages from 1789 to 1922.

With OldNews USA, you begin by entering who or what you are looking for. If you want to find articles about a person, all you need to enter is a name, a date range, and a location. If you have ever found a person in a census, you already know this information.

OldNews USA uses this information to automatically suggest the newspapers that are most likely to contain articles about your person. Furthermore, it automatically creates search suggestions that you can use to populate the advanced search screens, without any additional data entry. The list of search suggestions contains variations of the person's name, since you never know how the name may appear in the newspaper (e.g. "William Nelson", "W. Nelson", "Mr. Nelson", "Nelson" and "William" within 10 words of each other, etc.). All you need to do is select a search suggestion and go!

When you view a newspaper page, you can view each highlighted search term by tapping the screen. The app will automatically zoom in to the next matching term each time you tap the screen. When you review the last search term, the app tells you that you reviewed all matches. When you compare this experience to using a web browser, you will never want to use a web browser for newspaper research again!

Find your ancestors in the newspapers using OldNews USA, and rediscover family stories that have been lost to history!

How I built it

I started by building an Android prototype to prove that it was feasible to display large newspaper images on a phone with limited memory, and then built the rest of the app. The app is a native Android app written in Java using numerous open source libraries. I developed for Android first, but am currently working on an iOS version.

I also designed the app to make it easy to support other historical newspaper sites that use the same server software as Chronicling America. Currently 5 US state websites use the same "chronam" software, and at least 1 other is currently under development. By swapping out some data files and changing some text resources, I can easily create apps that work with other historical newspaper sites.

Challenges I ran into

Huge newspaper images! The size of a typical newspaper image on the Chronicling America website is over 800 megapixels. Displaying these large images on a mobile phone with good performance and without running out of memory was a huge challenge.

Accomplishments that I'm proud of

  • OldNews USA is the first mobile app that makes historical newspaper research possible on mobile devices.

  • Location-based newspaper suggestions make it quick and easy to find the best newspapers to use in your research.

  • Automated search suggestions minimizes the amount of data entry and helps you learn advanced search options by example.

  • Every search is automatically saved, so you can quickly select any previous search and modify it with minimal effort.

  • Lots of features for the advanced genealogist, including automated source citations, automated research logging, and support for multiple research goals.

What I learned

Marketing and app monetization are very challenging.

What's next for OldNews USA

  • iOS version coming in 2017!

  • Apps for other historic newspaper sites - US states, other countries

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