Online Keyword Search Research Strategy

By April 28, 2022Research Tips

Pat has been contributing articles to History Unfolded since 2016. As of spring 2022, she has submitted more than 10,000 entries to the project. We recently asked Pat for suggestions and tips on how to conduct online keyword searches for historic newspapers.

Here’s Pat:

I have a small notebook. Each page is set up like this: Event, Date, Keywords, and Date range.

Here is the notebook Pat uses

If the listed keywords in the “Frame Your Search” section of each History Unfolded event module page prove unfruitful, they are crossed off. As new words are found, they are added to my notebook.

  • German Law Authorizes Sterilization for Prevention of Heredity Diseases (7.14.33) added “health court”
  • Marian Anderson Performs at the Lincoln Memorial (4.9.39) added “Negro contralto”
  • Massive March on Washington Planned (1.22.41) “Pullman”
  • FDR Shelters Refugees in Oswego, NY (6.12.44) “Free Port Plan”

Ideally, using quotes will bring that exact phrase.

Beneath this, in pencil, I jot down previously identified articles for the paper I’m exploring. I list the date, page and first word of the article title.

These are some of the things I’ve noticed when searching the archives:

  • Events with a Jewish focus: I use Jew OR Jews OR Jewish as the search phrase. I’ve gotten better results with this than using a wildcard such as Jew. Capitalize OR when using it as a search tool.
  • Events with a country focus: I use geographic names for keywords, such as Austria OR Austrian and Hungary OR Hungarian, with a follow-up search for Vienna and Budapest.
  • Always repeat searches with alternate keywords or phrases. As an example, I’ve used Evian and not come up with anything, switched to Myron, and come up with articles with Evian included. It’s surprising how frequently an unfound term will subsequently appear. Drives me crazy.
  • Personal and placenames may have alternatives depending on sensibilities of the time or language variation– Dorothy Thompson or Mrs. Sinclair Lewis, Rohm or Roehm, Nuremberg or Nurnburg.
  • Less is more. Committee for the Care of European Children becomes “Committee Care” or “Care European.” If the newspaper you’re working with highlights search terms, likely it ignores common words [in, and the] and doesn’t highlight if the phrase has more than three words.
  • AND can also be used as a search tool, but every letter of AND must be capitalized. Reviewing the Evian Conference again, try something like this, Refugees AND Myron. Refugees is the essential word from the committee’s name. There are many people named Taylor, but not Myron. Even with quotes, you’re likely to be flooded with Taylors. AND will find the two terms if they are on the same page, but not necessarily next to each other.
  • Keep it as simple as possible. As Yogi Berra once said, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they’re not.” A long search query can be a thing of beauty, but it’s likely to bite you in the bum.