Secondary Sources: Newspapers Online

Celebrity Nook

I am preoccupied with the final editing of Gypsy and the Bird Man, a cultural family history. I wrote about my mother’s fund raisers and realized my memory lacked specifics. Then I remembered an online source that might help:

Over the decades my least favorite part of research has been finding news articles. First I sought whether the paper existed on microfilm, and made an interlibrary loan request. When the reel appeared, often weeks later, I had to roll through page by page so my eyes would catch the information.Few papers had indexes, and even then they were too general to help.  Many times I went on hope and spent hours in a dark room with little reward. The machines operated unreliably, their images not always clear.

Not so today! On I can search on a name or theme, a date, and a location. At first try I discovered the key local paper required an extra fee, but that proved worth the cost for a six-month subscription. For one search I used:

“Clarence Stasz,” because in the 1950s women identified as Mrs. Husband’s Name. The quote signs were  to limit the results. Otherwise there would be unrelated Clarences or Staszes. For the 1980s, I used “Mary Stasz” because styles changed with the woman’s movement.

1950-1958, the likely date range of events

Camden, NJ, the location for the newspaper

The results more than satisfied. One of my mother’s charities was the Celebrity Nook, a booth for a hospital bazaar. I had vague memories of a bedroom filling up with items, such as an ivory-and-redwood Madonna or a monogramed handkerchief from Joan Crawford. Now I had a date, 1952, and an extensive list of donors and gifts. Generals, cardinals, politicians, movie stars, and baseball players made donations ranging from the thoughtful and valuable to the self-advertising.

According to one article my mother sent letters to 175 people and received only one rejection. My mother was a fabulous public relations person, and a fabulist as well. I’m not sure she made so many requests, nor that only one, “a state politician,” refused. Nonetheless, I could  now illustrate how clever she was and why her booth raised so much money.

I searched on my name and discovered some photographs of events I had forgotten: my demonstrating at an archery contest, Phillies baseball players at our house, and my attending a UN meeting in New York. These were from my early teens, a time I recall more angst and anger than the pleasure of shooting arrows in the summertime.

The site has other benefits as well. It covers papers throughout the country, some back to the 1800s. Many papers from early settlement days in the smallest towns appear. A convenience is one can clip the article, save it, send it by e-mail, or attach it somewhere in Imagine the potential if you are a genealogist who wants to add depth to your history. For historians or writers, the uses are endless.

The one downside for researchers is some print runs are incomplete. My mother’s first husband died in an accident in 1935. To my dismay, the local Indiana paper for the month he died is missing, so I have only my imagination and his death certificate to fill in the story.





Special Collections: What to Expect


Forty years ago I had my first experience with a Special Collection. I went to the Huntington Library to read the diaries of Charmian Kittredge London. The woman next to me was reading Mary Shelley’s letters, which still held their waxen stamps. Another reader was studying poet Wallace Stevens. We were restricted to taking notes in pencil or renting an old typewriter. Today the Readers Room is much larger, better lit, and computers replace typewriters. The operations have not changed much, and I found that room’s processes in many other libraries over the years.

Special Collections hold rare and original materials, such as letters, diaries, handwritten drafts of books or experiments, photographs, maps, and more. They common to university libraries and many local historical sites and museums. In many cases a researcher must seek approval to use the materials. The Huntington is very strict, requiring two letters of reference, and fingerprinting at first visit. The average university will give preference to scholars, graduate students, and established independent writers. These bars to entry are to limit theft of highly-valuable material, as well as ensure the reader treats the archives with the care required.

I still shiver over one experience. Upon asking for a map at a regional library’s special collection, and the clerk, obviously a volunteer, ripped several as she carelessly pored through drawers. That was an extreme case, the result of poor training.

Here are some common expectations when you use archives, such as the Bancroft Library shown in the photograph:

  • Times will be more limited than the general library. For small libraries you may need to make an appointment.
  • Before entering the reading room, you may have to show credentials and lock up all items except the minimum needed for your research.
  • You may be assigned a desk.
  • Materials are ordered from the librarians, so there is a wait time until they are retrieved from their location.
  • There may be a limit to the number of items ordered at one time, such as one file box or two books.
  • No pens are permitted, so take your tablet, laptop, or pencils for note taking.
  • Letters and such loose papers will arrive in an acid-free folder. Keep materials in order within the folder, and return accordingly.
  • Very rare books may require a special stand to protect the bindings.
  • In some cases, you may be given gloves to handle the materials to prevent oil from the hands affecting the paper or map.
  • Handle everything to minimize use. Keep material on the desktop, not held casually.
  • If the library breaks for lunch, you may have to turn your materials in.
  • Sometimes one is able to fill in missing material. For example, you may know who the person is in a letter to “Dear Annie.” Tell a librarian so she can improve the file information.
  • You will likely have a search when you leave. Be prepared to have your notes fanned to ensure nothing has been removed from the collection.

Such regulations are less stringent at smaller institutions, such as an archive in your local library. There’s a thrill in handling items held by the person you are studying. How to find out whether there is a Special Collection for you? I’ll handle that next time.



Letters, Photographs, and Names: Legal Issues

This is a guest blog from Attorney Helen Sedwick, who addresses legal implications of the materials  writers often use.  When working with an established publisher,  its lawyers will vet your work, but it is still wise to know these points ahead of time. Self-publishers are more vulnerable and need to keep informed to avoid legal difficulties. Her crisp and clear explanations are a good start.



I was inspired to write my novel Coyote Winds by my father’s memoir of growing up during the Dust Bowl. His stories were full of authentic details, such as using summer hail to make ice cream and shooting rabbits while sitting on the fender of a moving pickup. I sprinkled these gems throughout my novel. I even posted 1930s photos of my father on my blog.

I am not alone. Many writers pull out dusty scrapbooks and shift through faded letters to recreate the past.

What are the legal implications of using these materials and stories? After all, someone else snapped the photos, wrote the words, lived the lives? Are writers infringing on someone’s copyright or other rights? Would it be better to keep these treasures hidden from the world, languishing in stuffy attics?

In many cases, writers may use old images, letters and stories. Here’s what you need to consider.

How old are the materials?

The older the material, the less likely you will be infringing on anyone’s copyright because the material may have fallen into the public domain. Work falls into the public domain when the copyright expires. You may use public domain work without permission, but it’s a good practice to give attribution if you know who created the work.

When does work fall into the public domain? If the work was never published AND the creator died before 1946, then the copyright has expired and the materials are in the public domain. If you don’t know who created the materials or the year of death, then any unpublished work created before 1896 is in the public domain.

The rules are different for published work.

  • If the work was first published before 1923, let’s say in a newspaper, it is in the public domain.
  • If the work was first published during or after 1923 but before 1977, then the copyright may or may not have expired depending on whether the copyright was registered and the work was marked with a copyright notice.
  • If the work was created in 1977 or later, assume the copyright is still valid.

Cornell University posts a chart to help determine copyright ownership.

Most of the time, however, you’ll have no idea who took the photo or when they died. When ownership of a copyrighted work is unknown, or the owner cannot be found, we have what is called an orphan work. Tens of millions of orphan works are hidden in libraries, museums, historical societies, not to mention attics. In fact, some experts estimate that 90% of all copyrighted work is orphan work. I discussed the problem more at The Problem of Orphan Works.

So, if you have an orphan work, ask yourself …

Who are the heirs?

If the photo or letter was created by your direct ancestor, such as a grandparent or great-grandparent, consider whether you are an heir. If there was a will, that might dictate who inherited intangible rights, such as a copyright interest. But in most cases, there was no will or assets were left to the surviving spouse and descendants. After a few generations, that could be dozens of people.

If you are one of the heirs, then you may use the old photos and letters without permission from any other heirs. Actually, any of the heirs may use the work. However, if you make income from the work, you are legally obligated to share that income equally with all other heirs.

For example, assuming the photos in this post were taken by my grandfather, then I share the copyright in those images with all my grandfather’s descendants, meaning my siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins. I do not need their consent to use the images, but if I were to make net income from the use, I would be obligated to share it with them. Since that income would be split among dozens of people, I’d need to generate quite a bit of money before anyone cared.

Is your use Fair Use?

Even if an image or letter is covered by copyright, you may use the copyrighted work for purposes of:

  • commentary
  • critique
  • education
  • parody
  • and for a transformative use under the doctrine of fair use.

Generally, using a photo or letter as a small part of a larger, expressive work such as a memoir, historical novel, or history book, is considered fair use. In contrast, reproducing and selling the image as a poster and on mugs would not be fair use since the image is central to the product.

Fair use is decided on a case-by-case basis, so I can’t guaranty a court will agree with me. You have to evaluate the risk yourself. And ask how likely is it that someone will know or care about your use of the image or letter.

Using real names

Many writers ask whether they may use the names of living or deceased people. Yes, you may use real names, with some limitations particularly if the information is damaging. I talk about those limitations in What is Defamation? and its related posts.

Using family stories

What about using old family stories, such as a harrowing escape from a war-torn land or a long-fought battle against injustice?

I say go for it. You may use these stories as inspiration for a novel, in which case you’ll create new characters, events and dialogues. Or you may be reaching for accuracy in a non-fiction work. Either way, you may use stories about other people’s lives as long as you tell the stories in your own words.

For me, using historical images, letters, and stories is magical. When I look into those faces and hear their voices in letters, I feel a connection that keeps these people and their experiences alive.

Disclaimer: Attorney Helen Sedwick is licensed to practice in California only. This information is general in nature and should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an attorney authorized to practice in your jurisdiction.


The post Using Family Photos, Letters and Stories appeared first on The Book Designer. (One of my favorite publishing blogs.)

Pictorial Maps

cleveland map

Most of the writers in my critique group do contemporary fiction. We have joked how Google Earth makes it possible to “travel” to immerse oneself in the geography of a place. For those writing about earlier times, maps can fill in. During the 1800s pictorial maps were popular as a way of advertising places for tourism, development, or pride of place. So I hoped to find one to spark my imagination about my ancestors’ experiences.

Half my ancestors immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio right after the Civil War. Court documents showed they bought large swaths of land, and the Census of 1870 provided some addresses. But apart from reading brief descriptions in city histories, I had difficulty placing myself into their landscape.

This Birds Eye map from 1877 hints at Cleveland at the cusp of turning into a major industrial city. Boats on Lake Erie and into a canal hint at port traffic. A railroad connects directly to the port as well. Smoke stacks abound on a peninsula of the Cuyahoga River. The city center has the only tall buildings, not more than four or five stories. A large park adjoins Lake Erie, and other open spaces dot the landscape. On streets run horse-and-carriage. Typical of such maps, it idealizes through viewing as a bird from above Lake Erie. Imagine the drawing from above the factories..

Housing variation reveals status differences. Broad avenues toward the left lead to large homes with immense yards. From studying the Rockefellers, I know this is where the elite lived. Closer to the industrial region houses pack together to form immigrant neighborhoods. Toward the lake, some houses have yards, and likely represent the small middle-class.

The majority of the numbered code underneath identifies some locations as religious institutions, which also identify by ethnicity. Catholic churches, for example, also include a descriptive such as “Polish” or “German.” These comments point to the strong social class system, the separation of immigrants from one another and from “original” Clevelanders, who’d call themselves “Anglo-Saxons.” The powerful role of community health is also portrayed, along with keys to schools, hospitals, and government buildings. Apart from downtown, church spires shape the tallest buildings.

Considering this map portrays almost a dozen years since my ancestors’ arrival, I can wash out some industry, which I know boomed in the 1870s, and cut back some housing. They would have found a city about to grow with considerable arable land in its boundaries. There they could duplicate much of their life as rural Bohemians, people enamored of the outdoors.

I was even able to locate the spot of a family home. An obituary placed it where Cleveland  High School was later built. It appears on the far left, a prominent building surrounded by fields, part of the Shaker Colony my ancestors purchased to farm. This saved them from most immigrants’ fate, the steel mills and refineries.

To study this map I used the Zoom function on my computer, and even added a magnifying glass. Mounting it on Photoshop enabled me to manipulate the clarity of some sections.

I was fortunate to find this in digital form at the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. Another wonderful source is the David Rumsey Collection at Stanford University, which includes world locations and excellent techniques for studying the results. For example, it allows overlaying of maps or placing them in a time sequence. For Europe and World, free high resolution vector maps are at Euratlas. These are straight geography maps over time, which are useful given the constant changing political boundaries over the centuries.

Yes, I am a map fanatic, but I will be addressing other document types soon. If you know of other good digitized map sources, please comment and add them. Because pictorial maps are popular with collectors, the supply online is far from complete.

Photographs: Truth and Deception


Photographs are a Primary Source: evidence taken at the time of an event. They are wonderful for raising questions to provoke further research. But one has to be careful not to jump to conclusions.

This photo is of my paternal ancestry, descendants of the Lisys who came over from Bohemia right after the Civil War. This generation consists of six siblings who included my grandmother. The relative who supplied in suggested the date as c. 1918. They were all gathered at one of the farms several kept on the edge of the city. Had I not known that, I might have guessed they were still in Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) because they are in farming clothes of a European style.

So I am lucky to have a date, and I can verify it in a couple of ways. I identify my dad, the boy third from the left. He was born in 1910 and seems about 8 here. My grandmother behind him holds my Aunt Margaret, born in 1916. So from birth data I can affirm the likely date.

It is easy to assume these people were all farmers. But Census data indicate otherwise. My grandparents lived in Cleveland, where my grandfather worked in a skilled craft. My great grandmother and her two unmarried children lived there as well in a beautifully-crafted home. In a few years they would move to Bretenahl, the exclusive suburb on Lake Erie for the city’s elite. I visited the custom home there on the Lake Erie shore.

I never understood how that branch of the family could afford to live in such a location. Much later in my research I discovered why.  Their ancestors who first settled in the city bought land from the Shaker Community. Over fifty years later their land was required as part of the development of Shaker Heights. The family received a windfall around the time this photograph was taken. Even before then they had used land for development.

When my great-grandmother Anna Marek Lisy moved to Bretenahl, she shocked her neighbors by raising chickens and growing her own food. What this photo reveals is the family’s continued Bohemian love of the land and being in nature. This value system persisted into the third generation. Three of her daughters married descendants of Bohemians who worked in the city as craftsmen. By the 1920s they were farming once again, which proved beneficial for everyone when the Depression hit.

This small piece of history relied upon constant questioning. I eventually connected the photo to birth certificates, Census data, Sanborn maps, one obituary, an oral history written by a Great Aunt, and probate records.

I’m happy to note someone identified most of the people in pencil on back. Do this with your family picture, but add the date if the camera hasn’t done so. Maybe a note as to the event itself.







Primary Sources

Since the advent of Googling and related internet searches, “Information Literacy” has become a required course at many colleges and high schools. When I stopped teaching college history the internet was still new. At a computer workshop, I had to teach my grad students how to do a search. One student yelled upon finding digitized diaries of Neville Chester, a roadie for rock musician Jimi Hendrix. It was almost as good as holding a copy in her hands. We all ran up to look at her monitor. Wow, what great material this new technique promised! Sadly, since then the internet has become a source of questionable, wrong, and edited information. That’s why training in information literacy is now important for reliable research.

Chester’s diary itself is what my students knew was a Primary Source. These are what historians search for first in their studies. A primary source provides first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at the time they occurred, and include diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and newspaper articles. When it comes to studying an individual, a primary source is one by that person, such as a diary, letters, and works of art and music by the subject.

The diary in this case is a primary source if you are interested in Neville Chester or the life of the roadies. Also, anyone studying the 1968 tour would consider this a primary source. If interested in Hendrix, it is a secondary source because it is about the musician, not by him. But it is by someone who was very close, so it remains of great value to the rock researcher. Or it would be, except Chester doesn’t mention Jimi !

On the Jack London website I edit with Roy Tennant, we wanted to include  primary sources. One example is a navigation sheet from his trip across the Pacific Ocean on the Snark. Here you can see how he worked in pen and signed the sheet as well. He was a very organized person, as is evident by the form he created to guide this process. I know from the type that it would have been done on his wife Charmian’s typewriter, probably by her on his instructions.

Unfortunately it is still the case that most of the web is not rich with digitized primary documents. Sometimes there are documents that have been typed up for easy reading. An example is Jack London’s will, in transcription. Such copies can have errors or have been changed by the editor. I once came across a transcription of Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech in which the word “Negro” became “African-American.” The transcriber thought political-correctness was more important than accuracy.

Ancestry has greatly improved by scanning original documents. These include photographs, military records, census forms, and wills. A great collection for browsing and learning more about primary documents is from the New York Public Library. It offers many exact copies of its materials. Another enormous source is the Library of Congress. If you bookmark these last two, you will find years of entertainment as well as history.

To locate more unique collections, think of a key word and search accordingly. Such as “digitized collection Wyoming” or “digitized collection ballet.” So long Wikipedia, much as we use you.  From the Library of Congress, a notebook page of Alexander Graham Bell.bell-notebook




Photographs: Finding a Life

You may have photographs like the one below. I found it at an antique store to use with  for my students. What can you learn about the person? The clearest clue is the photographer’s studio location, Hutchinson, Kansas. From the hair style, lapel design, and the stiff collar, I put the date at early 1900s. When I turned over the back, there was no identification–until I held it at an angle. Then a pencil-written note could be read: “To dearest Margaret with dearest love, John S. Culladuy.”

I searched on, listing probable birth date as 1885, and having lived in Hutchinson. Because he wrote his vowels as “u”, his name turned out to be “Colladay.”  Census records place him as born in 1885 (good guess on my part). Despite his love for Margaret, he married a Sarah G. He worked in Culladay Hardware, perhaps his father’s. In 1920 they had two children, but lived with his parents. By 1930 they lived in their own home, with two more children and her mother.  He and Sarah were stilled married and living in Hutchinson in 1963.

His WWI draft card provided more details. He had grey eyes, medium build, and was “tall.” His middle name was “Stewart” and his wife’s middle name was “Grimes,” likely her birth name. I found his grave in Hutchinson at the Fairlawn Burial Park, where he was laid in 1965. There I also discovered his parents and that of three sons were all buried there. Sarah died in 1979. And all this is just the beginning of what you can learn.

Lesson 1: Don’t assume you can ignore a source. The grave information identified his sister Jennie as a “half-sister” and his mother as a “Stewart.”

Lesson 2: Identify your photographs in pencil on the back for your descendants! What if there is no identification? That’s for a later post.


Old Studio Portrait