Making a family tree, or writing a family history, is a challenging but rewarding endeavor, and if you're already attempting it on your own you've likely already run into a few roadblocks. You don't need to have a history degree to do it, given the resources available online and also offline, but you might need some help with some parts of the research. A vitally (no pun intended) part of this is making sure that obituaries find their way into your research toolbox, as they often represent a wealth of information and insight into the people you're researching.
Florida, like the most states, has a long history in genealogy, the discipline dedicated to tracing family histories and lineages. The Florida Genealogy Society was founded in 1958 and is the oldest genealogical association in the state. One of its projects is the Tampa History Research Automated Index to Library Services, a database that includes death notices, obituaries, and funeral notices from the Tampa Tribune and its predecessors, spanning a period from 1855 to 1983.
And that's just one fabulous example of the resources available to you in the state. After all, genealogists, amateur and professional, are not the only ones who need to reference obituaries, there are also journalists, investigators and history scholars who also have use for the information contained in an obituary.
There are also many regional genealogical societies in Florida, focusing on the histories of local families in the respective area, and you can sometimes zero in on relevant obituaries and death records if you already know the location within which you need to search. Another great resource is the Florida State Genealogical Society.
One problem with digital newspaper archives is that these tend to be more extensive for bigger, national papers, while it is the smaller, local editions that usually publish the obituaries you're after. In other words, as a rule of thumb ,you'll have a better chance of finding the obituary you need in a local newspaper, rather than in the St. Petersburg Times, or the Miami Herald. The reason is that larger newspapers feature mostly obituaries of prominent public figures. Though not as detailed as obituaries, death notices can also be found in some of the larger papers, so you might be able to at least get some basic information out of the larger publications.
But let's get back to those local papers! Those, on the other hand, focus predominantly on news from the town where they originate, and it's far more likely that they will publish obituaries for everyday citizens. The most important thing to know before you start browsing newspapers, however, is the place where the person whose obituary you are looking for died. Without this information, you need to at least establish a time frame for the occurrence in order to narrow down your search. Date and place of death are the two essential elements of any obituary search, and can sometimes be even more helpful than knowing the full name of the deceased.
Online databases, however, are for the most part useful if you are looking for a relatively recent obituary. Some, like Legacy.com, do contain basic data about deaths that occurred in the 19th century, but if you need more details you may want to consider enlisting the help of the local public library.
One thing that makes libraries a top notch source of information is the fact that they keep records not just of existing newspapers, but also of newspapers that have long since disappeared into the folds of time. This may be crucial if you are looking for a very old obituary, and the newspaper that may have published it has ceased to exist decades ago. In such cases, the public libraries are your best bet (if not your only one!).
One Florida library, the St. Petersburg Public Library, offers obituary search services in exchange for a set fee. What the staff will need is the name of the decedent and the date of death. If you are uncertain about the date, the librarians, assisted by professional volunteers, will search newspaper issues for the two weeks following the date you have supplied. The time a typical obituary request takes to be processed is ten working days.
Another one, the Hillsborough County Library Cooperative, will provide you with the online resources to perform your own search, including the NewsBank database of history books, documents, and newspapers, and the Social Security Death Index, as long as you have a library card. Another resource available is the Ancestry Library Edition, a collection of genealogy databases, reference works, and images from census editions.
The Florida Electronic Library is another copious source of information that features an extensive collection of newspaper articles, but you need, however, to be a subscriber in order to be able to view the collection. It's worth noting that not all deaths are reported in obituaries -- some may be featured in a news article, which is why such a collection of newspaper and magazine articles could also be a useful solution in an obituary search.
The West Florida Public Library, for its part, has a team of genealogists that can help you in your undertaking. It has genealogical collections originating in the area and also offers access to two online databases, Ancestry and Heritage Quest. If you have a library card, you can use these both on location, and Heritage Quest from the comfort of your own home.
One thing to remember when starting an obituary search is to be patient, in view of the amount of information you may want to sift through before locating the record you need. The outcome, however, is invariably rewarding.